Painter of Pictures: Manny Farber (2002/04)

The following two pieces are excerpted from a 2001 panel (featuring Greil Marcus and others) on movie critic and artist Manny Farber. Both were later reprinted in Artforum.

In his 1957 essay, “Hard-Sell Cinema,” Manny Farber talks about “the business-man-artist”: someone who “has the drive, patience, conceit, and daring to become a successful non-conforming artist without having the talent or idealism for rebellious creation.” Farber names Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz in jazz, Larry Rivers and Franz Kline in painting, Salinger, Bellow, and Cheever in the novel, Paddy Chayefsky, Delbert Mann, and Elia Kazan in movies. It’s one of many pieces in Negative Space where you get the idea Farber was in a bad mood pretty much from the beginning of the ’50s to the end.

In particular Farber talks about New Yorker short-story writers. And he goes on and on and on until he gets to a phrase about “ideas impossible to understand because they come through a fog of stupidity.” When I first read that sentence in 1971 or 1972, I found it absolutely terrifying. I found a lot of Negative Space terrifying.

One of the things that I found scariest were the pieces in which Farber went through the work of a particular person, like Howard Hawks, in three or four pages. Just like that—boom, boom, boom, in and out. Like somebody walking through a room and looking around, going in one door and out the other.

The idea, the arrogance, the sense that there were only a certain number of things that really needed to be said and that I, Manny Farber, know what they are, and here they are, and out the door. That was terrifying. It seemed like half of what he wrote was in a five-minute vein, even if it took seven minutes to read.

“Ideas impossible to understand because they come through a fog of stupidity.” It’s scary for a writer to come across a sentence that so plainly says what it means, in which the prose is so exquisitely balanced, and you take pleasure in the way the words are put together, and you worry that you’ve written things about which something like that could be said over and over and over again.

Walter Benjamin once said that an author who teaches a writer nothing teaches nobody anything. One thing that I think happens for many writers reading Farber is that they feel themselves on trial. They feel this same scrutiny that’s brought to bear on actors, on directors, on painters, on musicians, on comic-strip artists. Maybe they feel lucky that Manny Farber has never read them and therefore doesn’t have an opinion on them.

There are two things that stand out for me in Negative Space and have for over thirty years now. One is a passage where Farber is talking about the best films of 1951. The last one he mentions is “a Chuck Jones animated cartoon—the name escapes me,” and he goes on and describes it. He doesn’t even bother to ask somebody what it was called, let alone make a phone call or look it up. Just what the hell.

The other is where Farber is complaining about some movie, and he says, “It isn’t sustained.” Then there’s a parenthetical that says, “But how many movies since Musketeers of Pig Alley have been sustained?” What was really scary to me about that line, and it’s scary today, is that never having seen Musketeers of Pig Alley, I didn’t know if this was a joke or if, in fact, it’s the only movie in eighty years that’s been sustained. I still don’t know. So you can dive into this book, and, if you are like me, you will never get out.

Artforum, April 2002,

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