Routine Pleasures: Termite Art and the Paintings of Manny Farber
Manny Farber, Cézanne avait écrit, 1986, oil on board, 72 ×72 in. (182.88 ×182.88 cm), courtesy of Quint Gallery, San Diego.
Reputations can be fickle things, but in the case of Manny Farber there is no reason to believe that posterity will ever see fit to revise his standing as one of the most original film critics that this nation has ever produced. Whether or not he deserves a similar ranking as a painter is a question that viewers can answer for themselves thanks to an exhibition of his paintings that opened last fall at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Curator Helen Molesworth has ambitiously linked the various strands of Farber’s occupations to offer up a portrait of one of the few switch-hitting film critics who did not dabble in filmmaking. That he was not a dilettante, an amateur painter amusing himself in his retirement, is made clear by this show. Indeed, Farber’s artworks have been exhibited steadily since the early ’60s, including a standalone exhibition at MOCA in 1985, though to claim that they ever struck a chord with the cultural custodians and public at large would be a gross overstatement. Given that art statures today seem to be made (and unmade) overnight only within the gorge-and-puke of the art market, it is hard to fathom a spot in the canon opening up anytime soon for Farber, whose modus operandi, as both writer and artist, was all about shunning the glare of the spotlight.
Still, this is the kind of oddball show that one wishes more major museums would back: inventive, playful, with a disregard for contemporary glitz and glam (read: positively unsexy). Of course, that would require convincing art world bigwigs that pandering to celebrity and the latest fad are not things that supposedly important cultural institutions should be concerned with. Good luck with that. In fact, if the MOCA’s unceremonious firing of Molesworth last year—for reasons that have never been properly disclosed—is anything to go by, there is little reason to expect any change. Indeed, the reins of the museum have since been handed over to Klaus Biesenbach, the Teutonic curator of the MoMA best known perhaps for courting selfies with pop culture dignitaries and, of course, for that disastrous, slipshod execution of the Björk exhibit in 2015. If it is glitter that the MOCA wants more of, it looks like they will now have it by the bushelful.
All of which makes one more appreciative of the quiet merits of the Farber show, One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art. While Farber is the centerpiece—23 of his pieces hang on the walls—the exhibition is technically a group show that takes in the work of 32 contemporary artists, including Catherine Opie, Dike Blair, Wolfgang Tillmans, Kahlil Joseph, Lorna Simpson, and Patricia Patterson, Farber’s wife and formidable painter in her own right—all included in an apparent effort to demonstrate the unsung influence of Farber and his curiously named catch-all “termite art.” The term, which Farber gave life to in a Film Culture article published in 1962 entitled “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” is a metonym for unpretentious art, or as Molesworth explains in the catalog, art that “recoils from master narratives and big statements…[and] valorizes the eccentric pursuit of the quotidian.” This, to be sure, is a liberal construal of the term as Farber originally conceived it, though one can understand how it lends itself readily to pursuit of the commonplace.
As a critic writing in the pages of The New Republic, The Nation, and Artforum, Farber made his name as one of the first to provide serious assessments of B-movies by Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh, William A. Wellman, and Howard Hawks, at a time when it was not fashionable to do so. It was with those directors in mind that Farber argued that termite art was to be found “where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.” So-called “White Elephant Art,” on the other hand, brazenly seeks to announce its triumphal intentions to be Art, to “treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prize-worthy creativity.” The roots of this dichotomy can be traced as far back as 1942, when Farber penned a short column—“Theatrical Movies”—lamenting the showiness of such popular movies like Lifeboat and Casablanca, and indeed, Farber’s antipathy toward excessively mannerist art was very much a lifelong concern. His own paintings, to this end, reflect those critical pronouncements.
