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Manny Farber 1: Color commentary

Monday | March 17, 2014   open printable version open printable version

Manny Farber, undated photo. Courtesy of Patricia Patterson.

DB here:

This entry is part of a series on 1940s American critics. The earlier installments are here, here, here, and here. Because of the complexity of Farber’s career, I’ll devote a second entry to him shortly.

 

Emanuel Farber is the most currently celebrated critic of my three Rhapsodes of the 1940s. He is the cinephiles’ favorite, and his tastes, his ideas, and his prose have had enormous influence. His collected writings, edited by Robert Polito in a bulky Library of America edition, come festooned with praise from Scorsese, Schickel, Corliss, Wolcott, Sragow, Rosenbaum, and William Gibson. “The liveliest, smartest, most original film critic this country ever produced,” notes Susan Sontag.

Out of many candidates, here’s a specimen of how Farber carried the controlled ecstasy of the 1940s critics into the 1960s. A 1969 essay on Hawks describes His Girl Friday:

Besides the dynamic, highly assertive pace, this Front Page remake with Rosalind Russell playing Pat O’Brien’s role is a tour de force of choreographed action: bravado posturings with body, lucid Cubistic composing with natty labels and hat brims, as well as a very stylized discourse of short replies based on the idea of topping, outmaneuvering the other person with wit, cynicism, and verbal bravado.

The outpouring of words, the piling up of adjectives and modifying phrases, the ellipsis (no time to spare for ands, let alone periods), and the sideswipe reference to modern painting all bear the signature of a critic who knows how to make enthusiasm infectious. Even the repetition of bravado within the same sentence, which looks like an amateur gaffe, rings with its own—well, bravado.

He’s no less adept at the honorable American craft of hilarious grousing. Where Agee gave us elegant, if sometimes tormented, efforts to be fair to all, Farber can be fed up in the Mencken mode. He picks Larry Rivers, Dave Brubeck, and Twelve Angry Men as examples of the new middlebrow confidence man.

The figure who is engineering this middle-class blitz has the drive, patience, conceit, and daring to become a successful nonconforming artist without having the talent or idealism for rebellious creation. The brains behind his creativity are those of a high-powered salesman using empty tricks and skills to push an item for which he has no feeling or belief. Avant-gardism has fallen into the hands of the businessman-artist.

In all, Farber bequeathed us thirty-five years of good dirty fun. But his keen intelligence was launched during the era that preoccupies me at the moment: America in the 1940s.

 

Big hands

Farber’s career falls, almost too neatly, into periods. From early 1942 through 1946, he reviewed films for The New Republic and published occasional art criticism there and elsewhere. Then he stopped writing for over two years. In early 1949 he signed on at The Nation, taking over after James Agee left. (“He made sure I got the job and I made sure I lost it.”) He reviewed film and some visual art until January 1954. For other venues he wrote longer pieces, many of them now famous. After another hiatus (1954-1957) he resumed writing film criticism, often with Patricia Patterson, before stopping altogether in 1977.

His most influential work starts in the Nation phase, from around 1950 on. He began to celebrate B-level crime films and hard-guy studio directors (Hawks, Walsh, Fuller, Siegel). As his purview expanded, he came up with labels like “Underground Film” and “White Elephant Art” and “Termite Art.” Then came his dense appreciations of Godard, Fassbinder, Michael Snow, and other 1960s and 1970s filmmakers, as well as extended essays revisiting action directors of the classic era.

The dominant image of Farber’s tastes didn’t arise by accident. When he compiled his essay collection Negative Space (1971), he included only two pieces from the 1940s proper and a few from 1950. In at least one case (“John Huston,” a portmanteau piece from 1949 and 1950 reviews), he revised what he had originally published to reflect his rethinking of Huston’s value. The anthology relied heavily on recently published pieces. His longer-form pieces like “The Gimp” (1952) and “Underground Films” (1957) set the tone and framework for the collection.

The writing he selected for Negative Space reinforces another aspect of Farber’s image: the aesthete cowboy. Farber had played football and baseball in high school and, instead of turning his painting skills to commercial illustration, he became a carpenter, a trade that sustained him for decades. He seems to have been at home in the pugilistic Abstract Expressionist circles of the 1950s. Clement Greenberg claims to have bested Farber in a fistfight, although Farber scared him. (“He could have beaten me up. . . . He had big hands.”) Years later Andrew Sarris reported that Farber nearly clobbered John Simon at a critics’ meeting.

