Thinking about (Personal) History Lessons: The Movie Paintings of Manny Farber

This piece had a somewhat tortured history. Commissioned but rejected by Artforum (for reasons that were never explained) circa 1982, it first appeared in a special issue of New Observations (#36, 1983) edited by the late Gilberto Perez, entitled “Horses, Hegel and Film,” where by necessity the illustrations were relatively sparse. In its present form, it first appeared in the 12th issue of the online journal Rouge in 2008. Two excerpts from it are reprinted in a superb recent collection, Manny Farber: Paintings and Writings, that I’m proud to be part of. — J.R.

1. Manny Farber, Negative Space (New York: Da Capo, 1998), p. 361. ‘The brutal fact is that they’re exactly the same thing’, Manny Farber replied in 1977 to an interviewer inquiring about the relationship between his dual activities as a painter and film critic. (1) The remark points to a two-part obsession that by now has persisted for more than four decades. A master at perceiving the delicate nuances of brutal facts, Farber has always had an uncanny knack for hitting on truths in a language of wisecracking braggadocio that eliminates any possibility of a dispassionate or precise scientific observation. With his feet firmly planted in the anonymous turf of an underground termite (to conflate two of his favourite terms), Farber paradoxically aims at a notion of bull’s-eye that can exist only in a marketplace context where objects and ideas compete for our attention. He has been living this contradiction, it would seem, for the better part of his life – of the realist bent on the construction of formal paradigms, the Horatio Alger who projects his starstruck dream into the abstract relationship between a Tootsie Roll and a cherished movie.On the page, Farber’s approach is a form of two-fisted assault, often hitting the reader with a fresh idea before he or she has fully assimilated the last one. His quick tour through The Third Man (1949), as seen through the excerpts below, has the same kind of jangling intensity that the movie provides:


2. Ibid, pp. 40-41. Always a soft director, [Carol] Reed turns to chicken fat on night scenes, where his love of metallically shining cobblestones, lamps that can hit a face at eighty paces, and the mysterious glow at every corner turns the city into a stage set that even John Ford would have trouble out-glamourising [ … ]The movie’s verve comes from the abstract use of a jangling zither and from squirting Orson Welles into the plot piecemeal with a tricky, facetious eyedropper. The charm, documentary skill, and a playful cunning that fashioned this character make his Morse-code appearances almost as exciting visually as each new make-believe by Rembrandt in this self-portraits [ … ]Reed’s nervous, hesitant film is actually held together by the wires of its exhilarating zither, which sounds like a trio and hits one’s consciousness like a cloudburst of sewing needles. Raining aggressive notes around the characters, it chastises them for being so inactive and fragmentary and gives the film the unity and movement the story lacks. (2)


3. Amy Goldin (1926-1978) was a New York-based art critic, artist and teacher; see her Selected Writings and Artwork (Lenox: Hard Press Editions, 2003). On a canvas, Farber’s impact is quite different. The relationship between any private language and a public discourse is a tricky one, and Farber’s consistent efforts to speak to his contemporaries through the chosen media have always had to contend with the skewed perspective inevitable to any parallel readings of film history and art history, with their radically different time frames and patterns of development. If Farber has generally commanded more attention as a movie critic than as a painter, this may have less to do with his grasp of the vernacular in each realm than with the deposits of time and place which locate his verbal pizzazz and iconographic slang in widely dissimilar modes of address and reception, where they register with distinctly different impacts. Farber’s own bifocal perspective – a unique calling card – invariably becomes two-dimensional to any reader or spectator habituated to reading him through a single frame of reference. The brutal fact, one is tempted to counter, is that, abstract considerations aside, film criticism and painting simply aren’t the same thing. Yet Farber’s quixotic efforts to have it otherwise have yielded, if not a corpus of writing that clearly resembles painting, a series of singular canvases over the past nine years that enact many of the processes and operations of film criticism.‘Enact’ – rather than re-enact – is the operative term here. While a superficial reading of Farber’s movie-related paintings might illuminate a few areas where they seem to illustrate his public work, the argument that I intend to pursue here is that they intermittently succeed at doing something much more difficult and valuable, which is to engender particular critical insights of their own. Yet they do this in a manner that is appreciably less direct than Farber’s crackling prose – a distinction that relates to Farber’s separate identity as a painter, which Amy Goldin (3) described well in a 1978 essay:


