Manny Farber: About Face, Sept. 27, 2004-Jan. 24, 2005, at P.S.1 Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Queens, New York
"This is not debris: everything here means something," writes Manny Farber in a typically wry note, itself part of the painted clutter in one of his cluttered tabletop paintings. Toy houses, toy cars, scattered matches, scraps of paper, egg plants, asparagus, notebooks, turnips, tattered plants, drooping daffodils -- so much seems to depend on these mundane rustic objects arranged in symbolic still-life constellations. But when the promised meaning remains inscrutable, Farber steps in with another note: "Turnips = they are underground items. They represent graves."
"About Face" is a traveling retrospective of the long and varied career of Farber, now 87, a revered film critic in the 1950s and 60s for the Nation, the New Republic and even Artforum. The show begins with process-oriented abstractions from the 1970s and also includes carpentry sculptures. But it is the large -- one could almost say overwhelming -- tabletop narrative paintings that are Farbers primary artistic accomplishment.
With their built-in annotations, the paintings themselves are acts of criticism, -- of the painter and of the viewer. They are always composed with a directors tenacity, as if blocking shots. In The Films of R.W. Fassbinder, for instance, the picture is a careful arrangement of key images from the films -- two toilets, a man with a rifle taking aim at a fox, a phone receiver abandoned on a bed. Miniature dramas unfold in other works, with a man stamping on another mans head, a woman being run over by a tank, and glimpses of semi-pornographic images in opened books (in one picture, a man seems about to dive into one such book). Meanwhile, train tracks meander rather maniacally around these enthralling model film sets.
Farber was an art critic, too, and he seems to be catering once again to the art-viewer with the overly helpful title of his 1985 painting, Domestic Movies. This summarizes -- a little too neatly -- the merger of filmic imagery and everyday bric-a-brac that animates Farbers paintings. But in Domestic Movies the emphasis shifts to the mundane. Leader from old film reels (Greg Ford Films, Inc., Autumn Afternoon, Padre Padrone) winds among a miniature forest of quaint potted plants and pretty flowers. The crazy train tracks and frolicking semi-nudes figures are gone; now we get sedate kitchen-garden still lifes and scattered dried flowers. A scratched comment on the austere, seemingly unfinished Lure (1989) - featuring root vegetables on a checkerboard background - might explain Farbers natural turn: "a painting career in the 80s is mostly about sordid mess."
The birds eye view we take of these scenes -- something just shy of a perfect 90 degrees gives a feeling of control: the organic mess we scrutinize from above is never allowed to be too messy. The perspective is reminiscent of something the art historian Leo Steinberg dubbed the "flat bed picture plane" back in the 1970s -- any horizontal surface upon which objects or "data" are scattered. Steinberg said that the horizontal plane, epitomized by Rauschenbergs Bed (1955), marked a shift from nature to culture in postwar art.
In his later paintings, Farber seems to invert this shift, with images of toys, books and other household junk giving way to displays of flowers and vegetables. Eventually his backgrounds, once unnaturally vivid reds, teals and yellows, turn naturalistic; woody, autumnal shades of brown and lavender dominate his paintings in the 1990s.
With the late focus on nature, Farber doesnt suspend his ferocious intellect. This is both a burden -- one senses Farbers underlying anxiety that the objects arent quite meaningful enough, and sometimes wishes that they were allowed to be just "debris" -- and also a relief. In Batiquitos (1995), theres a cheeky note that shows Farbers comfort on the fringes of the art scene: "Heaven -- to be noticed by Roberta Smith or Gopnik."
JAMES WESTCOTT lives in New York and writes on art and politics.