Film Critic and ‘Termite Artist’: Beaverish Endeavors at P.S. 1

Among the objects depicted in Manny Farber’s still-life painting Batiquitos (1995), there’s a pad of Post-Its on which you’ll find the artist’s definition of heaven: “… To be noticed by Roberta Smith or Gopnik.” That would be Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker; Ms. Smith is an art critic for The New York Times.

Mr. Farber’s memo isn’t much more than a squib, overtaken by the surrounding objects-fruit, branches, a metal rod and an art book. Our eye snags on the words all the same, mostly because the rest of Batiquitos is visual in nature, and partly because the sentiment seems out of character for the painter who coined the phrase “termite art.”

Actually, “termite art” was coined by Mr. Farber the critic. Though busy painting for close to 50 years (Mr. Farber will turn 90 in 2007), he’s best known for his film criticism-in particular, for being a champion of hard-boiled B-movies from the 1940′s and 50′s. His writing appeared in, among other forums, The New Republic, The Nation and Commentary. Negative Space, a compendium of Mr. Farber’s essays spanning 30 years (from the 1940′s to the 70′s), is a sacred text among film junkies.

That’s where you’ll find “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” Mr. Farber’s signature 1962 essay. Though it concerns itself primarily with film, employing the art of painting in setting up its argument, the essay is really about an artistic mind-set. Mr. Farber contrasts two types of art: that which offers a “yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition” and art that has “no ambitions towards gilt culture but [is] involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything.”

Mr. Farber’s heart lies with the latter-that is to say, with “termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art.” (Mr. Farber’s appeal as a critic lies in a messy, muscular and hyperbolic writing style.) As its exemplars, he cites John Wayne’s performance in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “most of Raymond Chandler,” Laurel and Hardy, and (of all people) William F. Buckley. “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”-that’s where you’ll find termite art.

Walking through Manny Farber: About Face, a retrospective of paintings at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, I wondered if Mr. Farber still buys into the “termite art” thesis. Forget for a moment that this advocate of “not caring” art now finds himself pining for recognition from establishment organs like The New Yorker and The New York Times. Listen, instead, to his rant on painting from “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”: “Advanced painting has long been suffering from [a] burnt-out notion of a masterpiece-breaking away from its imprisoning conditions toward a suicidal improvisation, threatening to move nowhere and everywhere, niggling, omnivorous, ambitionless: yet, within the same picture, paying strict obeisance to the canvas edge and, without favoritism, the precious nature of every inch of allowable space.”

Caught your breath? Now look at Mr. Farber’s paintings: bird’s-eye-view pictures of stuff-lots of stuff-wherein the “precious nature of every inch of allowable space” is dutifully accounted for. A “strict obeisance to the canvas edge” is the rule. Notable among the objects he paints are art-historical texts with reproductions-Exhibit A of an acute awareness of “the spotlight of culture” and an ambition toward “gilt culture.” Finally, take note of the flattened, all-over compositions: Though tumultuous, they are never “wasteful” or a squander, beaverish or otherwise.

I emphasize these contradictions not to rub them in Mr. Farber’s face, but to point out that art has a wonderful way of going off on its own tangent, often in a direction contrary to the will of its maker. Looking at Mr. Farber’s early efforts-earnest Constructivist sculptures cobbled together from junk and free-floating “skins” of paint and paper-you’d hardly guess that he would end up embracing a rather traditional mode of picture-making. It must’ve come as a shock to Mr. Farber as well.

Following the chronological installation of About Face is to witness an artist swept up in the aesthetic logic of his art. The momentum is unmistakable; the joy that Mr. Farber experiences in painting is palpable. Equally unshakable is his fidelity to the world of appearances: Whether painting a dead bird, a bowl of oatmeal, vintage toys, an Almond Joy candy bar or endless notes to himself, he concerns himself with its specificity and thingness. Watching Mr. Farber constantly test his curiosity and skill is invigorating. Try staying a step ahead of him-you’ll be frustrated and happy because of it.

The early paintings are relatively tight in execution. The palette of pinks, greens and ochres is wan and fleshy, the application of paint roughened up and underplayed. (A palette knife is Mr. Farber’s tool of choice.) The surfaces become more agitated over time, the compositions controlled and the colors deeper-not always, one should add, to greater artistic consequence. A diaristic tone is constant, the sense of evoking life’s abundance through an inventory of personal effects. Given the preponderance of fruit and vegetables, Mr. Farber clearly relishes fresh food. Reading from another note, we learn that he’s fond of “yoga, writing, fucking, painting, teaching.”

The oeuvre has its drawbacks. It is, on the whole, artier than one would prefer. Mr. Farber never shakes a self-conscious streak: His habit of sectioning off the backdrops of his still-life arrangements into large zones of flat color unnecessarily underscores the artifice already inherent in the upended compositions. (You want to tell him: “Tablecloths are nice.”)

It’s as if Mr. Farber looks over his shoulder when painting-anxious, somehow, that he’s made a misstep. He should stop worrying already. I mean, how many exhibitions of contemporary art leave you feeling that making art is an inherently optimistic enterprise? Not John Currin or Thomas Struth or the regular fare at P.S. 1. Matthew Barney? Forget about it. Mr. Farber does the job. About Face secures his reputation as an artist with a reason for being.

Manny Farber: About Face is at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Avenue at 46th Avenue in Long Island City, Queens, until Jan. 16.