The first thing that drew me to ’s Domestic Movies
(1985) was the fact that it looked very familiar. I was a teenager when I first saw the painting,
stripped of context on a Tumblr post, without so much as a caption. Something like it—the haphazard flowers, pieces of note paper, and random, unidentifiable objects—was constantly at play in any room that I lived in, too.
The second thing was that I didn’t know what to make of it. At the time, paintings weren’t something I thought about much—I had done art at school, and I knew what a
could look like. But the island I grew up on in the Middle East (Bahrain) only had a history museum, and I couldn’t really remember seeing an oil painting like Domestic Movies
before. It wasn’t grand or imposing, and a part of me almost felt embarrassed to be so taken by what looked like, frankly, a mess.
Yet I saved the photo from the Tumblr post, and kept it on my desktop. I moved to London after high school, and art grew to play a bigger role in my life: I got a tattoo of an
painting, learned about
cutouts, and started to consider a museum a place I could go to. Then, I felt a pang of recognition after stumbling across a man called Manny Farber’s obituary in the New York Times
, his death already six or seven years in the past.
Domestic Movies is one of Farber’s best-known works. It’s a domestic scene, shown from a weird angle, not quite bird’s-eye view. Flowers dominate, but equally present are scraps of paper, books flipped open to random pages, a potentially dead bird, glasses of water, matchboxes, eggs, potatoes, and what looks like crayons, or color pastels, or chalk. The background is split between blue and yellow. The impression that Farber was perpetually in motion—like there was something unfinished, something he was just getting to—permeates his paintings.
In the years since I first saw that image of Domestic Movies, I have tried to understand why the painting has maintained such an imperceptible hold on me. Recently, I’ve identified that it’s one of the few things I can stare at for hours—it renewed my understanding of how to pay attention.
As I finished university, I was diagnosed with ADHD. A very kind therapist gently suggested that traits which I had long written off as personal failings—being constantly distracted, for example—may have other causes. In Domestic Movies, there’s a whole world contained in the mess, a narrative that you can find, if you look for long enough.