Magazine article Artforum International

Space Odyssey: Luc Sante on Manny Farber (1917-2008)

Magazine article Artforum International

Space Odyssey: Luc Sante on Manny Farber (1917-2008)

Article excerpt

MANNY FARBER FIRST CAME TO MY ATTENTION by way of a book generically titled Movies, with a generic cover illustration of Bogie, George Raft, and suchlike tinted with cupcake dyes. Heaven knows why I even bothered to open it, but I immediately found myself reading such violently nongeneric sentences as "The movie's color is that of caterpillar guts, and its 14-karat image is a duplicate of the retouched studio portraits that could be obtained in Journal Square, Jersey City, in 1945." Or "Rita Tushingham's sighting over a gun barrel at an amusement park (standard movie place for displaying types who are closer to the plow than the library card) does a broadly familiar comic arrangement of jaw muscle and eyebrow that has the gaiety and almost the size of a dinosaur bone." Or "It's a film which loves its body odor." Yes, what I held was the cheapo 1971 paperback edition of Negative Space, the only book Farber published, if you don't count its expanded 1998 version, or the anthology that appeared as an issue of the little magazine For Now in 1969, or his museum catalogues. Negative Space, a selection of Farber's movie reviews and essays from 1950 onward, had a major if long-fuse impact for its insistent focus on the visual plane of the screen, its erasure of distinctions between high and low art, its combativeness, and its tough and vivid prose style. Farber, who died August 18 at the age of ninety-one, was a movie critic and a painter, and it took him far too long to achieve a modicum of respect for his brilliance and originality in both fields.

Farber was born in 1917 in Douglas, Arizona, where his father ran the dry-goods store. He began drawing and cartooning early, attended Berkeley and then the California School of Fine Arts, and then the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design in San Francisco. Then he apprenticed as a carpenter, a trade that would provide him with the bulk of his income for the next thirty years. He moved to New York City in 1942, where he hung with the Partisan Review crowd and, concurrently, with the painters who orbited around Hans Hofmann, who happened to be a neighbor. He first showed in a Peggy Guggenheim group exhibition in 1951 and had a solo at Tibor de Nagy in 1957, but he didn't really spread his wings as an artist until he broke with the Abstract Expressionists in the early 1960s.

The majority of fans of Farber's writing, I would venture, became aware of it only after he'd stopped doing it. He began at the New Republic in 1942; did a short stint at Time and took over from James Agee at The Nation, both in 1949; and wrote occasionally for Commentary, Commonweal, the New Leader, Cavalier, and then, from 1967 to 1971, for this magazine. Much of his work in the '70s was written in collaboration with his wife, Patricia Patterson, also a painter. Their last published piece, a review of Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, was published in Film Comment in 1977.

From 1970 to 1987 Farber taught in the film department at the University of California at San Diego. During this time his painting took a new direction. Beginning in the '60s he had made two-sided, oddshaped abstract paintings on paper, pouring industrial paint through a muslin screen. Then, in San Diego in the early '70s, he began making representational paintings, and he continued in that vein to the end. They were pretty much exclusively overhead still lifes, initially oddshaped congeries of candy packages, and then tondi depicting spreads of packages (candy, tobacco) and miniatures (toys, figurines, model railroad scenery)--a whole series was devoted to coded meditations on some of his favorite movies and directors. Eventually his paintings became lushly colored spreads of flowers and fruit, often studded with reproductions of oldmaster paintings in books and on postcards as well as scrawled notes on scraps of paper. Their surfaces were too painterly to be trompe l'oeil, but too deliberately distributed not to be construed as some sort of text. …

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