Saturday, April 28, 2018

Entry - 4.28.18

Georg Emanuel Opiz - Der Saufer - 1804

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve last posted a blog entry.  If you follow my blog, you probably know that I retired at the end of last year and you might have been expecting the pace of entry postings to accelerate, seeing that once out of the workforce I’d be enjoying the rare luxury of free time for the first time in many years and would consequently blossom forth into the embodiment of productivity and industry.  My expectations were much lower.  I anticipated an initial period of lethargy and idleness – a kind of emotional and intellectual collapse after my long stint of toeing the line.  Well, after several months of retirement, I can state that my prediction was fairly accurate.  Not that my collapse was absolutely complete.  There have been a few occasions when I’ve sobered up, took a bath, changed my clothes and thumbed through the mail.  I’ve even shaved once or twice.  Okay, perhaps I’m exaggerating just a bit.  In truth, I continue to rise early (usually around 6AM), take long hikes when conditions permit (with a slew of nor’easters hitting NY in recent weeks conditions haven’t been doing a lot of permitting), study my German and apply myself to a number of art projects.

At present, I’m working to become proficient in the use of gouache, a kind of opaque watercolor, which I haven’t used much, if at all, in the past and thought might be an ideal medium to encourage me to be more spontaneous in the execution of my work.  I’ve also been constructing a frame for a portrait I completed about two years ago and always thought would be enhanced if set within a border of gold leaf.  Thus far my efforts to construct the frame have been pretty successful, but I dread the thought of using fragile gold leaf, so delicate that a slight puff of breath will send it flailing like a flag in a hurricane.

For the most part, my efforts have been focused on finishing up a large-scale painting that’s been my primary occupation for quite a while.  I must confess that I started work on this project about a year and a half ago, hoping, as usual, to realize during its execution a method of accelerating my process but recognizing right from the get-go that my unintentional tendency to work ever slower, to seek out more subtle nuances and to layer paint more densely would most likely prevail. On occasion, I talk of revamping my approach to painting completely, causing my wife to shudder and remind me as gently as possible that I’m nearly 60 and may not have all the time in the world to reinvent myself.  Hey, Grandma Moses didn’t start painting in earnest until she was 78 years old!  All the same, I’m kind of coming to terms with my deliberate technique.  Although I believe more spontaneous and intuitive painting would be a far more enjoyable experience for me, I can’t deny that the results of my arduous efforts are satisfying.  Most of this piece was conceived and executed while I was still employed, and, though I tried to get up to my studio both days of my weekends, my intentions were often derailed by familial and household responsibilities or on occasion I simply succumbed to mental exhaustion and diddled away a day or two.  Upon retirement, I began withdrawing to my studio for one or two sessions on a daily basis, and the painting progressed more rapidly.  In two and a half months I wrapped up work on the painting, an achievement that most likely would have cost me close to a year if still employed.  After devoting two sessions to touch-up work and corrections, I left the work on my easel to dry for a few weeks before documenting it in digital photographs.

Gerard Wickham - The Card Trick - 2018

I guess to discuss this work it would be best to start at the beginning.

A few years ago my youngest son became interested in developing sleight of hand skills, focusing predominantly on card tricks.  He would read literature and watch videos which provided instruction on executing magic tricks and then practice in his room behind closed doors before surprising me unawares by demonstrating a couple of his recent acquisitions.  He was really quite good, and I would usually have no idea how he pulled off these astonishing tricks even though I stared directly at his hands not daring to blink.  Of course, like a true magician, he refused to share with me the secrets of the tricks, though he would often consent to perform a trick one more time, instructing me, “This time look very closely, Dad.”

Caravaggio -The Cardsharps - 1594
Eventually, this interest waned for him, but not before his activities had sparked in me some thoughts about “magic”.  When a trick is performed, those who are watching are at cross-purposes with themselves.  The audience is present to be amazed, to transcend the ordinary and to surrender to the illusion that the supernatural exists.  It’s what we expect for the price of admission.  At the same time, everyone in the audience is trying mightily to detect how the trick is performed, to expose the deception and to prove the magician a swindler and a cheat.  It seems to me that these opposing inclinations represent two essential impulses in humans: 1) to seek guidance and solace in the spiritual and supernatural, and 2) to apply the intellect to challenge superstitions and achieve a concrete understanding of our world.  Though it was never my intention to present these specific ideas in a pictorial format, I did think that the theme of a card trick was rich enough to merit exploration in a major work at some point in the future.

Because my larger oil paintings require so much time and effort to execute, I usually hesitate before undertaking a new major project.  Since finishing my last large work in 2014, I had painted a number of portraits, executed several woodcuts, watercolors and drawings and spent quite a while locating, organizing and photographing my entire graphic output going back to the 1970s.  But I was essentially resting, biding my time before settling down and tackling a more challenging project.  By the summer of 2016, my “batteries” had been recharged and I was ready to get started.

