• Robert Polito on the Art of Iconoclastic Film Critic Manny Farber

    “Much as his criticism resists paraphrase, Manny’s paintings after 1972 elude ready description.”

    Critics who are also practitioners—artists, writers, musicians, film makers—tend to be suspected of describing themselves—sometimes “only” themselves—in the guise of observations and analysis of others. When I was editing Farber on Film:The Complete Film Writings (2009) for the Library of America, I was surprised to discover Manny’s fascinating variation on this notion. For almost the entire time he wrote film criticism—1942 through 1977, from the age of 25 until 60—he struggled as an abstract artist: paintings, sculptures, installations, monumental oils on collaged paper. But after he met and started living with Patricia Patterson, in 1966, and moved with her to San Diego four years later, Manny reinvented himself as a radically different artist, first hesitantly, then prolifically, creating in his 60s, 70s, and 80s a new framework for representational paintings—a late exuberance of candy bars, stationery, film titles, movie directors, toys, miniatures, stencils, cutouts, household tools, kitchen articles, fruit, dead birds, open books, handwritten notes, and flowers, all radically decentered and multi-focused.

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    Much as his criticism resists paraphrase, Manny’s paintings after 1972 elude ready description. Despite those distinctly popular subjects, they really don’t veer towards Pop Art, or, alternatively, into domestic sill life; and for all their immersion in painterly process and action, they’re never exactly abstract either. His paintings often intimate narratives—yet accelerate into a profusion of possible story lines and routes, without any definitive entrances, exits, or arcs. Intensive detailing mixes into, and bumps up against, coiled, swirling associations, cultural, autobiographical, visual, historical. They concentrate an immense span of incompatible local art allusions: Cézanne, Turner, Manet, Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso, Corot, Malevich, Pollock, Johns, Motherwell, Rothko, Ryman, Kelly, Hoffman, Diebenkorn, Reinhardt, Warhol, Marden, Ruscha, Tanka, and Japanese prints. For all their insouciantly vanguard sophistication, they also can suggest outsider, even folk art.

    Along the idiosyncratic borders of modern painting, Manny Farber and Florine Stettheimer can look at once avant-garde, and outlier.

    Manny’s film criticism, I soon noticed, everywhere appeared to imply his own paintings—though not however the abstract art he actually was pursuing while he wrote criticism, but rather the whirlpool, multiple-perspective paintings he would eventually reach years, decades ahead. His conjurings of favorite directors especially—Hawks, Wellman, Sturges, Lewton, Siegel, Godard, Bresson, Warhol, Fassbinder, and Akerman—etched self-portrait predictions of that future painter. His commemoration, for instance, of Preston Sturges for his “multiple focus,”“fragmented action,” “high-muzzle velocity,” “easy handling of multiple cinematic meanings,” and “this modern cinematic perspective of mobility seen by a mobile observer.” Or Godard: “His is basically an art of equal emphasis . . . Dissociation. Or magnification of the molehill as against the mountain, or vice versa . . . the words becoming like little trolley-car pictures passing back and forth.” Or Fassbinder: “a kind of lurching serpentine . . .”

    Title page for The Copper Kettle, Douglas High School yearbook, 1932

    From the retrospective of his major paintings, the early art writing, too, flaunts stand-ins and forecasts. His insistence on multiplicity originated in a boredom with artists who are static, or reduced to a style and approach, and he often sounds irascible, as in “Americans All,” that initial art review for The New Republic. Each artist in the MOMA show, he complains, parades “one particular emotional response to experience, and no matter what the situation, he has one means of conceiving it on canvas.”

    But beyond pique, or Manny’s incisive flash inside American vernaculars—as he says of Modigliani, “Today he is like a cagy spit-baller hanging around in a business that has outlawed his delivery”—or the locomotions of his journalistic curiosity—furniture, jazz, all-night disc jockeys—the stunner of his art reviews is that it is as if the art critic at age 25, or 37, already knows what the painter at age 62, or 68, will make. A 1943 appreciation of Lyonel Feininger amounts to a phantasmal anticipation of Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz., right down to the Fontaine Fox cartoons:

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    In one direction you have a make-believe world like that of a little boy’s fairy story, with its scratch-lined, bug-like people, scalloped bridges, Toonerville trains, streets and houses like those in the movie Dr. Caligari, four-masted schooners (than which are none more wondrous) in candy green seas under the inevitable yellow moon like a child’s scissors cutout of the letter C. In the other, and more familiar direction, are Feininger’s stylized, unpierced, street scenes cut up into endless overlapping planes of sharp light. Few people can divide a space so sharply and sensitively as he, with a gentlemanly touch, which makes his building-world both bright and magical, and to be enjoyed for its complexly related planes, like a symphony.