4. Amy Goldin and Richard Armstrong, Manny Farber (La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, June 1978). This useful publication also includes a rather complete (if occasionally incoherent) bibliography. … His literary style is so dense, flashy and quirky that when he describes a performance or a scene, our more tepid memories are overwhelmed. We see what he saw, and his acute, highly painterly focus on the screen has given a lot of people a new way of looking at movies.His paintings reveal the same intelligence, the same almost neurasthenically hectic response to space, light, gesture and style. But where Farber the critic is oriented to the exact and indelible location of a given experience, the painter is devoted to foreshadowing a visual ideal. As a critic Farber has a canny shiftiness, a sense of the requirements of the historical moment that continually revises his sensibility. As a painter he is less imaginatively diffuse, more prudent, more obsessive. He conceals his tracks, repeats himself, the spiral turns inward rather than out. The satisfaction his paintings offer are totally different from those he provides as a critic. The writer grabs you, stuns you, turns you this way and that, overloads you with puns, apercus, associations, points of reference. The paintings ignore you. Self-contained, brooding, low-keyed or monochromatic, they are overridingly concerned with their own integrity, with professional problems of adjusting contour, structure, light and casual incident so that no single element announces itself. Similar in every part, only the wholes are different. (4)


Goldin, it should be noted, was writing at a time when Farber had just begun to move away from abstract painting and into a representational mode that has dominated all his subsequent work. Farber himself, in an autobiographical chronology appended to the catalogue of his 1978 retrospective at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, dates the beginning of this work in 1974, when he starts to use ‘a bird’s eye viewpoint, small objects, to explore compositional ideas when the normal ground is replaced by a stage-like platform. The new projects reunite the artist with concerns and materials that are allied to his experience in movie theatres, from childhood onwards’. Initially the objects of his scrutiny are candy bars, tobacco containers and diverse stationery items (pencils, clips, gummed labels, erasers); within a couple of years, this inventory has expanded to include a panoply of miniature toy objects – houses, vehicles, human and animal figures, railroad tracks – along with movie stills, fragments of magazines and newspapers, book illustrations, and scribbled notes derived from Farber’s film criticism and lectures. By this time, Farber has moved from his American Candy series and American Stationery series to the paintings in his Auteur series, which develop the choreographic arrangements of the earlier works in the direction of addressing the styles and themes of various movie directors.As critical forays, none of these Auteur paintings address the viewer with anything like the confrontational manner of Farber’s written criticism. To appreciate what they accomplish, it first becomes necessary to establish the things they don’t attempt. As a journalist critic, Farber has generally avoided biographical, autobiographical and ad hominem approaches to his material. This places his written criticism in an entirely different framework from the sort of criticism essayed by Rogi André (1905-1970) in a series of photographic studies of painters, each of which addresses a complex of observations about the painter in question through the placement of his or her figure within a carefully arranged frame. The buttoned-down severity of Mondrian in front of a few of his canvases, like the relaxed and rounded girth of Vlaminck in his own studio, become artful demonstrations of the postulate that the style is the man – that the formal preoccupations of a career can be traced through aspects of the artist’s physiognomy and body language, belying the assumption that one’s face and body, like one’s work, are essentially earned.


Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), photo by Rogi André


Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958, photo by Rogi André (1946)


5. As I’ve attempted to demonstrate at some length in my own autobiographical Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (Berkeley: University of California, 1995), the relationship between autobiography and film criticism is both intricate and unavoidable, yet the rules of social etiquette governing this delicate connection – which requires a suppression of autobiography in most marketplace criticism practiced by writers less well known than Pauline Kael or Gore Vidal – keep it in relative obscurity. Considering Farber’s own precise sense of his position in relation to both film criticism and painting, it seems understandable that only the relative obscurity and hermeticism of his paintings would permit a comfortable adoption of the autobiographical mode; the relative exposure of his writing, combined with its rhetorical strategies, makes this tactic less tenable in print. Elsewhere, in a dialogue with J. Hoberman appended to the end of our Midnight Movies (New York: Harper Colophon, 1983), I have argued that this apparent disparity in Farber’s work can also be attributed to a current, ongoing crisis in film criticism itself. Farber’s critical position in his paintings is almost the reverse of this. While he follows a collage approach which has strong ties with his organisational strategies and working processes as a critic – a method by which texts are made to overlap, overtake, contest and jostle one another rather than work in concert towards the construction of any linear argument or narrative – this is used in a manner that has a circuitous, often wayward relationship to the filmic subjects that he chooses to paint, proceeding by means of a somewhat stealthy subterfuge. Like a hunter tracking his quarry, Farber circles around his points of reference and perceptions about them, looking at them this way and that, rather than mount any sort of frontal attack.His point of departure often appears to be looking at an assortment of seemingly random toy-like objects and asking (a) which of these objects remind him of a particular film or director, and (b) how they might be arranged, juxtaposed and/or altered so that they describe the style of that film or director. Yet complicating and occasionally obscuring this project is another process, more autobiographical and nostalgic, which relates these favoured objects of Farber’s past – in striking contradistinction to his verbal criticism which more characteristically factors these elements out. (5) Thus it wasn’t surprising to encounter, amidst the movie paintings on display in Farber’s show at the Oil & Steel Gallery in Manhattan in early 1983, a canvas named after Farber’s hometown, Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz. (Arizona), which was closely related to his movie-based work.In both his written criticism and his recent painting, Farber is explicitly covering ground and territory, defining a topography – even if the most recent manifestations of that impulse in painting have been moving away from a notion of landscape and towards a use of solid fields of primary colour more evocative of the abstract planes of Ellsworth Kelly (1923- ) and Joseph Albers (1988-1976), bringing Farber full circle back to concerns of his earlier, non-representational painting. One of the central motifs spanning his evolution from textured ground to pure surface is the use of toy train tracks, which range all the way from fragmented and disconnected arcs to straight-ahead trajectories sweeping across the entire heights and widths of the paintings. An iconic testimony to Farber’s Western heritage, the terrain of Arizona and the impulse to ‘tame’ a chaotic wilderness of wide open spaces with a clearly defined path, these tracks can suggest everything from the forward thrust of a Howard Hawks adventure epic like Red River (1948) to the vicious circles described by an alienated foreign couple far from home in Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (the focus of The Joyces Felt Humiliated, a circular 1982 painting). Just as typically, Farber will variously use broken arcs or short sprints of tracks to connect separate areas of concern or suggest the quasi-comic futility of abandoned projects – lines of thought which lead precisely nowhere.