In print, Farber punched at all weight levels and liked to work in close. He said that Agee “paid out tribute like a public-address system.” He called Sarris “a boneless Soupy Sales,” and found Susan Sontag “catlike” and possessed of “a confidence that her knowledge is all-purpose (if contracted, she’d show up in Vietnam).” The man who admired tough noirs declared Rock Hudson a Mother’s Boy and confessed: “I don’t understand the belt people get out of overwrought feminine pictures.”

Like anybody who cares about classic or modern films, I’ve learned a lot from Farber. In this and the next entry I want to put him in the context I’ve been sketching in the previous three entries in this series. I want, through him and Agee and Tyler, to grasp some possibilities of American film culture in the 1940s. In their usually tireless denunciations of the weekly fodder, what did these smart people think film had been, was, could be? What, to put it abstractly, were the aesthetic prospects of Hollywood cinema?

That means focusing on his early career. Rather than pinpointing traces of what would come later, a task admirably executed in Polito’s introduction to the Library of America volume, I pretend for most of these two entries that late Farber never happened. That is, I’m considering a very young man trying to make his way in the New York scene at a moment of cultural ferment.

We’re so attuned to late-phase Farber that turning to this hero’s apprentice work may seem to court disappointment. But from the start the writing is racy and engaging, and not so densely impacted as in his late phase. Moreover, he has long been considered our critic most sensitive to the look of the movies. By rummaging first in his youthful art reviews, we can get a better sense of exactly what his criticism owes to the visual arts, modernism in particular. The result, which I’ll present in the followup entry, wasn’t quite what I’d expected.

 

Warming up

Piet Mondrian. New York Boogie Woogie (1941).

Farber had trained at art schools in California before he married another art student, Janet Terrace. After living for a while with Farber’s brother in Washington, D. C., the couple moved moved to Greenwich Village. In January 1942 Farber’s first art review for The New Republic appeared. When Otis Ferguson left the magazine for the Merchant Marine, Farber took his place as film reviewer. He had just turned twenty-five.

Once ensconced, he found himself alongside two of the most formidable critics on the cultural scene. Clement Greenberg and James Agee, both born in 1909, were only eight years older than Farber, but they had a big head start. They overshadowed him, both at the time and for decades afterward.

Farber was reviewing visual art for The New Republic before Greenberg began doing the same at The Nation, but Greenberg was far more famous. He had published two major essays in Partisan Review, then the Bible of the progressive literati. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) had kicked off the mass-culture debate that would surge through the next two decades. Showing the same knack for sharp-edged synthesis, Greenberg’s 1940 essay, “For a New Laocöon,” made a strident case for abstract art as the culmination of ambitious western painting.

Greenberg asserted that painting had for centuries been dominated by other arts, notably literature. Modern art had lifted the veil and revealed painting’s unique conditions of existence. From Courbet and the Impressionists to Cézanne and the cubists, painters had come to recognize that painting’s power lay not in telling stories (“illustration”) or portraying the world as photography could capture it (“illusion”). At last the painter, secure in knowledge of “the opacity of the medium,” could create new visual experiences solely through line, color, and form. Purism was the painter’s duty.

Greenberg benefited from a vacuum in America’s popular and elite press. While abstract art was widely accepted in Europe, most American critics were ignorant, hostile, or both. Many major magazines had no art critics on their rosters. Academics focused on earlier eras, and journalists either ignored or mocked abstraction and the other major movement of the period, surrealism.

Greenberg, an amateur painter, had no scholarly training in art. Most of what he had to say was old news to painters and scholars in the modernist camp. He derived most of his ideas about technique from lectures by the influential émigré Hans Hofmann. But Greenberg told a good story, and he treated modern art as initiating a new epoch in the history of visual expression. The progress of painting, loosely tied to changes in social structure, led inevitably to the defiant austerity of abstraction. As a subtle reader, brilliant polemicist, and shrewd packager, Greenberg managed to get the intelligentsia excited about one major wing of new art.

The readership of Partisan Review numbered only about eight thousand, but they were the right eight thousand. In late 1942, Greenberg expanded his campaign to the pages of The Nation. There, as the magazine’s first art critic, he ceaselessly promoted  “the direction in which the pictorial art of our times must go in order to be great.” By the end of the decade, the painters Greenberg came to champion—Pollock, de Kooning, and a few others—would be recognized as modern masters, and he would be hailed as a prophet.