    Giotto, 1995 (oil on board)

    Phrases across his art reviews, whether celebratory or dismissive, and about artists eminent or minor, European or American, resemble time-travel lifts from later critiques of Manny’s own paintings, such as Thinking About “History Lessons” (1979), “Have a chew on me” (1983), and “The Joyces felt humiliated” (1983). On Max Weber:

    “There is a constant play of color rhythms and shapes within his semi-abstract compositions. His invention never runs out . . .” On Calder: “Calder’s line: the neat, uncomplicated way it enfolds form and carries your eye through space.” On Larry Rivers: “But the important thing today seems to be all-over pattern, and Rivers certainly gets that, both with his texture and his bushy, succulent islands of color—Bonnard’s ‘spots’ blown into broccoli.” On Chagall: “His paintings are apt to look cockeyed, over-painted, over-thumbed, and over-filled.” On James Brooks: “. . . three-dimensional kaleidoscope scenes . . . he works simultaneously in all parts of the picture.” On Motherwell: “some of his designs look like those public playgrounds where four or five ball games are carried on at once.” The range of his other future painting self-proxies is bracing, and resonant—Jackson Pollock, Walter Houmere, and Piet Mondrian, people with little overlap other than in them Manny glimpsed aspects of the artist he wished to be.

    Farber’s great paintings of the 1980s and 1990s probe medium, construct, and process with a witty fierceness reminiscent of metafiction, where, as William H. Gass remarked, “The forms of fiction serve as the material upon which further forms can be imposed.” As his titles can signal—Roads and Tracks (1981), Shadow World (1983), Duty, Ritual, Art Moves (1984), Domestic Movies (1985), Story of the Eye (1985), Change in Direction (1985), Disconnected (1989), About Face (1990), Cross-eyes (1992), New Blue (1993), Entwinement (1993), Random (1997), and Spy Glass (2000)—the stress is on the dynamics of seeing for the creation and unfolding of a life: space, figure, image, abstraction, stillness, ideas, flow, randomness, organization, memoir, drift, history, and looking.

    During interviews with Petit for the film Negative Space, Manny zeroed in on “a little bit . . . a little mark,” in a Turner painting, “not the big subject”; and some “unforgettable” instants in 1940s films—“what you can get from a hat, someone walking across a room . . . not the main item in the movie at all, the movie is about something else.” Maybe the paintings, and his criticism, too, consists only—entirely—of such bits, instants, and “what you can get,” that “about,” and the “big subject,” always “something else.”

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    A painter I didn’t list above as among the vast allusive textures of Manny’s paintings is probably also the artist whose work his own art (for all the apparent differences) most closely and intricately resembles: Florine Stettheimer. His only known mention of her—a phrase from 1944 about a single painting in a round-up review of “Art in Progress,” a huge MOMA international exhibition—is positive, yet vague:“a kind of biographical painting by Florine Stettheimer, which shows rather touchingly what the artist did and saw during 1933.”

    Born in 1871, Stettheimer is even now perhaps mostly remembered for the fabulous stage settings and costumes she designed for the premiere production of the Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934), as reviewer Gilbert Seldes noted, “made of lace and cellophane and looking like a child’s dream of rock candy.” In the fashionable Manhattan world of the 1920s, Florine was the middle pillar of a trio of illustrious sisters. Ettie wrote novels, Philosophy (1917) and Love Days (1923), under the pseudonym of Henrie Waste. Carrie created a fantasy 12-room dollhouse, now at the Museum of the City of New York, that included tiny art works by George Bellows, Marguerite Zorach, and Marcel Duchamp (his miniature copy of Nude Descending a Staircase.) The Stettheimer sisters sustained a salon at their Alwyn Court apartment for decades, welcoming Duchamp, Carl Van Vechten, Alfred Stieglitz, Henry McBride, and Georgia O’Keeffe, and traveled sometimes blithely, sometimes tensely, often in the company of their mother, Rosetta. Their father, Joseph, a mysterious banker, deserted the family when they were children.

    A full generation apart, the Stettheimer sisters and Farber brothers scramble oppositions and resemblances. Although also Jewish, gifted, close-knit, competitive, and eccentric, the sports-loving sons of a Douglas dry goods merchant were no match socially for these wealthy, culturally advantaged New York daughters with ties to Guggenheims, Bernheimers, and Seligmans. During the 1940s Manny knew, or encountered everyone—James Agee, Alan Lomax, Weldon Kees, Alfred Kazin, Saul Bellow, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Isaac Rosenfeld, Seymour Krim, Calder Willingham, Betty Huling, Robert De Niro Sr., Virginia Admiral, Pollock, Lee Krasner, Motherwell, and William Baziotes—but his walk-ups on Commerce Street, and 14th and 19th Streets, overstuffed with his surplus abstract sculptures, could hardly be mistaken for a salon. Yet Florine, much as Manny would, only realized her strongest, most characteristic art after age 50, and, since she rarely exhibited, achieved her reputation posthumously.