The larger works always begin with a photo shoot, usually lasting several hours, but even before getting to this stage I’ll devote weeks or even months to kicking around ideas in my head (some visual, some conceptual) and considering who might be available to model and what location would best suit the theme of my painting.  Early on in this process, the thought of addressing a card trick took hold, and it naturally followed that I would use my two youngest sons as models – after all they were the right builds, had the appropriate looks for my conception and were readily available to pose.  As the day of the photo shoot approached I knew what role each of my models would play, had a general idea of how I wanted them to pose and had selected our dining room as the location for the shoot.

So on a gloriously bright Sunday morning, July 10, 2016, my models and I gathered in our dining room from which I had removed all of the regular furnishings, replacing them with a small number of pieces essential to my composition.  I set up two spotlights in the room: one to serve as my primary source of illumination, the other to bounce off the ceiling and wall to provide a subdued reflected light.  Additionally, indirect natural sunlight streamed in though a nearby window.  The room was bathed fairly evenly in a warm, golden light which pleased me greatly since I wasn’t looking for moody, dark shadows or sinister obscured depths.  I described to my sons how I wanted them to pose and the emotional attitude I wanted them to project, and they were able to effectively carry out my instructions.  I took a reasonable number of overall compositional shots, followed up with a great many detail shots.  When we were finished I was very excited about this prospective work.  The photographs were very solid, the lighting was distinctive and the composition was interesting, imposing a strong overall vertical structure partitioned with a multitude of horizontal and vertical repetitions.

With the photos as my guide, I made a number of compositional sketches, arriving incrementally at something satisfactory to me.  I was then able to determine the dimensions of the painting, purchase oversized stretcher strips in Manhattan and in August prepared my canvas.

By November, I had transferred my composition to the canvas, completed my underpainting and was ready to begin painting in earnest.  At this time I was satisfied with the direction the work was taking and the pace at which I was achieving goals.

Wood surfaces of various tonalities, grains and finishes dominate the composition, the faceted panels of the door being the most commanding.  I recognized that how I addressed the door would determine everything else in the painting – flesh tones, contrast, the “temperature” of the work, the scale of illusion desired…everything; therefore I, of course, began my painting by tackling the door.  I spent several weeks depicting the door “illusionistically”, attempting to capture the fine grain and intense coloration of the wood and the obscuring reflections of the powerful lighting I used during my photo shoot.  I ended up with a very convincing door that didn’t contain the hues I wanted and would distract from the essential elements in the work.  I then attempted to tone down the coloration and contrast a bit, repainting several panels in the door, but again was dissatisfied with the results.  With several months of work under my belt, I had little to show for my efforts and had reached a technical impasse.  I’m not sure for how long I stalled, but I eventually determined that it would be best to ignore my photos and simply study wood.  After examining a variety of woods, both raw and stained, I went back to the painting once more, this time selecting the tonalities which made sense to me, envisioning an even, overall lighting that defined form consistently and inventing stylized wood grains for the various panels.  The result was exactly what I was seeking.  I have said over the years that I don’t seek the illusion of reality in my work.  Perhaps if the camera had never been invented that might appeal to me (probably not).  Instead, I hope to achieve a “hyper-realism” that surpasses visual reality and aspires to intensify the viewer’s comprehension of light and substance.

Another deliberate misrepresentation that I fostered in this work was the elimination of the effect that one point perspective would have had on my horizontals and verticals; instead I adhered consistently to a regular grid established for the purpose of transferring my composition to the canvas.  For instance, a low focal point would have caused a tapering of the door’s width as it neared the top of the canvas.  I did not demonstrate this “distortion” and insisted that verticals and horizontals remain parallel.  Contrary to what would be expected, this approach, I believe, asserts a more convincing reality than had I used perspective correctly.

Additionally, because the horizon line is fairly low in the painting, a compression of space results, which gives the composition a slightly dioramic effect, the figures and furniture occupying distinct planes.  In this regard, perspective is somewhat exaggerated with objects closer to the viewer becoming magnified oddly.  This effect contributes to the painting’s suggestion of an “other-reality”.

