Manny Farber: About Face
P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center
22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, NY
September 23, 2004 to January 10, 2005
Manny Farber grew bored with non-objective painting (“I was just repeating myself”). Perhaps he grew tired of suppressing or transforming signs of empirical reality. It is certainly not obvious to strangers standing before the early work what Farber wants us to see in these colorful and expansive surfaces. Farber’s abstractions from the 1970s are not as intense as his later work because at first glance they appear to be products of chance. Careful mark making is disguised as accident or pure gesture and the building up of dense textured surfaces is inevitably self effacing. The collage elements make the spatial relationships more interesting and they are carefully assembled, but the application of color is too reminiscent of tie-dye or marbling and the linear forms are pallid reminders of Twombly. The trippiness is charming, but they inevitably become monotonous. Very few pure abstractions are able to generate and maintain an intense aura for very long. Something that appears throughout Farber’s oeuvre is present in these early works however. There is a tension between his urge to disperse and his urge to bring together the compositional elements. This tension is never resolved. So to a certain extent these works successfully lead our gaze from one area of interest to another, but the later paintings do this much more successfully.
A typical Farber painting consists of a background made up of divided fields of color and various organic and non-organic objects, all painted with equal focus and intensity, scattered across the foreground plane. The all-overness is reminiscent of Polke’s work, but Farber is not so interested in decals and cartoon imagery. In his mature work the colors and use of shadows unify the whole while the realistically rendered isolated objects placed in mysterious spaces force the viewer’s gaze to zero in on different areas, according to each viewer’s own inclinations. It is easy to lose track of the whole but somehow Farber manages to bring everything together again and again, no matter from what angle you approach the work. The backgrounds are complex because sometimes they come across as tangible surfaces that the objects rest on, and at other times they are floating fields of texture and color. Each object is rendered with the same amount of detail and intensity so that one gets lost in the details. The same thing occurs when you stand before a Bosch painting. They are painted so seductively that we want to examine them close up. It is very important to Farber that he captures the nuances of contour. He does rely on visual shorthand but he never cheats. Every line supports the overall form and reinforces the verisimilitude of each object.
These paintings convince us that the history of painting is the story of the individual’s love of the organic and non-organic object. Painters dedicate themselves to the close study of organic or inorganic objects and present their discoveries to the viewer, or they try to invent “new” objects, in order to suggest a different world order. Painting is dedication to the object, the act of grasping furtively and intuitively or patiently and rationally the objects the artist lives with, or the objects that haunt or inspire her/his imagination. They see the landscape or human body as an object of worship. The objects in Farber’s paintings mean a lot to him and we are convinced of this by his handling of the paint and the exacting, nuanced, yet expressive brushwork. This prevents the work from becoming self-referential navel gazing although we should not underestimate the feelings he has for these things. The recognizable subject matter helps insure that the viewer won’t be alienated by the diaristic quality of the work. There is no heavy handed or simplistic symbolism in these works, and the fact that Farber refers to movies or directors, contrary to the opinions of most art critics, does not mean much. These are references, an element of subject matter, but are really planted clues, because we might think they give away the secret of the entire work but are merely lures for the eyes. First and foremost Farber wants to seduce our eyes and have us examine the forms, in order to determine what, if anything, they mean to us.
The objects in Farber’s paintings, different types of toys and candy, plants, vegetables torn from the ground, freshly picked flowers, pages from sketchbooks, post-it pads, art reproduction books, film stills, rebars, garden and artist tools, toy-train tracks, strips of film, silos of Quaker Oats, bottles of liquid paper, cards from children flash card sets, never become subordinate to symbolic transformation. Farber maintains a high level of verisimilitude in order to suck the viewer’s gaze into the staccato maze of his paintings, but the brushwork is just loose enough to allow us to marvel at the careful stitching together of each form. It is difficult for the non-painter to appreciate the level of concentration needed to render objects and their delicate and complex contours and surface detail so clearly. Humans for the most part don’t stare at tangible forms for extended periods of time and try to figure out how to emulate them using the coded language of line and color. We watch movies and TV for hours on end but we do not actively examine objects and try to understand their exterior forms by reconstructing them two dimensionally. The way these objects are all placed on the foreground plane in a semi-deadpan fashion undercuts the seriousness of Farber’s goals. A cigar might just be a cigar, but the artist’s mind travels great distances while analyzing and rendering the subject matter. These paintings are about this complex mental journey, which encompasses the spectrum of human feeling.
