This Artwork Changed My Life: Manny Farber’s “Domestic Movies”

Sanjana Varghese
Aug 18, 2020 4:05PM

Manny Farber, Domestic Movies, 1985. © Manny Farber. Courtesy Quint Gallery.

The first thing that drew me to Manny Farber’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 Picasso 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 Egon Schiele painting, learned about Matisse 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.

Manny Farber, detail of Domestic Movies, 1985. © Manny Farber. Courtesy of Quint Gallery.

Manny Farber, detail of Domestic Movies, 1985. © Manny Farber. Courtesy of Quint Gallery.


On another excursion into Domestic Movies, you may notice that what looks like red ribbon is actually strips of film leader, all over the painting. This is a reference to Farber’s career as a film critic, a job he held on and off for most of his life (Farber said in a 1977 interview that his criticism and his paintings were “exactly the same thing”). He was also a carpenter, lecturer, and loved talking about sports—seemingly, always darting from one thing to another.

Farber is probably best known for his seminal essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” in which he extolled the virtues of “termite art,” a term that he used to refer to the work of artists who were “involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything.” In particular, he admires the “eager, industrious, unkempt activity” of this kind of practice.

The idea that processes can be valuable regardless of their outcome is one that I have come around to. After I went to university, I brought up Farber with friends who knew more about art history than I did (which was very little) and they were a little bemused at my reasons for fixating on Domestic Movies. I read John Berger at one of their suggestions, where I came across his famous quote: “We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.”

The more you look at Farber’s paintings, the more they reveal themselves to you. He often left messages in his paintings, such as in Passive is the Ticket (1984), where a piece of scrap paper reveals: “This is not debris! Each of the items means something.” His presentation of the everyday indicated that there was something sublime about regular life—not bubbling under the surface of, but woven in with it.

As with most people with ADHD, the everyday—which is often the source of monotony for others—often feels like an endless obstacle course, full of keys, forgotten things and dates, and ample opportunities to make mistakes. What a pleasure it is, then, to reframe it slightly, to bring the mess into the picture.

Domestic Movies now often serves as a counterbalance against my occasional desires to become a more organized and comprehensible, legible person. I look at the painting now as a periodic exercise in being immersed in something outside of myself, a reminder that it is possible and sometimes desirable to hold half-formulated things, thoughts, and feelings in one frame of reference.

Sanjana Varghese