One of my major interests during my undergraduate years was portraiture, and through regular application I developed the ability to quickly capture a sitter’s likeness with just a few essential lines.  I would sketch my fellow students in my studio art classes and impose on friends and family to pose whenever they were available.  I would even capture accurate likenesses of the models during figure drawing sessions and was often approached by a model between poses with a request for a particularly successful sketch.  I remember with some amusement an incident that occurred during grad school.  At one point, several successive classes were to be devoted to making a figure study of a model in oils.  As was my habit, I labored to accurately record the model’s facial features as well as her body.  During a break while I continued to roughly scrub in the background, the model came up behind me and let out a gasp.  She was shocked at how perfectly I had documented her features.  She requested with some embarrassment that I not include the painting in my semester-end review during which a student had to present a body of work to both the professors and the student body.  She explained that she had promised her boyfriend, a fellow art student, that she would no longer pose nude and knew that if he saw my study the jig would be up.  Of course, I assured her that I would comply with her request.  I never lost this skill, and to this day it’s still important to me to realize a convincing portrait in my figurative compositions.  I am definitely pleased with how well I captured my sons’ features in this painting.

Gerard Wickham - The Card Trick (Detail) - 2018

Gerard Wickham - The Card Trick (Detail) - 2018
Hands are extremely complex and challenging to depict but are also visually fascinating, often resembling distinct organisms with unique personalities and physiques.  I’ve always loved drawing and painting hands, an interest in which this image gave me ample opportunity to indulge myself.  Painting feet is another passion of mine, and, if my intended tableau will rationally allow it, I will always request that my models remove their footwear when posing.

Gerard Wickham - The Card Trick (Detail) - 2018

Gerard Wickham - The Card Trick (Detail) -2018

Gerard Wickham - The Card Trick (Detail) - 2018
During our photo shoot, my son was seated at an inexpensive folding card table that I was just using as a prop, fully intending to replace it in the painting with something more visually interesting later on.  While searching the internet for a suitable prototype, I came across the single image of a substantial and ornate mahogany table.  Even though I understood that recreating the complex design of the legs would be torture, I knew immediately that this was the table I would use in my painting.  I changed its dimensions a bit and redefined its structure to compensate for the image’s lower vantage point.  Then I applied logically the lighting described in the painting, inventing reflections and primary and secondary light sources.  The results are fairly convincing, and the paint handling is consistent with that of the remainder of the work.

My wife made one of her rare visits up to my studio when the painting was about half complete and commented that this work was a companion piece to another painting I executed about eight years ago: Three Tangerines.  Her observations are usually pretty astute, and in this instance she was right on target.  I had been thinking the same thing for some time.  Both paintings describe the subtle interaction of two individuals and explore themes of domination and suspicion.  There is a quiet tension in both works that remains unclarified but suggests a larger narrative.  

Gerard Wickham - Three Tangerines - 2010
Ambiguity is an essential element in my work, but it must be administered at the right dosage.  Too much ambiguity and the painting becomes nonsensical and irrelevant.  Too little and it loses all poetry and becomes illustration.  (By the way, I really do enjoy good illustration, but its most common purpose is to make tangible those images which the word has conjured up yet the mind is incapable of grasping.  Sometimes the reader needs to actually see the bilge of a pirate ship, Martians invading Los Angeles or fur-clad troglodytes fending off a T-Rex with sharpened sticks.  Most often, the illustrator’s job is to make concrete that which is merely evoked, the opposite of what the best fine art strives to accomplish.)  I addressed in an earlier blog entry that as I’ve grown older I have become more interested in presenting subtle nuance and suggestion in my work rather than overtly explicit or disturbing imagery.  At this point ambiguity has become an essential doorway to entice the viewer to engage with my work.  I use the word “doorway” to mean a lure or an incentive to perform further visual or mental exploration of a work and, hopefully, an invitation to extend the experience into the realm of personal invention.

Perhaps I can further demonstrate how ambiguity enhances art by providing an example from literature.  Two authors who address ambiguity in very different ways are Ayn Rand and Dostoyevsky.  Rand abhors ambiguity.  Her characters and plotlines are contrived with the sole purpose of convincing an audience of her personal philosophy, and her novels are therefore illustrative.  Dostoyevsky embraces ambiguity.  He allows his characters to function independently of his own intentions.  I’ve often felt when reading Dostoyevsky that I’m joining the author in studying live organisms under a microscope.  Dostoyevsky provides the sample, the slide and the microscope, but he doesn’t rigidly ordain how those organisms will perform.  Often characters who embrace philosophies contradictory to the author’s own beliefs are extremely sympathetic and assert their viewpoints quite convincingly.  Dostoyevsky creates the paradigm from which he and his readers can examine the human condition in 19th century Russia and draw independent conclusions from that examination.  His novels are all the richer for this approach.

Certainly there are many hooks to pull a viewer into a painting.  Paint handling is a big one for me.  Technical virtuosity will always entice me to study a painting more carefully.  I especially admire artists who apply paint intuitively and impulsively, leaving the process of an image’s construction visible.  An innovative compositional structure will often encourage more thorough consideration from an audience.  Unquestionably, when looking at representational art, subject matter and content will play a key role in determining if a work piques a viewer’s interest.  Perhaps it is ambiguity which sustains that interest.