Farber’s views were partly in harmony with Greenberg’s. Like most critics, he took abstract art and surrealism to be the primary trends of the moment, and he valued the emerging Abstract Expressionists highly. He saw problems with “illustration,” especially that which was as melodramatic as Thomas Hart Benton’s. He could talk about picture planes and fidelity to materials with the best of them. But his criteria were pluralistic and his analytical categories surprisingly traditional.

Contra Greenberg, Farber’s reviews discuss pictures in relation to their subjects as well as their techniques. He analyzes compositions with art-school finesse, pointing up triangular designs and strategic symmetries. He doesn’t concentrate wholly on abstract art, and he respects representational masters like Max Weber and Utrillo (in a startlingly gushy review). Above all, Farber values feeling. Where Greenberg asks if a painting falls into step with the march toward purism, Farber looks for emotional expression.

In several passages we can read a covert dialogue with Greenberg, but they also represent Farber’s distinct aesthetic. Snippets from his 1942 reviews add up to a manifesto pleading for the importance of emotion—that of the artist, and that of the viewer.

The artist depends on his emotion and the accidents that accrue from it.

The really important part of the painting—the feeling that the artist wanted.

The essential function of painting [is] the honest individual emotion put down forthrightly without too much regard to the weight of centuries of painting already done, and conventions already explored.

The artist is supposed to react emotionally to his environment in color and line, if his audience is ever to.

Weber [The Rabbi, 1940, right] always pushes a gesture, a stance, or simple area of color to its fullest emotional presence. There is never any doubt of what you feel from any spot in his canvas.

Extreme morbidity dominates John Flannagan’s sculptures.

[Tchelitchew] manages to convey his gloom no matter how badly he paints. . . . There’s a place for a wider scope of emotion in painting, and this Russian artist shows how moving and universal extreme introspection can be in painting. 

[Chagall’s] greatness is in expressing himself completely and freely into everything he paints.

I have yet to see a painting which reminds me of [picture] planes, and I’m sure that Rousseau wasn’t feeling planes when he painted tigers.

By 1945, Farber has become perfectly explicit.

The purist argument inevitably starts by narrowing painting down to a matter of designed line and color on a flat surface instead of showing that design is constantly driven, controlled, and ordered by the expression.

Art criticism had always sought a balance between analysis of the painter’s craft and a consideration of how the craft conveyed meaning and feeling. The result gives evidence of the artist’s personality. Farber’s adherence to this traditional view didn’t block him from appreciating new art. It simply allowed him to treat all art as potentially exciting.

In order to appraise how well artists achieved expressive form, Farber mobilized his unique gifts as a writer. His style, alternately probing and slangy, could make subject, theme, design, and emotion come alive. In a Fletcher Martin picture “a horse tosses a cowboy sky high, but the painting is done with ease and no weight thrown around. The wise handling of rhythmic line and feathery color is enough for this artist to get across the action.” As for Goya:

When his pictures were allegorical, Goya moved from naturalism to supernaturalism, to goats, donkey-people, chinchilla rats, and the witches and brownies (nice witches), and in either approach there is the definite human imprint, the unmistakeable earmark of man. It is a matter of detail, of his driving deeper and harder into the idiosyncratic detail, so that it is realized at its most knobby, crooked, or bent likeness.

And, not for nothing, there is sheer representational skill: “Goya could draw a bull out of this world.”

But when an overblown concept created chaotic form, as with Benton’s war series “Year of Peril,” Farber called foul.

His painting now is apt to be Jesus on the cross, being harpooned from the ground by fascist goons and from the air by the light of a Messerschmidt. . . . There are a dozen different dominant colors in this painting and no relationship between any of them. They cross each other out. The conception is one of disunity since each form is dissociated from the others in the picture.

In German, a Farber is a dyemaster, and Farber lived up to his name in being especially sensitive to color’s contribution to the viewer’s response. Greenberg famously misunderstood Mondrian’s theories and ascribed to New York Boogie Woogie colors it didn’t have. By contrast, Farber licks his lips when he tells of Chagall’s lemon suns and raspberry patches of ice. The “testicle-like fruit” in a painting glows like gold velvet, and Farber often notes “color rhythms,” the ways in which a single hue varies in shade. In one painting Milton Avery expands “the vividness of the main color—the St. Patrick’s Day green of the wall—by a scaled off series of dulled, almost dried greens.” When an artist fails at color, as most watercolorists do, Farber calls the results anemic “for both pictorial and emotional reasons.”