Farber loves to render handwriting. He is masterful at capturing the way handwriting appears on a flat surface. He is committed to representing this phenomenon as accurately as possible. He carefully replicates words and images created with a pencil, pen and ink. The sometimes mocking and ironic, sometimes serious comments on the art world and the dilemma of being a visual artist in the twenty-first century, the carefully chosen and placed painted images of pages from coffee-table art books and the artist’s own sketchbooks are the best Farber, and perhaps any contemporary painter can do, to combat the self consciousness visual artists feel. Farber is trying to short circuit, or beat to the punch, the critical apparatus surrounding the visual arts, but at the same time, he takes pleasure in partaking in the discourse. He is aware of the fact that “the culture we live in constantly codes and frames our visible world,” as J. Dudley Andrew reminds us.
There is an inherent contradiction in his work. Farber tries to convince us of the tangibility of his objects but the backgrounds are very ambiguous, even when they are broken up into fifths, quarters, halves or concentric circles. Also, he paints anonymous objects like post-it pads, yellow legal pads and index cards, but then paints quirky and highly personal statements written in hand across them. It is important that the viewer identifies with these objects in some way, even though the viewer will never know what the written words mean to the artist. The deceptive plainness of the subject matter and the fragmentary bits of painted handwriting both support and undermine the personal quality of the work.
In “Thinking About History Lessons” from 1979, there is a manic and dizzying exchange between horizontal and vertical planes. You simultaneously look at objects lying flat on a fractured or divided surface, standing perfectly upright and seen in three-quarter view from overhead. A number of different views are shown at the same time, and the backgrounds are not simply flat modernist backdrops. They suggest spaces of various depths and textured surfaces made from manufactured or organic materials. There is also a strong dialectic in Farber’s work between manufactured and organic objects. The same can be said of David Salle but the difference between the two painters is that Farber is not ashamed of genuine object worship, whereas Salle always has his tongue in his proverbial conceptual cheek. Farber also plays with scale. Since there is no clear distinction between indoors and outdoors in his work, the objects hover in a mental force field, and this emphasizes the emotional connection between artist and object. Farber’s work eventually became more and more filled with organic forms. His wife, who is also an artist, is a serious gardener and this has impacted the content of his work, as has everything stored in his memory. The image of a rodent caught in a trap appears in “Lure” from 1989 and a number of other paintings. Gardeners are familiar with this sort of thing, and Farber wants us to experience it removed from the context of his daily life. He succeeds in re-contextualizing the ordinary through the power of his vision, but remains non-committal about whether or not the image should be perceived as a symbol of some concept. What else can the painter do but try to convince us that stuff matters, that the environment we are immersed in, either real or virtual, is important enough to look at very closely?
Farber’s most recent work appears to be a microscopic or close-up view of the painterly universe he has built. The pictures are less busy and the backgrounds are less ambiguous. Perhaps this reduction of busyness and settling into a more orderly place has to do with the conservatism brought about by the aging process. The colors are incredibly lush in these late works and the level of passion on display can be unsettling.
Farber convinces us that he loves the things he paints, and this celebration of recognizable forms balances the quixotic symbolism, secret codes and hidden messages. Like Cezanne and most trompe l’ oeil painters, Farber believes in the relevance and importance of domestic life and the objects that influence or determine our daily routines during all phases of our lives.