At any rate, I hope that my seemingly simple image of two young men engaged in some harmless entertainment will inspire some serious consideration and sustained reflection from viewers.  I must admit that I’m relieved to have this work completed.  In my first four months of retired life, it’s important to have gained something… well, at least in addition to the nearly ten pounds which apparently have established residence at my gut.  Big lunches are evidently a very dangerous commodity.

As always, I encourage readers to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at

Please note: I had collected a good number of images and a lot of material with the intention of exploring how ambiguity functions in the work of a selection of well-known artists.  But as I was writing this blog entry, I realized it was running a bit long and needed to come to a merciful conclusion.  So you can anticipate a Part II to this entry topic in the near future.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Entry - 12.9.17

"One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important."
                                                            - Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

I’ve been pissing off a lot of people lately – even more so than usual.  It seems that when folk learn of my approaching early retirement they experience an intense emotional reaction.  Now I won’t deny that many an acquaintance had congratulated me heartily, expressing only goodwill and hope for a successful transition into a new phase of life.  But then there are the others who cannot believe that anyone in this day and age could possibly bow out of the daily grind without suffering a catastrophic financial calamity – that the worker who can expect a decent pension at retirement is not yet extinct, stuffed and displayed for posterity in a natural history museum.  I certainly can understand the anger and resentment.  In the last decade or two the American worker has been stripped of most benefits, a livable pension being one of the first to be taken away.  The vast majority of pension holders today are public workers: policemen, firemen, teachers and federal, state and city workers, and the general public is hopping mad and itching to put an end to this exorbitant benefit.  It is indicative of how successful the moneyed powers in this country have been in controlling the dialogue on this issue that most people are hankering to take away pensions from public workers instead of questioning why this benefit was taken away from them – that their anger is directed at bus drivers and kindergarten teachers rather than the fat cats who have watched their wealth increase spectacularly over the last half century.  But Americans have always been easy prey for manipulation, whether the motive is to get us behind a war, fear communism, reject unions, distrust foreigners, hold the poor in contempt or shaft government employees, we are ready and willing to swallow the rhetoric hook, line and sinker.  But my intention here is not to complain, and I’m certainly not feeling sorry for myself.  That would be ludicrous.

Edward Hopper - Office at Night - 1940

Edward Hopper - Office in a Small City -1953

My working life has been a bit of an enigma to me.  As I stated in an earlier blog entry, I sort of tumbled into my “career”.  Having just left Grad School with a Masters of Fine Art, I expected to put my degree to use getting established in an NYC gallery but also recognized that I would need some kind of gainful employment to pay the bills.  I was lucky enough to find decently paying office work at a government agency located in Manhattan.  The environment was relaxed, and the work wasn’t too taxing.  Over a couple of years, my role as a carefree, part-time, paid-by-the-hour office clerk evolved into a full-time, salaried position with tangible responsibilities.  Initially, I saw myself as an artist who happened to be working in an office.  It pains me to admit this, but I looked upon a good many of my fellow employees with some distain, finding them, though for the most part well educated and professionally skilled, lacking in intellectual curiosity and cultural awareness.  Over the years, my perspective changed.  Identity can be established through conscious effort and persistent struggle, and I suppose for many years I resisted surrendering my “self-definition” as an artist.  Throughout my working life, I never stopped producing art, though I must confess that my efforts to promote my work have been ineffectual and intermittent.  Yet, while continuing to generate what I hope is quality work and evolve as an artist, while further educating myself through serious reading and attending exhibitions, I was experiencing a slow and subtle identity shift.  With time, my income generating work became more complex and challenging.  More responsibility was put on my shoulders, and I was given a small staff to supervise.  Often while away from the office, I found myself mentally addressing work issues or developing a strategy for completing a project or meeting a deadline.  I became thoroughly indoctrinated into a cyclical pattern of annual duties, a summer vacation and some time off at the holidays being my only welcome respite from the work routine.  Traveling twenty hours by train each week, I became one of a pack of regular commuters who knew each other’s scents and habits.  And I learned, regardless of cultural or intellectual preconceptions, to respect many of my fellow workers who were very industrious and committed to making things work and often displayed a surprisingly thorough understanding of how our Agency functioned extending far beyond the scope of their immediate responsibilities.

Gustave Caillebotte - The Floor Scrapers - 1876

Edgar Degas - Two Laundresses - 1884
Look, I recognize that we wear many hats as we pass through our lives.  Our identities shift and evolve with time.  But spanning over a period of thirty plus years, my work experience inevitably became an essential component of my conception of myself.  So when my working life comes to an end, I will have to reinvent myself to some degree.