 

Eyedropper esthetics

Greenberg, implacable foe of mass culture, denigrated certain painters as “comic-strippers.” But if like Farber you’re looking for feeling in art, why not try the comics? After all, cartoons are designed to elicit a laugh. If they’re really good, they’re not just reliant on the dialogue or the caption; they have to be drawn funny. Just as Agee brings to Monsieur Verdoux analytical techniques characteristic of literary criticism of his day, Farber tries out traditional art-historical perspectives on the most vulgar form of popular imagery.

His virtuoso 1944 column on comics displays a connoisseur’s delight. As with film, comics’ age had given way to mediocrity—even as a youth Farber was looking grumpily back at the old days—but while deploring the current adventure and soap-opera strips, he finds time to praise Bushmiller’s Nancy (with its characters bearing “identical fire-plug shapes, two-foot heights, inch-long names”), The Bungles Family (with their memorable noses), and the almost completely forgotten Silly Milly.

Silly Milly is drawn in typical McGovern style, as though by a wind current, and has a prehistoric animal for a hair-do, a very expressive, giant-size eye, and a perfectly oval profile. It is one of those comics with animated décor, like “Smoky Stover,” with adjoining family portraits shaking hands, and one that tries for laughs in every part of the box. . . . It is one of the most sophisticated of comics, smart-alecky, corny, sloppy and half unlikable, but produces its eyedropper of humor each day, without fail.

Another form of popular illustration is practiced by the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada.  Clement Greenberg calls him limited in talent but fairly skillful, chiefly because he sensed the power of black and white “as sheer color.” Farber, the practiced artist, explains the starkness of Posada’s design as partly necessitated by scale (the bigger pictures are “the size of a slice of bread”) and method (cutting in type metal leads to “closed, mean forms” and “staccato movement”). He doesn’t forget subject matter either, offering a casual inventory of Posada’s lurid scenes.

He was especially interested in showing executions and murders, which he depicted at the moment when the murderer’s knife was on its way through the victim’s throat, or just as the firing squad had emptied their guns. But he also leaned heavily on fires, collisions, accidental deaths, and he did two good illustrations of what the end of the world might look like.

Lyonel Feininger was one of the few serious painters who took up comic-strip art, and perhaps that knowledge led Greenberg to dismiss him in a few lines. In the same amount of space, Farber conjures up the unique Feininger look:

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 there are none more wondrous) in candy green seas under the inevitable yellow moon like a child’s scissor cutout of the letter C.

In exactitude Farber outpaces Greenberg. Whenever the two reviewed the same shows and books, comparison favors Farber’s lively, funny analyses. Greenberg predictably yields up gaseous generalizations and stern pronouncements about the inevitable future of painting or, more ominously, the historical fate awaiting the painter he’s reviewing. Consider the two men’s handling of William Steig’s morose little book The Lonely Ones. Steig was later known as a cartoonist and author of children’s stories, but in the mid-1940s he was making a reputation as a satiric artist along the lines of Saul Steinberg.

Greenberg takes Steig’s drawings as capturing the way that modern people use personal confession as a weapon. They admit their loneliness but also seek pity in a self-aggrandizing way. Although Greenberg praises Steig for conveying ideas sharply, he concludes that what Steig gives us are cartoons, and thus “not quite art.” His drawings rely on stereotyped imagery and don’t meet modernist criteria. Line “is not felt for its own sake”; everything is given in comic-strip symbols, like raised eyebrows for surprise. Accordingly, Greenberg doesn’t bother to analyze Steig’s technique.

Farber drills deeper. He diagnoses Steig’s first book, about neurosis, as less disturbing than this new volume, which teeters toward psychosis. Farber grants that Steig sometimes falls back on comics technique, but in his best work his line has expressive qualities. It “defines sharply and cold-bloodedly the very crux of a crushing moment, the core of a disturbed personality.” Even when he’s not portraying people, his work is shot through with anxiety. There could hardly be a more unpromising picture than this.