    The painting Manny praised at MOMA, Family Portrait No. 2 (1933), stages the three Stettheimer sisters, plus Rosetta. If, as he proposes, the collective portrait convenes “what the artist did and saw,” the focus is oblique, alinear, and externalized. Instead of the personalizing features and gesture of traditional portraiture, Florine—who positioned her own figure far left, holding her palette and brush—spotlights signifying objects, architectures, and environments: a solitaire table, a throne chair, a red fan, cellophane curtains, Rockefeller Center, Radio City, the Alwyn Court lintel, an inscribed banner, 1933 at the base, enormous flowers, that palette and brush, and Central Park’s Cleopatra’s Needle. But time here also is space, and across the spatial ambiguity, skewed perspectives, and scale of Family Portrait No. 2 a moment in time, such as 1933, disperses into simultaneous chronologies, and manifold pathways. Stettheimer arranges a sort of abstracted yet, as Manny writes, “touching” diary in the way that Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz. is impersonal but autobiographical and poignant. He slapped dates on his paintings too—July 6, 1994—and when I first met Manny and Patricia, and started to go on walks with them and their dog, Annie, around the San Diego wetlands, I learned that his dense late flower and plant paintings, such as Batiquitos (1995), essentially are memoirs.

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    The neo-impressionist blossoms in Farber’s paintings after 1990—New Blue (1993), Late Autumn (1995), Calliopsis (1998), Giotto I (1995), Sacred and Profane Love (1998), and Ingenious Zeus (2000)—recall Stettheimer’s floral still lives, Flowers with Aphrodite (c. 1914-1916) and Flowers Against Wallpaper (1915), though both artists might only be mimicking Matisse; and since until recently her canvases were almost impossible to see, any cause-and-effect here is speculation. But textured flowers are the least of their obvious, pressing affinities.

    Florine Stettheimer, Portrait of Carl van Vechten 1922, oil on canvas

    During the 1920s, Stettheimer created a sequence of modernist portraits—Portrait of Henry McBride, Art Critic (1922), Portrait of Carl Van Vechten (1922), Portrait of Joseph Hergesheimer (1923), Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (1923), Portrait of Alfred Stieglitz (1928), and Portrait of Virgil Thomson (1930). Still more radically than Family Portrait No. 2, these atomized the familiar, even famous visages of her friends into the associated and symbolic stuff of their lives and creative work, and tipped portraiture towards biography, cultural criticism, iconography, and even riddle. Past and present blur onto a simultaneous, multi-focused canvas, and Van Vechten, for instance, is a painted physical body and a cryptic scattering of cues from his novels, especially Peter Whiffle, His Life and Works (1922). As Barbara J. Bloemink observes in The Life and Art of Florine Stettheimer,“ Stettheimer’s portraits rely on the sitters’ experiences over time and on specific details and events which, in turn, imply a temporal unfolding. The portraits should be read as visual texts, which, although lacking a story line, nonetheless reveal themselves through the accumulation and interaction of details. To contribute to these ‘readings,’ viewers need be familiar with the sitter . . .”

    Across 20th-century art, the nearest equivalent I know to Stettheimer’s portraits are the auteur paintings Manny Farber advanced in the late 70s and early 80s, steeped in the films and lives of esteemed directors as diverse as Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Preston Sturges, Budd Boetticher, William Wellman, Sam Peckinpah, Jean Renoir, Jean-Marie Straub, Marguerite Duras, Wim Wenders, and Eric Rohmer. Roads and Tracks (1981), rooted in Wellman, circulates inversions and reversals from Wings, The Ox-Bow Incident, Other Men’s Women, and Public Enemy. Auteurist, and anti-auteurist, the paintings import film paradoxically. The controlling vision of a particular director implodes into stories and routes, and a viewer, as in Stettheimer, can enter only by identifying and realigning the givens.

    Stettheimer’s portraits, her Cathedrals—Cathedrals of Broadway (1929), Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue (1931), Cathedrals of Wall Street (1939), Cathedrals of Art (1942)—as well as sundry kaleidoscopes along the way—Asbury Park South (1920), Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921)—epitomize the “all-over pattern” Farber saw in Larry Rivers, and decades later radiated across his own best work. “Multiplication virtuelle,” Duchamp tagged it, specifying Stettheimer, and, inadvertently, Farber.

    Influence . . . Coincidence . . . Who can say? Along the idiosyncratic borders of modern painting, Manny Farber and Florine Stettheimer can look at once avant-garde, and outlier. Also, of course, termite. “A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fun- gus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries . . .”

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    Manny Farber

    From the introduction by Robert Polito of Manny Farber: Paintings & Writings published by Hat & Beard Press and edited by Jonathan Lethem and Michael Almereyda. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. 

    Robert Polito
    Robert Polito
    Robert Polito is a poet, essayist, and critic whose books include Hollywood & God and Doubles. His critical works include A Reader’s Guide to James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover and At the Titan’s Breakfast: Three Essays on Byron’s Poetry . He received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Savage Art, his biography of noir novelist Jim Thompson. Polito served as president of the Poetry Foundation, and teaches writing and literature at the Graduate Writing Program at the New School. He also edited Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber.

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