The problem with Manny Farber

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Manny Farber (b.1917- d.2008), a much admired film critic who became less admired painter, is the putative subject of a show at Moca on Grand Avenue. One Day At A Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art is loosely based on his idea that the best art may not be accepted masterpieces but more off-beat and less grand gestures.

Written in 1962, White Elephant Art v.s. Termite Art is most effective when Farber riffs on his expertise: film. But one idea remains relevant, his faith in the idea that individuals and the works of art thrive outside an accepted mainstream.

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Manny Farber, Cézanne avait écrit, 1986, oil on board, 72 × 72 in. (182.88 × 182.88 cm), courtesy of Quint Gallery, San Diego.

It’s an extremely relevant idea. (For more on that check out the new Nathaniel Kahn documentary The Price of Everything, a fair if sobering take on the role of the market on contemporary art coming soon to HBO.)

This a position advocated of late by Helen Molesworth, the former MOCA curator who organized the show with MOCA's current curator Lanka Tattersall. The modest survey of Farber’s detailed still life paintings is combined with works of art by a wide-ranging number of artists who the curators feel follow the so-called “termite” process.

In the catalogue, Molesworth calls it her most personal show, bringing together many artists she has found interesting or supported earlier in her career. She became one of the many Farber-fanciers after attending his lectures on film in 1988, when she decided to complete her degree at UC San Diego.

Unfortunately, Farber was always a better writer than painter.

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Manny Farber, Domestic Movies, 1985, oil on board, 96 × 96 in. (243.84 × 243.84 cm), ResMed collection. Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

His nicely colored, oddly distorted still life paintings incorporate complex details from films and from his own daily life. They are earnest and competant, occasionally witty. But, as Molesworth says in her own essay, she never took his work seriously, until now. Now, they correspond to shifts in her own thinking about the out of control escalation in the art market and its role in museums and history. But that doesn’t make the paintings any better. There is no question of them being a cozy alternative to Pop Art by Warhol.

Farber’s paintings from the 1980s are the most ingenious. In many, the picture plane may be divided into four flat retangular spaces of different colors but unified by a selection of objects that are notionally based on the still life genre. Fruits and flowers, open books, plates of food, photographs, notepads with scribbles, matches, candles, all are portrayed from above but at a vertiginous angle, as though they were about to slide off the table top surface and onto the floor. Earlier pictures in the show are much less noteworthy.

The exhibition is rescued, somewhat, by the accompanying artists considered to be “termites” rather than “white elephants.”

Many of these so-called “termite” artists follow Farber’s dictum of observing and being. (Who doesn’t?) And most of the art here has to do with quotidian pleasures, though, it must be said, most of the artists are also operating firmly within the market and museum nexus. Few are outside the system.

The Fischli and Weiss’s sweet installation of small clay figures and domestic artifacts, Charles Ray’s shining aluminum recreation of an old tractor, Catherine Opie’s photographs of Elizabeth Taylor’s belongings, Jonas Wood’s painting of a kitchen interior, (a marvel of observed detail, never too finicky, never too obvious), Rodney McMillan’s lonely yellow lemon on a black background, are a few obvious examples.

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Josiah McElheny, An End to Modernity, 2005, Nickel-plated aluminum, electric lighting, handblown glass, steel cable and rigging. (Back) Patricia Patterson, Mary at the Stove, 1993 installation at MOCA. Photo by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp.

One star of the show is Josiah McElheny with his giant chandelier-cum-cosmic speculation on loan from the Tate. On the opposite end of the scale spectrum are the prosaic but weirdly satisfying paintings by Dike Blair, who renders a martini like a Dutch old master.

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Dike Blair, Untitled, 1997, gouache on paper, 24 x 18 in. (60.96 × 45.72 cm), courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

The show also includes an handful of charming paintings by Patricia Patterson, Farber’s wife of 40 years, his muse in some ways and, frankly, always a better artist.

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Patricia Patterson, Mary at the Stove, 1993, casein on plaster, 95 1/2 × 72 1/2 in. (242.57 × 184.15 cm), courtesy of Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, La Jolla.

Certainly, the show is worth a visit but while you are there, don’t miss a wander through MOCA's permanent collection where you can have your spirits lifted by the site of a largely white John Chamberlain sculpture flanked by a pair of massive black and white Franz Kline paintings, a reminder that Moca still has one of the great collections and the canon is still worth while. It is on view to March 11, 2019.