Charles Griffin Farr (1908 – 1997)

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Charles Griffin Farr (1908–1997) is an American realist artist whose paintings are intended to convey a subtle emotional tension and sense of mystery.

Working within the tradition of American realism, Farr’s signature style began its evolution in the 1930s, a time when Precisionism and other forms of painting about the process of seeing were major forces. Many terms have been used to define his idiosyncratic work, but “Magic rRalism,” is probably the closest. By definition, according to famed curator Dorothy C. Miller, it means that a work possesses a “sharp focus and precise representation: with the difference being ‘whether the subject has been observed in the outer world–realism, or contrived by the imagination—magic realism.'”

Farr himself defined his work as trying “to make things more real than they already were.”

Farr’s early work from the late thirties and forties presages the flattened, geometric compositions of his later paintings. During this time he experimented with egg tempera and silverpoint drawing, creating carefully observed works that depict the daily life of Depression-era America—carpenters, fishermen, and boat builders. Working as an illustrator on behalf of the U.S. Army during World War II, Farr created a series of casein paintings and sketchbooks that are notable for their lively, often humorous, depictions of life during wartime.

After the war, Farr attended the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) from 1948 to 1950, following studies at the Art Student’s League in New York with George Luks. Later, as a teacher at the Institute from 1959 through 1967, Farr continued to support the study of realism even as non-objective art became the predominant mode of expression.

After his retirement from teaching, Farr continued to host weekly group drawing sessions at his San Francisco studio so that he and other artists could continue to draw from the live model. Farr’s figure drawings are known for their economy and precise line. Farr’s most mature period dates from the 1960s to his death. His luminous, otherworldly still lifes, landscapes, and figure paintings feature manipulated perspectives, intense color and complex tonal ranges, and sophisticated patterning. The subject matter is often depicted within a relatively shallow space parallel to the picture plane and uses contrasting light and dark values to create contrasting rhythmic patterns. The resulting effect creates a surreal, dreamlike experience for the viewer in which the subject matter wavers between reality and imagination.

In 1987 Farr received the Award in Painting from the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters, New York, NY. He died ten years later in San Francisco. His work is included in several important museum collections, including the National Museum of American Art, Washington D.C.; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA; and the Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA. A permanent exhibition of his works is on view at the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which houses a retrospective sample of works from his career.

Christina Orr-Cahall: In Perspective: Charles Griffin Farr, Charles Griffin Farr: A Retrospective (Oakland: The Oakland Museum, 1984)
2. Dorothy C. Miller as quoted in American Realists and Magic Realists (New York City: Museum of Modern Art, 1943), p.5.
3. Farr as quoted in Charles Griffin Farr: A Retrospective, 1984.

Submitted by: Adam Beck