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Obituary: Artist and Critic Manny Farber, 91

August 21, 2008

By Inga Kiderra

Influential and iconoclastic film critic, abstract painter and UC San Diego Professor Emeritus of Visual Arts Emanuel “Manny” Farber died Aug. 17 at his home in San Diego’s North County. He was 91.

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UC San Diego Professor Emeritus
of Visual Arts Emanuel “Manny” Farber

Called the “Mount Rushmore of Film Criticism” by filmmaker Paul Schrader and once described by art critic Peter Plagens as “the last honorable man,” Farber was a major force in American culture for more than 50 years.

Farber was born in Douglas, Ariz. in 1917. He attended UC Berkeley, Stanford, the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design. He worked as a carpenter in Washington after college before moving to New York in 1942 to pursue dual careers as a painter and film critic.

Farber served as critic for The New Republic, The Nation, Time Magazine, The New Leader, Cavalier and Artforum. He is credited with coining the term “underground films” and was a champion of movies that others sometimes dismissed as Pop and Pulp. “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” is perhaps his best-known and most cited essay. First published in Film Culture magazine in 1962, the piece on commercial cinema celebrates B-films and underappreciated directors for their termite-like ability to burrow into a topic (as compared to their bloated, pretentious and “white-elephant art” counterparts).

A collection of Farber’s early criticism was published under the title of “Negative Space” in 1971. The book was reprinted, to renewed praise, in 1998.

Farber also attained a national reputation as an artist and, after 1977, focused on that pursuit. Retrospectives of his work were held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in 1985 and at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in 2003.

In the 1970s, Farber began a lifelong creative collaboration with his third wife, the artist Patricia Patterson, also a UCSD professor emeritus. Farber joined the Visual Arts Department at UCSD in 1970, where he was an active member of the faculty until 1987.

“Farber’s paintings and criticism made clear that artists are thinkers,” said Visual Arts Chair Adriene Jenik. “His inventive teaching methods and crossover creative practice have been a profound influence on the culture of Visual Arts at UCSD.”

At UCSD, the 2006 MFA art show at the University Art Gallery was entitled “The Elephant vs. The Termite” in honor of Farber and his work. Also in 2006, there was a five-hour tribute called “Manny Farber and All That Jazz” organized at Calit2 by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, friend and UCSD Visual Arts colleague for 30-plus years.

Said Gorin: “A life is told chronologically: First he was this then he was that… But what makes him extraordinary is that he was in fact both [critic and artist] at the same time and from the beginning. What makes him extraordinary is that he was so fluent in so many spheres. Manny only had one religion and that religion was work.”

“He had a very profoundly American voice,” Gorin said, adding that one can just as easily say “Manny Farber, American” as one can say “John Ford, American.”

“I’m not the only one to whom Manny was essential,” he said. “But his death is not tragic – it is the conclusion of a life extraordinarily lived and extraordinarily full.”

Farber’s surviving family members include his wife Patricia Patterson, a daughter, Amanda Farber, and a grandson.

Memorial services will be held at a time and location to be determined.


Media Contact: Inga Kiderra, 858-822-0661

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