Diego Rivera - The Flower Seller - 1942

Jacob Lawrence - Ironers -1943
I’m going to digress a bit here.  About forty years ago, my grandmother offered to bring her two daughters with her to tour and visit family in Germany, but my mother was resistant.  Except for a few years of part-time employment at a local elementary school, she had always been a stay-at-home mom, caring for her sizeable family and maintaining the household.  Despite our efforts to encourage her to take advantage of this opportunity, she consistently refused, asserting that she was too busy to spend a few weeks traveling in Europe.  One weekend, my father’s sister was visiting us, and at the dinner table the topic of the pending trip to Germany came up.  My aunt, who was single and had traveled in Europe many times, forcefully pressured my mother to make the journey.  “But who will take care of the children?” she objected.  “We’ll take care of ourselves,” we responded; after all, we were all in our teens and fairly independent.  “What about your father?” she asked us.  “We’ll take care of him too!” we replied.  Tears welled up in her eyes, and she sobbed “You don’t need me anymore!”  This provoked an explosion of laughter from us children.  At the time, we found my mother’s emotional outburst to be hilarious, but in truth a very serious transition was occurring.  Her family was maturing.  The two oldest worked and attended college.  All four of us children were very self-reliant, starting our day before my mother was out of bed, maintaining good grades and meeting our various school objectives without parental oversight, doing our own laundry and tackling the lion’s share of routine chores both inside and outside the house.  Of course, our family structure had been changing for some time, but it took the potentiality of an extended trip overseas to force my mother to recognize and acknowledge that change.  Her identity was in effect being stripped from her, perhaps one of the most stressful occurrences an individual can endure.  We children might have been more sympathetic, but, at the time, we saw her objections as frivolous and really worked to encourage her to seize this opportunity.  Fortunately my mother did agree to make this journey and, I believe, benefited greatly from the experience.

Edouard Manet - Road Workers, Rue de Berne - 1878

Vincent Van Gogh - Weaver - 1884
So my mother faced and I am facing the same challenge which is to reinvent oneself after many years of consistently playing a life-defining role.  I can say from experience that just approaching this transition has been surprisingly stressful for me.  For months now I have been quietly dismantling my old existence centered on my NYC-based employment and establishing a primary presence at my home residence.  I’ve been amazed at how many independent and intricate tasks have got to be effected and coordinated to make this happen and how many critical decisions have to be made.  Also I have attempted to extricate myself from my office workload gracefully, closing out all of my projects and training staff to take over my responsibilities before my final exit.  At this stage in the game, that’s looking like a pipe dream.

George Segal - The Commuters - 1980

John Seward Johnson - Allow Me - 1983
I’m hoping that once my retirement becomes a fait accompli I will decompress a bit, shuffle about the house for a spell and then take stock of my situation, organizing a reasonably productive existence for myself.  I have about a million “deferred maintenance” jobs to tackle around the ol’ homestead, and my mastery of the German language has never progressed beyond the rudimentary.  I intend to get very serious about my photography and fully master the multitude of modes and features available on my Digital SLR.  And luckily the Hudson Valley is home to an abundance of fantastic hiking trails.  I’ll be donning my lightweight boots and UV protection hat, stocking my backpack with water bottles and granola bars, taking my walking sticks in hand and hitting the trails.  Most importantly, I expect to become totally focused on my artwork – executing paintings somewhat more efficiently than at my current snail’s pace, attending life drawing classes on a weekly basis and finding a local venue at which I can pursue my nascent interest in etching.

Duane Hanson - Queenie II - 1988

Jean Francois Millet - The Wood Sawyers - 1852
I’m really not sure what will transpire.  I must admit that I have an unfortunate tendency to seek the path of least resistance, to hunker down in a comfortable rut until hell freezes over.  I mean if I were Odysseus, The Odyssey would have only one chapter: Odysseus ends up stranded on the isle of Ogygia with the bewitching nymph Calypso – he finds the situation very satisfactory and stays there.  End of story.  Hopefully at this time I can resist the lure of low hanging fruit and push myself to achieve some long neglected yet very significant goals.  Only time will tell.

Ben Shahn - Unemployed - 1938

Kathe Kollwitz - Weavers Revolt March - 1897
As always, I encourage readers to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Entry - 10.29.17

I don’t know if you saw that the American poet John Ashbery passed away at the age of ninety this past September.  I took note of his passing not because I am familiar with his poetry but because I was aware of his association with Fairfield Porter, an artist whom I admire very much.  The two were friends.  Ashbery had written a number of pieces in defense of Porter’s art.  In fact, Porter had painted the poet’s portrait on several occasions.  After learning of Ashbery’s death on a newsfeed, I performed a quick google search and found two competent portraits of him by Porter.