But Farber explains:

In the rendition of Nerves (a ball balancing precariously on the edge of a table) perspective, tilt of the table, light and line all contribute to the fact that the ball will surely fall off, but when? In this particular drawing it is interesting to notice the details, which are so few and so unobtrusive as to go usually unnoticed—the conception of the unnaturally shaped shadow under the table is highly erratic and sprawling in contour, recalling the loose, watery, uncoordinated state of the nervous breakdown. This is in contrast to the sharp, ordered, concrete world of the table. Steig shows you the eerie, unsubstantial level to which the ball is about to plunge. The drawing of the table is equally interesting, because it carries, despite its unswerving realism, the feeling of the underprivileged little people that infuses everything that Steig draws.

You won’t find, I think, anything as fine-grained in Greenberg’s 1940s reviews. Farber the practicing artist finds emotional qualities in what Greenberg discusses, vaguely, as style and concept. Farber agrees that Steig’s line isn’t “felt for its own sake”; it’s felt for feeling’s sake. If he can get this much out of this simple drawing, you can imagine what he can do with Cézanne, Mondrian, and Robert Motherwell.

 

Farber’s unpretentious emphasis on feeling as carried by form allowed him to do what the other Rhapsodes managed in their own fashion: to simply sidestep the mass culture debate and face popular art straightforwardly. Farber’s blunt acceptance of images, high or low, on their own terms is given great force by his style, a world away from the inflations of Greenberg and the obiter dicta of the Partisan Review cohort. Farber’s colorful commentary—form plus feeling, scrutiny of detail, combustible diction—would become even more stirring when he moved to film reviewing.

This series continues here.


I owe immense thanks to Kent Jones for expansive email conversations about Farber (and Agee). Thanks as well to Jim Naremore for corresponding with me on some particular points, and to my long-time friend and colleague J. J. Murphy, who helped me understand the 1940s art scene. In addition, Kent’s just-published essay “Critical Condition” bears directly on matters discussed in this entry and the whole blog series.

Deep thanks as well to Patricia Patterson for permission to reproduce the photograph of Farber surmounting this entry.

Indispensable to anyone writing about Farber, or film, is the superb Library of America collection edited by Robert Polito, Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber. His art reviews remain uncollected. A bibliography is available in the catalogue Manny Farber (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1985), n.p. I’m grateful to Eric Dienstfrey for his help in rounding up these items.

I’ll supply some more references and links for Farber’s film criticism in the next installment. Here, though, I must signal the vivid memoir written by Janet Richards, Farber’s first wife.  Common Soldiers: A Self-Portrait and Other Portraits (Archer Press, 1979) includes recollections of their years in New York and their time with Farber’s family.

Useful surveys of American abstraction and its context are Irving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting (Praeger, 1970) and Dore Ashton, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning (University of California Press, orig. 1972). The major player in that game was Clement Greenberg. “Towards a New Laocöon” is included in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Vol. 1: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944, ed. John O’Brian (University of Chicago Press, 1986), 23-38. My quotation about the necessary direction of pictorial art is from “Review of an Exhibition of Andre Masson,” 99, and the observations on William Steig come from “Steig’s Gallery: The Lonely Ones,” 137-138.

On Greenberg, the standard biography is Florence Rubenfeld’s Clement Greenberg (Scribners, 1997); Greenberg’s report on vanquishing Farber is on p. 82. (“He was so neurotic. He could’ve beaten me up.”) A less adulatory account is Alice Goldfarb Marquis’s Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 2006). Greenberg’s “New Laocöon” essay implicitly draws on sources including Sheldon Cheney, A Primer of Modern Art (Boni and Liveright, 1924) and Expressionism in Art (Liveright, 1934) and James Johnson Sweeney, Plastic Redirections in 20th Century Painting (University of Chicago Press, 1934). A primary influence on Greenberg was the teaching of Hans Hoffman, sampled in Search for the Real, ed. Sarah T. Weeks and Bartlett H. Hayes, Jr (Addison Gallery, 1948).

One last note. Janet Richards records in her autobiography the couple’s trip from California across the country. Driving through Wisconsin, they stopped by my home town.

We thought then we would live in Madison, a lovely small college city. We even rented a room with a stove and a sink in it. But after Manny had been to the Labor Council and discovered that the wages in Wisconsin for second year carpenter’s apprentices were too small even to pay our rent, we left Madison.

If Madison’s 1939 wages had been higher, the fate of American film criticism would have been very different.

Lyonel Feininger, Angler with Blue Fish II (1912).

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