Peckinpah’s ‘Convoy’ (1978)

The co-existence of formalism and realism in Farber’s taste – like the subtle superimpositions of American and European landscapes in paintings devoted to Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (Thinking About ‘History Lessons’) and Wim Wenders (Roads and Tracks) – testify to the tacit refusal of Farber to allow a single frame of reference or point of entry to dominate his compositions. If indeed these are narrative paintings, as Farber himself claims, they tell stories whose heroes are implicitly mocked and/or obscured by compositional tactics and patterns which make them anything but masters of their surrounding spaces – dwarfed by outsize objects, cut off from the very ground on which they stand. Like many of Breughel’s country bumpkins or Tati’s city slickers in Playtime (1967), they usually haven’t the foggiest notion of what’s going on in their immediate vicinities. Victims trapped in celluloid and paint, they become literal toys subject to the whims of a moody child deity, director or painter, who loves to plant them in foreign or incongruous environments, where they suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – sharing the ritual fates of Buster Keaton in the 1924 Sherlock Jr (the subject of a Farber canvas) and Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck (1953). Across the lower half of the epic expanse of Taking Off from a Road Picture, four nearly identical pairs of Mexican cowboy cut-outs, like archetypal Wenders male duos, stand in an ambiguous relationship to the flat surfaces around and beneath them. According to the tricks played with scale, they’re larger than the motor vehicles (trucks, cars, bus) and about the same size as the houses, but they aren’t part of the topography.