By the time he quit professional film criticism in 1977, Farber, who had a background in sports writing and carpentry, had already found his idiom in the still life. The paintings on display at MOCA, culled from the ’70s and ’80s, feature an array of curios: nostalgic movie theater concession candy (Red Hots, Hershey’s bars), train tracks, stationary (Listo lead packets), dead sparrows, fruits (some half-eaten), flower pots, and scraps of quickly dashed-off notes reminiscent of a William Carlos Williams poem (“I’m going to take a nap then we could go to CASAPYS for LUNCH. OKAY?”), among others. These objects are arranged on the canvas helter-skelter, as though tossed aside by a child, and bespeak a language that oscillates between private and public, between canny film reference and humdrum realism, all in a manner that evokes the oneiric interior of a Joseph Cornell box. They are set against, in good modernist fashion, a flat backdrop, often times rendered as bifurcated monochromes. Most of the paintings from this period employ the bird’s-eye view, with a sharp vertical slant, the kind of angle that one imagines Farber would have naturally adopted while standing over his work table.
What makes for awkward viewing, at least initially, is the fact that many of these paintings lack a distinct focal point. In The Films of R.W. Fassbinder (1977), a nod to the iconoclastic German filmmaker, the center is largely blank, unpopulated, with the most important aspects—a Hanna Schygulla magazine, a figure representing Fassbinder, and a beer bottle—lingering off to sides of the canvas. In others, like the terrific large-scale works of Hellth (1988) and Domestic Movies (1985), the profusion of clutter similarly discourages the eye from latching onto anything significant. But it is precisely the absence of a governing center that encourages one to continue looking, probing. Eventually, one begins to grasp that the scattershot motifs form their own set of rhymes, how the yellow of the notepad differs from the shade of yellow of the ruffled sunflowers; how the beaming swatches of ochre and teal in the background help anchor an otherwise chaotic picture plane; how the jumbled lines and skewed perspectives recall the cascading apples and bunched tablecloths of Cézanne. The freewheeling sense of play and decentered action should not be surprising to anyone who has read Farber’s criticism, which often eschews plot summary, employs a bevy of metaphors, and generally approaches films at quirky, illuminating angles. (By way of example, consider his 1950 analysis of The Third Man, in which he argues that “the movie’s verve comes from the abstract use of a jangling zither and from squirting Orson Welles into the plot piece-meal with a tricky, facetious eyedropper.”)
In some of Farber’s more explicitly film-related paintings—Rohmer’s Knee (1982), Marguerite Duras, Possibly (1981), Honeymoon Killers (1980), and Thinking about History Lessons (1979)—viewers are invited to approach them like parlor games that pit one’s knowledge of film history against the assemblage of seemingly hieratic signifiers: broken train tracks, toy soldiers, rulers balancing on wedges of cheese, a book open to a page of Japanese erotica. And yet, it would be a mistake to assume that these works are romans à clef for only the most committed of cinephiles. Such an insular outlook would not have interested Farber, who as a critic was always striving to find ways to connect films to the other arts.
As Molesworth writes,
[Farber’s] still life paintings avoid the genre’s historical pitfalls: no vanitas moralizing, no staging of objects as a form of psychological displacement. The everyday objects strewn about Farber’s canvases are not placed there in a pretense at formal exploration… Farber wasn’t trying to reinvent the language of painting, because he didn’t seem to treat it as a grandiose act.
During the greedy ’80s, when Farber produced the majority of his mature still lifes, SoHo gallerists and nouveau-riche collectors, for fear of missing out on the zeitgeist, were craving brash works of genius and they found them in the loud oil paintings of Julian Schnabel and the untamed graffiti of Jean-Michel Basquiat, two of the decade’s most representative ambassadors of the Hot and Young. Not surprisingly, Farber and his comparatively homespun still lifes were not in fashion then; it is naive to suppose that they will catch on now (in the era of Snapchat celebrity, no less). Which is why even if the MOCA show appears to be tinged with a sad irony as the institution reshuffles its regime, the works themselves, in their jaunty awkwardness and paean to the quotidian, are delightful reminders of the discreet, hard-won qualities that Farber’s life stood for: outdated, perhaps, but never irrelevant.
SEAN NAM lives and writes in New York City. He has written for The Cruelest Sport, Cineaste, and Atlas Obscura, among others.