Though Manny Farber’s iconoclastic, searing film criticism has at last entered wider cultural appreciation since his death in 2008, he still remains undervalued for his other (and indeed, longer-lasting career) as a painter. Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings marks the first comprehensive overview and analysis of this side of his life. Edited by novelist Jonathan Lethem, filmmaker Michael Almereyda, and poet/critic Robert Polito, the book contains essays by artists, filmmakers, and critics, many of whom knew Farber personally.
The gathered reproductions of Farber’s art find a subtle throughline from his prankish drawings of Mickey Mouse in a high school yearbook (remarkably, endorsed by a flattered Walt Disney) to the formative influence of abstract expressionism on the oblong canvases of pulsing color scales of his adulthood, and then finally the epic still life work for which he is most known. “Still life,” though, gives a false impression of these paintings, in which the bold colors of his expressionist phase become floors for objects arranged not in static contemplation, but frozen in action. Planes of color collide like tectonic plates, often threaded with crisscrossing railroad tracks that tie them together like surgical stitches. Amid it all are the detritus of film references, workshop tools, and written notes too small to read in the shrunken copies in the book. As poet Anne Boyer observes of one painting defined by discarded waste of candy wrappers, Farber captures the floor of a movie theater as vividly as his prose could elucidate the power of a film image.
Like his writing, Farber’s paintings present the artist’s impressions of images that are as specific as they are abstract, leaving the viewer to find meaning in bird’s-eye views of massive topographies filled with numerous isolated moments of action. This is most notable in his Auteur Series, which is covered extensively here. Paying tribute to the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Howard Hawks, these paintings embody the judgmental ambivalence of his criticism alongside his keen eye for minute detail. Jonathan Rosenbaum notes how Thank God I’m still an atheist not only pays tribute to Luis Buñuel, but also, with intersecting images like the sliced eye from Un Chien Andalou being pierced by a crucifix, links disparate images from the filmmaker’s vast career into wry commentary. Gina Telaroli notes that Have a chew on me epitomizes his mixed feelings on its subject, William A. Wellman, and one cannot help but see Farber’s own authorial stamp in the painting’s thicket of train tracks.
Fittingly, Paintings and Writings is assembled with the same contradictory impulses as the art within. A loving appreciation by painter Robert Storr, who compares Farber’s sweeping views and multiple areas of shared focus to Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, anticipates a remembrance by Almereyda which recalls Storr writing a scathing review of Farber’s 1982 exhibition.
Elsewhere, writers attempt to reverse-engineer Farber’s translation of his writing into painting. Lethem strives to craft a written approximation of Farber’s still-life style, an effort he announces at the start as a failure, while Carol Mavor pens an impressionistic, fabulist vision of Farber as a crow flying high above his paintings, with numerous allusions to his work mirroring the painter’s own panoply of visual references. Amusingly, even the errata of the uncorrected proof I received for review, in which several passages are accidentally repeated before a thought is completed, feel Farberian, reflective of paintings like Nix, which repeat the same objects across panels with subtle but notable differences.
In addition to Farber’s art, Paintings and Writings includes reproductions of some art criticism he wrote in the 1940s, in which he proved to be a perceptive study of the most cutting-edge artists. (On Piet Mondrian: “every point in Mondrian’s best paintings … projects a particular kind of deeply moving, very human sensation.”) There’s also a concluding assemblage of oblique quiz prompts and furiously self-annotated class notes from his time as a professor at the University of California, San Diego, which show a man still provoking intense film discussion well after his retirement from criticism.
In reaffirming Farber’s vision even in the minutiae of his classroom preparation, the book also crucially foregrounds the influence that Patricia Patterson (his second wife and long-term collaborator) had on him, both in his painting and as a co-writer of his criticism. Farber was immensely skilled at understanding the aesthetic signatures of artists while recognizing and writing forcefully about performances and objects outside of a filmmaker’s control. Paintings and Writings makes a stirring case that his own stamp was defined in part not by a muse, but by an active, challenging collaborator.