Taking Off from a Road Picture

Ridicule and appreciation are seldom far apart from one another in the terms of Farber’s hyperbolic criticism, and the suggestion of hombres who are mass-produced (like the American products they consume) becomes a wry comment of critical affection for the male couple who command the heroic foreground of Wenders’ road movie Im Lauf der Zeit (Kings of the Road, 1976). Wenders’ disconnected protagonists are, of course, Germans rather than Mexicans.  But just as the impulse underlying these pop-drenched characters is clearly personal and autobiographical for Wenders, Farber adapts these figures into evocative emblems of his own past and dreams of a movie buff growing up in a border town. What comes out the other end for the viewer reading this as criticism is neither pure Wenders nor pure Farber, but a dialogue between them – the essence of a good movie review. And just as Farber cannot think of Wenders and Kings of the Road without summoning up (1) the contemporary German cinema, which also includes Fassbinder and Syberberg, and which summons up in turn some of the colour and repetitional strategies of Warhol, and (2) a critical nostalgia for his own past as an American (‘The Yanks have colonised our unconscious’, one of Wenders’ heroes remarks at one point), his painterly approach to this multi-layered contemplation is to trace these relationships through the terms of art history (suggested in part by the various books open to illustrations and postcards bearing art reproductions). Thus the four pairs of hombres are Warholian variations on two basic figures – one sporting a green hat, blue shirt, red tie, orange trousers and black suspenders, the other sporting red sombrero and trousers, green scarf and blue socks or leggings – which imposes a colourful fruit salad of campy exuberance on Wenders’ dry black and white images, almost as if Farber were treating the film like a colouring book. A closed book with the red title Hitler beneath a crouching figure points at once to the spectre of Nazism in the German past and Syberberg’s Hitler (1977) in the present, while a Fassbinder-like male figure in a bowling short sits on the back of a pickup truck which rests (through another joke with scale) on top of another closed book while a woman in a bathing suit approaches from behind.If clusters of crowded or overlapping objects such as the latter often suggest rebuses, the temptation to read these combinations exclusively as games or puzzles to be solved should be resisted, for as such they constitute obstacles to understanding what the overall schemes of the paintings are. In this respect, I would differ with the critical approach assumed by Carrie Rickey towards Farber’s paintings. (6) Rickey contends that ‘there are probably only a dozen people or so in the world who could identify the individual rebuses depicted in Farber’s paintings (and the movies from which they’re quoted)’, but in her desire to have it both ways, she also works hard to convince us that they’re accessible in a vague and generalised way, whereby the paintings are ‘full of loaded images, visual puns, double-entendres and the kind of narrative complexity you’d expect with a Howard Hawks comedy’. The problem with this rather Farber-like form of hyperbolic imprecision is that it short-changes the actual critical activity performed by the paintings for the sake of a tolerant overview which reduces the critical observations to the status of marginal mutterings. In the case of Taking Off from a Road Picture, the broader thrust of the overall clutter is to convey some of the blurry confusions of extended road travel, which the film is centrally concerned with. Returning to the hombres who are at once kings of their domain and totally detached from it, their floating status is implicitly critiqued by the three more rounded, grounded and solitary male figures, two of them nudes, which are in the immediate vicinity – one of which actually seems to be standing on the face of one of the cut-outs.In comparable fashion, while it is difficult not to go hunting through Thank God I’m Still an Atheist, Farber’s 1981 painting devoted to Luis Buñuel, for clues regarding the relationship of specific objects and figures to moments in particular Buñuel films, any exclusive concentration on this activity has to overlook the zigzag construction which unifies the whole circular canvas in a crazy-quilt fashion, darting to and fro around the circumference. This refers not only to the zigzag walk of the cracked hero of Buñuel’s 1953 El (Farber’s own reported inspiration), but also to the rambling, picaresque construction of his narratives in general, which nearly always proceed from idealism to soured enlightenment, with many different scenic disillusionments along the way. Local achievements of Buñuelian black humour within this overall pattern may range from minor in-jokes (on Tarot cards, the words ‘de jour’ from Belle de jour, ‘Rey’ from Fernando Rey, a cow from L’Age d’Or, a bell from Tristana) to playful rebuses (a card with a milk bottle beside another with a licking tongue and the word ‘way’ equals The Milky Way) to clear critical notations (the eye bisected and punctured by the cross, which links both Buñuel’s surrealism in genera; and Un chien andalou in particular with his Catholic background) to more esoteric and obscure references which probably have a more personal meaning for Farber (like the lynx and the watermelon slice). Taken all together, they describe a scorpion-like shuttle up and down the canvas which approximates, through formal metaphor, the shape and rhythm of Buñuel’s perverse humour and circumspect way of thinking.

Thank God I’m Still an Atheist (1981)


Negative Space, pp. 157-159. The problem with finding a language for this kind of activity in Farber’s paintings is that one has to conflate the somewhat contradictory concerns of a non-narrative critic of narrative film whose seemingly disconnected observations – each one characteristically deprived of the opportunity of fusing indissolubly with the next, thanks to the collage principle that makes Farber’s mind seem like the cluttered desk in Michael Snow’s film ‘Rameau’s Nephew’ by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974) – tell anything but a single story. What tends to happen more often is that the configurations offered by separate shots in a film become blends of uncanny simultaneity on the levelling planes of the paintings’ flat surfaces. The adjustments of space, size and scale made by a spectator when a film cuts from, say, a long shot to a close-up, are collapsed by Farber’s eye, which democratically contains vestiges of both within the same spheres of interest.Thus his Point Blank (1978) deals as a whole with both the monumental expanses of director John Boorman’s widescreen compositions and an assortment of random leftovers from the picnic of cool violence that Boorman serves up within this space. Turning to Farber’s verbal treatment of this 1967 film in Negative Space, written eleven years earlier, one finds his interest in much of the same material speckled through his prose. There’s a reference to Lee Marvin’s ‘Planter’s Peanut head’; notations on the plastic uses of violence (angular uses of bodies against surfaces; a ‘used Cadillac … bounced between concrete pillars’); and comments on the uneasy equivalences between the animate and inanimate as well as the dizzying shifts of scale: ‘It’s a great movie for being transfixed on small mountains which slowly become recognizable as an orange shoulder or a hip with a silvery mini-skirt’. (6)