Fairfield Porter - Argyle Socks - 1952

Fairfield Porter - Man Seated Near Lamp - n.d.
These are early works by Porter, before he lightened his palette and sought greater tonal verisimilitude, but, as with all of Porter’s work, they strive to express a relaxed, informal take on reality.  And regardless of their vintage, all of Porter’s paintings document his persistent interest in the properties of paint.

Within a few of my previous blogs, I’ve mentioned Porter and included the occasional image of one of his paintings, and a number of readers have responded that they were unfamiliar with his work.  At first, I was surprised to learn this, but, upon further consideration, I recognized that I shouldn’t have been.  Porter was not at the forefront of any movement.  His subject matter was personal; his work was not controversial.  Inevitably, the sieve of time tends to surrender artists like Porter to anonymity and retain in its mesh solely the major players, those who have altered the course of art history.  It’s really unfortunate because Porter was truly an exceptional artist and his work captures so convincingly a specific time and atmosphere – which, by the way, I may be particularly receptive to having grown up on the south shore of Long Island in the 1960’s and 70’s.  I thought it might be a good idea to devote a blog entry to this remarkable, thoroughly independent artist.  

Porter was born in Illinois in 1907, the fourth child of a family of five.  His family, with a long and impressive pedigree in the United States, was wealthy and educated, accustomed to influencing politics and fully engaged in the cultural life of the nation.  Several trips to the continent provided an introduction to contemporary European art, in addition to offering the opportunity to make the acquaintance of several influential artists and art historians.  He studied art history at Harvard University before deciding that he wanted to be an artist himself and going on to study technique at the Arts students’ League in New York City under Thomas Hart Benton and Boardman Robinson.  Initially, influenced by the Social Realist movement predominant in the 1930’s, Porter attempted to create socially responsible work but eventually fell under the sway of the French Nabis - Edouard Vuillard, in particular.  In his early work, he retained the somber and restricted palette of the Social Realists and Vuillard, as in Argyle Socks and Tibor de Nagy, although already displaying a predilection for relaxed, informal subjects executed in a loose, painterly style.

Fairfield Porter - Penny - 1962

Fairfield Porter - Maine Landscape - 1955

Fairfield Porter - Portrait of James Schuyler - 1955

Fairfield Porter - Portrait of Tibor de Nagy - 1958
Porter married the poet Anne Channing with whom he fathered five children.  It was during the years that the Porters were raising their family that Fairfield really matured as an artist.  While not participating in the movement, he associated with the Abstract Expressionists and, in the art criticism he wrote for the Partisan Review and Art News, defended this new and radical form of visual representation.  Porter especially admired Willem de Kooning, and under his influence and that of Pierre Bonnard, his palette lightened and his paint handling became more fluid.  From 1952 to 1970, he exhibited his work at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, most years having a solo show.

Because of his family’s wealth, Porter was able to pursue his intellectual activities in unquestionable comfort.  While providing the ideal incubator in which to nurture his art, this affluence did not come without its drawbacks.  Porter was often looked upon as a dilettante dabbling in the arts by his less fortunate comrades who relied on government assistance during the Depression years and steadfastly participated in an artistic movement so radical that public acceptance and economic security seemed unattainable.

Porter chose desirable locations in which to create his art and raise his growing family.  After his mother’s death in 1946, he took possession of his parents’ summer house on Great Spruce Head Island off the coast of Maine, most years passing the summer months there with his family.

Porter lovingly recorded the interior of the house which was designed by his father.

Fairfield Porter - Interior with Dress Pattern - 1969

Fairfield Porter - A Day Indoors - 1962
Additionally, in 1949 Porter purchased a large, nineteenth-century house in Southampton on the south shore of Long Island.

The vast majority of Porter’s oeuvre was created at and around these two locations.  Porter documented the structures in which he lived, their interiors and exteriors, the views from their windows and yards.  At times, he left his property to explore its environs: small town streets, weathered harbors, woodland paths and immaculate beaches.  And always at these homes, he chose to record his family: his wife reading, napping or breastfeeding their daughter, a baby secured in a highchair, his son practicing piano or typing on a typewriter, his daughter strumming a guitar in front of a Christmas tree and different combinations of family members posing patiently for him.  The viewer can’t help but interpret these glimpses into the artist’s personal life as idyllic.  The children are dressed conservatively – their appearance casual and contemporary but not provocative or edgy.  They exude normalcy.

Fairfield Porter - Elizabeth in a Red Chair - 1961

Fairfield Porter - Jane and Elizabeth - 1967

Fairfield Porter - Lizzie at the Table - 1958

Fairfield Porter - The Mirror - 1966

In his many self-portraits, Porter depicts himself attired in the modern mode, casually but affluently, his mop of hair proclaiming his sympathies with the radical youth movements of the era without committing to an extreme appearance that would alienate his more conservative, moneyed neighbors.

