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

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