“One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art”

Los Angeles

at Museum of Contemporary Art

Manny Farber: Earth, Fire, Air, Water, 1984, oil on board, 96 inches square; in “One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art.”


THE LAST ESSAY by formidable film critic and artist Manny Farber (1917–2008) was published in Film Comment in 1977. Cowritten with his wife, painter Patricia Patterson, “Kitchen without Kitsch” parses Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), which tracks with patient intensity a woman at her routine tasks of cooking, cleaning, shopping, turning tricks, and caring for her son. Farber and Patterson dubbed the revelatory production a “still-life film.” Around the same time—after long forays into two- and three-dimensional abstraction—Farber had begun making something related on paper and board: filmic still-life paintings. These compositions portraying ordinary and personal objects often reference specific filmmakers and films. They lead the eye along paths that feel temporal as well as spatial, much the way film delivers a durational experience through the accretion of still images.

“One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art” takes its title from another of Farber’s essays—his most-cited one, however challenging it is to distill. In “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” (first printed in Film Culture in 1962), Farber pits the listlessness, preciousness, grandiosity, and slack ambition of “Masterpiece art” against work that feeds relentlessly on the everyday. “A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art,” he writes, “is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” Though writing primarily about film, Farber laments that the best examples of termite art appear elsewhere, outside “the spotlight of culture” (in newspaper columns, TV productions, and detective novels, for instance), and his manifesto applies broadly: an artwork’s essential juiciness is to be found in its attention to minor detail rather than major plot, in the “squandering,” “ornery” process of its making.

Curated by Helen Molesworth, before her unceremonious dismissal from MOCA last March, the show functions doubly as a solo presentation and a thematic group exhibition. It begins with a generous dozen of Farber’s paintings before opening out to photographs, sculptures, films, videos, paintings, and installations from the 1950s to the present by more than thirty others: students and colleagues of Farber’s and artists of a kindred bent. What Farber championed in print, he materialized in paint: a reckoning with the “deeply lived-in incident,” with the minute psychic and material construction of a life. He tilted up the traditional still life’s tabletop to coincide with the plane of the canvas, and painted that surface (casting it as both literal ground and metaphoric field) in abutting zones of color: mint green and frosting pink in a checkerboard pattern, a block of gold stacked atop a block of black. With directorial deliberatnesss, he distributed across the surfaces (first in actuality, tracing the items, and then in paint) an array of offerings: flowers and vegetables grown just beyond the studio wall by Patricia; lengths of rebar and masking tape; books open to reproductions of Japanese erotic prints and other art; cardboard cutouts of tools, skulls, keyholes; hand-scrawled notes and lists. worry about everything, he scratched into a small white rectangle that floats atop radiant sunflower gold in Patricia’s a Legend (1986). In the narrative of a life, everything matters, everything counts.

Farber was prodigal and inventive with adjectives when he wrote; he left few nouns unchaperoned. His paintings pulse with a similar immediacy and specificity, the rigor of the highly intentional, humanized by emphatic physicality. In Hellth (1988), Farber wrestles, wittily, with what nourishes, and what binds. In one painted note, he urges a getaway from his home in San Diego, this hellhole of self-improvement. In another, he counsels, change improve fix it. Straddling the vertical seam where the piece’s two large panels meet is a painted spool of thread, a nearly missable detail that concretizes Farber’s primary concern as critic, painter, and onetime carpenter—how formal elements are joined, how parts are stitched to make a whole.

Single paintings by Farber also hang among the works by the other artists in the exhibition, as conversational prompt, and lodestar. His take on the still life as restless rather than still, an alloy of intellectual inquiry and emotionally driven preservation, finds company in the floral sculpture of Maurice Harris. Every week of the show, Harris is scheduled to deliver a new arrangement. His opening installment, mounted on a plinth, dripped black tassels and was poked with rhinestone-headed hatpins. Fuzzy ginger stalks, feathers, dyed carnations, and branches with bursting cotton bolls accreted into a mildly disturbing gothic extravaganza that conflated artifice and nature, stillness and flux, sculpture and theater.

Even when not assuming a familiar form of memento mori, most works in the show address, acutely, the incremental advance of time. In a jarring little painting by Leidy Churchman, Calendar (2014), coarse red lines cut ragged paths across the squares in a depiction of a calendar page, thickening, straightening, breaking, and resuming their persistent push forward. Serving as a cross between visual diary and anti-epic poem, Lorna Simpson’s video installation 31 (2002) comprises a wall of monitors playing, Jeanne Dielman–like, scenes of a woman engaged in ordinary home, work, and leisure activities. Roni Horn’s sequence of sixty-seven photographs inventories objects given to the artist—a stereograph of the moon, volumes by Djuna Barnes and Virginia Woolf, a fortune cookie fortune, a wristwatch. Each item pictured in “The Selected Gifts, 1974–2015” (2015–16) is isolated like data against a neutralizing white ground, but a particularized and tender portrait of the artist emerges nonetheless. The mapping of time through zoomed-out positioning in space evinces quiet, visceral power in Jennifer Guidi’s visionary paint-and-sand landscapes, Vija Celmins’s drawings and paintings of the night sky, and Josiah McElheny’s galaxy-mimicking chandeliers.

Farber was, perhaps, an unintentional feminist, in sync with the women’s movement’s validation of the domestic realm as a setting of significance. Kitchens and bathrooms in particular are exquisitely rendered in the show. Patterson’s Mary at the Stove (1993) is a gorgeous, understated act of homage. Its subject, seen obliquely from behind, wears a housecoat with an ebullient floral pattern, her auburn hair haloed by a rectangle of pale celestial blue. Becky Suss paints the arched mirror and period tilework in her Bathroom (Ming Green), 2016, with the crisp frontality of an altar.

Farber’s simultaneous outward and inward address, his spears of thought flung in all directions, invite response in kind. I once reviewed a show of his in the form of a letter written directly to him, spurred by the fragmentary letters his paintings address to us. Molesworth has curated an exhibition in the spirit of his conception of the termite-like maker, spurning an overarching thesis in favor of rhizomatic reaching, an organic unfurling of affinities. In answer to his manifesto, she fashioned her own, a show that affirmed not just the obvious, existential urgency of “love and life and the fabric of time that holds them together” (as she states in the introductory wall text) but their art historical centrality as well.