Life is messy. Art should be, too. In One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art, a sweeping group exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), curator Helen Molesworth, assembles Arizona-born carpenter, film critic, and painter Manny Farber’s most delightfully chaotic and cluttered still-lifes. Vibrantly colored and richly detailed, these monumental canvases elevate and celebrate the mundane through scattered flowers, ripe fruit, and handwritten notes. Presented alongside a slew of over 100 similarly-themed multimedia works from celebrated artists, including Josiah McElheny, Lorna Simpson, and Wolfgang Tillmans, these loose, jazz-like paintings reveal the anarchic yet alluring rhythm of daily life.
In his criticism as well as his painting, Manny Farber (1917-2008) wholeheartedly rejects what he labeled “White Elephant Art” in favor of “Termite Art.” He defines both terms in his seminal Film Culture Magazine essay, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” (1962). The former refers to highly staged, overly moralizing pieces like the ones often exchanged at white elephant parties. While these works cling to traditional values and aesthetics, “Termite Art” points to the avant-garde. The artist adored Hollywood B movies and European cinema as these films often railed against established norms and genre hierarchies. He also appreciated their intimate, natural, and highly personal nature. According to Farber, artists and filmmakers should take after the termite in their work. This industrious insect does not pontificate or indulge in pretension. It simply goes about its daily routine, destroying the old and dead to create something new and exciting.
AsTermite Art’s undisputed centerpiece, Farber’s oversized diptych Domestic Movies (1985) celebrates the connection between painting and cinema. In this overhead view of a disorganized work desk, the artist includes strips of red ribbon strewn about the scene. However, the viewer soon learns that this ribbon is actually painted film leader. A leader is typically attached to the head or beginning of a film to assist in threading the projector. It features the now-obsolete countdown before the start of the movie. Farber also references cinema via the depiction of a book by renowned British film critic Raymond Durgnat.
Through these lush floral arrangements and eye-catching bowls of fruit, the artist tackles the rich tradition of Dutch still life painting. This beloved genre first flourished in the early 1600s as this small seaside country amassed a vast fortune through the Dutch East India Trading Company. This new merchant class soon became art patrons and developed a taste for displaying their wealth through painting. Opulent banquet scenes and floral arrangements became top-sellers. Many of these works were profoundly symbolic and underscored Christian values, such as purity, temperance, and avoiding vanity. Dutch still lifes also routinely featured lifeless animals as a reminder of death or memento mori.
Farber’s paintings dismiss the luxurious and moralizing elements of these Dutch still lifes and instead focus on the beauty of creative work and the natural world. However, he does interestingly insert a depiction of a dead bird in Domestic Movies. He also scatters this haunting symbol throughout his oeuvre, therefore expressing an interest in this concept of memento mori painting.
This merging of life and death in Farber’s work could also be an allusion to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s cosmograms. Just like this iconic Neo-Expressionist graffiti artist, Farber also frequently bolted two panels together to make the four quadrants of this ancient African symbol. This geometric, cosmological diagram represents the fluid connection between the realms of the living and the dead. Furthermore, the link between these two contemporaries extends beyond mere composition and includes the usage of scrawled, cryptic notes all over the canvas. In Farber’s case, these reminders are often upside down and illegible, therefore thwarting the viewer’s desire to learn more about the artist’s mindset and aims.
On top of Farber’s many references to Basquiat in this exhibition, he also explicitly cites Paul Cézanne as an influence here. His skewed, partially overhead and partially head-on perspective comes to us directly from this French Post-Impressionist’s still lifes. Cézanne also possessed an unyielding devotion to the truth in his painting. He observed nature obsessively and would only paint what he saw. The resulting canvases are erratic, irregular, and feature patches of raw, unpainted canvas. Farber admired this devotion to accuracy as well as Cézanne’s use of negative space. In Farber’s 1986 painting Cézanne avait écrit, he pays homage to this legendary figure through the depiction of two awkwardly stacked canvases. In a patchy painting style mirroring Cézanne’s signature brushstrokes, Farber colors these boards in a goldenrod yellow similar to the one used in 1904’s Mont Sainte-Victoire.
In his recognition and modification of the past here, Farber firmly establishes himself as an iconoclast. One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art reveals the artist’s ingenuity in breaking down age-old artistic conventions in pursuit of the truth. He boldly valued veracity, even if that meant the canvas resembled a jumbled mess. At least it would be real and honest. Farber had no interest in making political or social statements in his paintings. Instead, he aimed to capture how we live our lives. We work away, just like the noble termite.
Featured Image: Manny Farber, Listo Leads, 1976
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.