Fairfield Porter - Self Portrait in the Studio - 1968

Fairfield Porter - Self Portrait - 1968

Fairfield Porter - Self Portrait - 1972
The homes they inhabit are spacious, furnished tastefully and located close to the ocean.  Porter records leisure activities, tennis games, afternoon naps, social occasions, holidays and the remains of sumptuous meals.  His paintings attest to an enviable life – one exemplified by family harmony, a surfeit of resources, freedom from routine labor and access to regular intellectual stimulation.  Of course, reality was far more complicated.  Porter was bisexual and pursued relationships with men and women throughout his marriage.  But the paintings project what Porter wanted us to see.  The facets of his life which he presents to us offer comfort, reassurance and an impression of well-being.

Porter painted the people around him: his wife, his children, visitors to his home and fellow artists.  In Porter’s portraits, you are always aware of the presence of the painter, of the relationship between model and artist.  Many times, Porter is seen reflected in a mirror or glass behind his model.  Often artists seek to eliminate any evidence of their presence in their portraits so that the personality of the sitter can resonate unhindered in their paintings.  Not so with Porter.  His subjects are clearly sitting for portraits, waiting for the tedium to end, waiting to be free to move about and return to their normal activities.  There is often the haphazard feel of a snapshot to Porter’s portraits.  The artist’s current location determines the painting’s background.  The sitter’s wardrobe or the objects surrounding him or her offer no interpretable clue as to the artist’s perception or assessment of his model.  The features of the sitter are commonly blank and relaxed, Porter being far more interested in the play of light on form than the personal dramas unfolding in the features of his sitters.  In many paintings, countenances are generalized, masking individuality and projecting a shared anonymity.

Fairfield Porter - John MacWhinnie - 1972

Fairfield Porter - Portrait of Nancy Porter Straus - 1973
By the way, Porter clearly struggled with figure painting throughout his career.  There are many examples within his oeuvre of perfectly executed portraits or figure paintings, but just as many awkward failures can be found.  I find this appealing.  Evidence of the effort to master one’s craft interests me far more than flawless gems.

Porter regularly painted still lifes, and, as with his portraits, he preferred informal and unarranged subjects.  Often he chose to depict the remains of a meal left on a table, plates and bowls piled up or scattered about, bathed in a light filtered through nearby windows.  Clearly in these works he was influenced by Pierre Bonnard, who often recorded family members enjoying meals or simple table settings awaiting soon to arrive diners.

Pierre Bonnard - The Checkered Tablecloth - 1916
But Porter brings a more modern, American sensibility to his subject matter.  His table tops are crowded harum-scarum with a host of items, abandoned in chaotic disarray, boxes and containers of brand name goods, their bold and colorful labeling clearly visible, interspersed amidst the crockery and flatware.

Fairfield Porter - Field Flowers, Fruit and Dishes - 1974

Fairfield Porter - Pink Table Top - 1970

Fairfield Porter - Still Life with Casserole - 1955

Fairfield Porter - Still Life - 1975

More than any other subject matter, Porter produced landscapes, and most commonly he chose to record locations that normally wouldn’t merit the attention of an artist.  For instance, he painted hazy ocean views of low-lying islands, commonplace pine trees huddled beside a hillside path, a strip of highway tracing the line of a beach dotted with occasional rundown houses.  Porter liked to paint on location and used his family homes as bases from which to venture forth into nature.  During his frequent visits to Manhattan, he also now and then painted cityscapes, and in Maine and on Long Island he captured views of small towns, knots of suburban homes, local business fronts and marinas.  As with other genres, Porter simply recorded what was around him, what was available.

Fairfield Porter - A View from the Coast - n.d.

Fairfield Porter - Armchair on Porch - 1955

Fairfield Porter - Bear Island with Attendant Clouds - 1974

Fairfield Porter - Calverton - 1954

Fairfield Porter - Fallow Field - 1972

Fairfield Porter - Island Farmhouse - 1974

Fairfield Porter - Islands - 1968

Fairfield Porter - July - 1971

Fairfield Porter - Lobster Boat Morning - 1970

Fairfield Porter - Peak Island and Lobster Boat - 1968

Fairfield Porter - Southampton Backyards - 1954

Fairfield Porter - Sunrise on South Main Street - 1973

Fairfield Porter - Sunset Southampton - 1967

Fairfield Porter - The Cove - 1964

Fairfield Porter - The Horse in the Meadow - 1968

Fairfield Porter - The Porch - 1962

Fairfield Porter - Union Square, Looking Up Park Avenue - 1975

Fairfield Porter - View Across the Barred Island - 1968
There are several reasons why I am attracted to Porter’s work.  I appreciate that Porter was an “original”, an artist who painted what he wanted to paint regardless of how critics or the public regarded his work.  Porter associated with many of the Abstract Expressionists early in their careers.  Though clearly a representational artist, he did not become enmeshed in the unproductive pissing war between proponents of representational and abstract art.  He understood and valued the efforts of the Abstract Expressionists.  He wrote art criticism in defense of their work.  And, though under their influence he lightened his palette, embraced bold fields of pure color and used paint more intuitively and creatively, he never joined the movement – never reaped the intellectual and monetary rewards of being in the forefront of a revolution that achieved great critical and commercial success.  He certainly would have been excused for a change in direction which most likely could have been interpreted as a natural extension of his artistic development, but Porter was an inveterate outsider, painting the subjects that appealed to him regardless of the draw of critical acclaim and celebrity status.

And while Porter was adopting the broader and more energetic brushwork emblematic of the Expressionists, he was also learning to see properly.  He abandoned the restricted palette of the Social Realists and began to accurately document color, atmosphere and light.  I cannot think of many other artists who so successfully conveyed a sense of specific time and place in their landscapes.  In Porter’s work, we can literally see the air that fills the void between artist and subject, the golden halo that traces backlit form.  In his Long Island landscapes, Porter captures the ever-present haze that bleaches out tonality and restricts the range of lights and darks.  In Maine, he became absorbed with how light reflects off the water, how crowds of evergreens form generalized masses of shadow and light.  When tackling portraits or still lifes indoors, he commonly differentiates between artificial and natural lighting, recording the reflections imposed on his subject by the intense wash of sunlight intruding upon a shadowed realm through windows, screened porches and skylights.

Porter was interested in exploring reality – not piercing reality to expose its core; he was satisfied with documenting reality’s skin.  He chose to record what was around him, what was readily available and, in doing so, struggled to ever see more, to understand how light and atmosphere impact on form and to use paint sensibly and organically to convey a specific reality.  Over the years, he developed a technique of painterly shorthand to rapidly and concisely “process” his subject matter.  In spite of his distancing himself from his subject matter, Porter captures the ordinary, daily happenings of a maturing family’s existence in the 1960’s and 70’s and surprisingly expresses powerfully the spirit of the age in which he lived.  In eschewing contrivance and esotericism, he has achieved a deeper connection with the zeitgeist of that time.

There is a deceptive ease about Porter’s work.  In his portraits, his sitters don’t wear formal attire; they pose in their everyday clothes: jeans, corduroys, flannel shirts, sneakers, t-shirts, slippers, sweaters and tennis shorts.  Sometimes he records activities like piano practice, reading or napping, but most commonly his subject is simply set in the canvas’ center, posed naturally and looking back at the artist.  I’ve read that Porter never directed his sitter to take a specific pose, that he allowed him or her to settle into a comfortable position and worked with that.  His still lifes certainly don’t appear contrived at all.  In his landscapes, he managed to elevate the ordinary, the overlooked and the un-scenic into something extraordinary.  Take one of my favorite Porter paintings, Amherst Campus No. 1, for example.

Fairfield Porter - Amherst Campus No. 1 - 1969
Porter has chosen to document a view from a window of the corner of a campus parking lot.  A cluster of cars are gathered on the asphalt.  One figure in a suit traverses the field beyond the lot.  It is clearly autumn – my guess, late October and the start of the academic year.  The foliage has begun to change; the grass is dry and worn from foot traffic.  The sky is nearly cloudless.  The light is golden as if filtered through a yellow veil.  The moment is utterly prosaic – a scene that could have been witnessed by a professor or student from that upper story window on any fall day.  The composition seems arbitrary, unplanned and instantaneous as though determined by a momentary glance through an available window.  Porter doesn’t labor over his painting either.  He seizes generalities, blocking in shapes and trafficking in overall tonalities.  But regardless of all of Porter’s flippancy, the composition holds together very well and his paint handling is compelling.  In fact, the image packs a powerful emotional charge stimulating waves of nostalgia relating to the scenic beauty of a specific season in New England, the peaceful routine of academic life in America and the heightened sense of loss we experience when granted a fleeting glimpse into a time gone by.  Porter felt very strongly that art should not be labored, calculated and precious, that instinct and honesty mattered most in painting.

“Order seems to come from searching for disorder, and awkwardness from searching for harmony or likeness, or the following of a system.  The truest order is what you already find there, or that will be given if you don’t try for it.  When you arrange, you fail.”

“The profoundest order is revealed in what is most casual.”
                                                                                              Fairfield Porter

Fairfield Porter died of a massive coronary while out walking his dog in Southampton in September 1975.  He was 68 years old.

I’ll end with a few photographs of Porter that I came across on the internet while researching this entry.  As always, I encourage readers to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at