Fairfield Porter, Classic Modernist

Published by Chris Engler on

In late 1986 I attended a lecture by a well-known critic. His topic was the depiction of the self in contemporary art. An enthusiast of the then au courant Neo-Expressionism, he used works by artists such as Francesco Clemente, Eric Fischl and David Salle to argue that contemporary social ills made any kind of whole or wholesome selfhood problematic. Given this premise, the Neo-Expressionist penchant for distortion and disturbance was seen as honest realism, and anything else was either escapism or visual hypocrisy. In the question and answer period that followed I asked him how he would assess Fairfield Porter. He stated with audible contempt that Porter was another Norman Rockwell. It is one of the ironies of critical taste that Rockwell, who was so thoroughly reviled by modern artists and critics, was given an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in late 2001 and early 2002.

Fairfield Porter, Katie and Anne, 1955
Courtesy Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum
and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

It takes a stunning lack of critical discernment or perhaps rigid ideological blinders to compare Porter to Rockwell. After all, Porter was an insider in the world of post-war New York modernism, the very world that recoiled from Rockwell. He was the first person to write about Willem de Kooning. In his role as a critic, first for Art News and then for The Nation, he wrote discerning and appreciative essays about modern artists as diverse as Joseph Cornell, Isamu Noguchi and Wolf Kahn. In his paintings, Porter exhibited a preference for the formal qualities associated with canonical modernism: the tactile viscosity of paint, relatively flat and simple shapes within the picture plane and the use of color relationships instead of tonality to establish space, atmosphere and emotional resonance.

Porter’s own critical fortunes have never had the dramatic reversal of Rockwell’s. He matured slowly and painfully as an artist, and had his first solo exhibition in 1952, when he was 44 years old. His work always had an appreciative audience among some artists and critics, and an ever-widening circle of collectors and art lovers since his death in 1975. Yet at the time of his first exhibition, one reviewer found the work had “too much taste and charm … and also slickness, a suggestion of the magazine illustration.”1 What that critic in 1952 and the critic I heard in 1986 have in common is a dislike of Porter’s commitment to observation and representation. No doubt they preferred the darker and more troubling strains of modernity, running from Goya through Munch to Bacon and beyond. They also may have been put off by the fact that one can enjoy a Porter painting for what it is and what it evokes, without first having to master the arcana of current critical theory.

For some people, Porter’s art seems too nice, too easy, too aligned with suburban bourgeois taste. Porter evidently loves the things in front of him too much to be thoroughly modern. He was not trying to challenge anyone artistically by his choice of subject matter, which was drawn from his immediate visual surroundings—family, friends, home, neighborhood and the vistas afforded by Lower Manhattan, Eastern Long Island and his family’s summer home on Great Spruce Head Island, Maine. From his first show, when Porter thought he might be perceived as “academic,”2 to his last years, when he remarked that “museums have determined that I am not a significant painter” and “…decided that my work is not really any good,”3 Porter struggled with being dismissed as an artistic conservative.

The word classic has been applied to Porter’s work on several occasions, notably in Hilton Kramer’s 1983 essay, “Fairfield Porter: An American Classic,” written in response to the only posthumous Porter retrospective, which was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.4 There is something quintessential, some distilled presence in Porter’s seemingly casual and immediate observations that transcends their moment. While very different in spirit and approach, Porter’s work shares an alertness in the visible world and a devotion to sensory experience that I associate with the best American painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. No doubt this would displease Porter, who generally didn’t like American art.

Yet the “classic” in Porter seems unrelated to the classical subjects and passionate recovery of academic and historic technique that are popular today. For all of his conservatism, when compared to his contemporaries, Porter doesn’t seem very indebted to the long, complex lineage of Western art. It is easy enough to see Porter’s relationship to Impressionism or, in a painting like Katie and Anne (1955), his love of Édouard Vuillard. He saw in Vuillard a fusion of means and ends, so that the artwork was not a translation of an artist’s ideas and experiences, but a whole thing undivided.5 But influences further back than the nineteenth century are less apparent.

Fairfield Porter, The Mirror, 1966
Courtesy The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Kansas City, Missouri

The reality of Porter’s art is more complex than its appearances, both in terms of the artists Porter studied, and in the reflective intelligence that surrounded his painting life. Porter was brought up in a home that valued the arts, and his father had casts of Greek friezes and photographic reproductions of Renaissance paintings throughout the home he built on the shore of Lake Michigan. Porter became well acquainted with the old masters in his formal education at Harvard in the mid-1920s and his subsequent personal studies. Two years after graduating, he spent most of a year abroad in Italy studying, copying and rhapsodizing over Giotto, Piero della Francesca and Rubens. He visited Bernard Berenson, who in response to Porter’s admiration for Tintoretto and Rubens told him: “Yes, I know what you mean, but the best painter of all is really Veronese, or Velázquez.”6 Velázquez’s influence is particularly obvious in Porter’s The Mirror (1966); the relationships of sitter, painter, and viewer are similar to Velázquez’s great Las Meninas. In his 1967 painting Anne in a Striped Dress, which won a prize at the National Academy in 1971, Porter’s interest in Velázquez (and Leonardo) is seen in reproductions—or perhaps copies—on the studio wall. In a 1968 interview with Paul Cummings, Porter said he liked Velázquez better than any other painter, admiring his liquid paint surface, and the sense that he didn’t impose himself on his subjects, or manipulate them: “He leaves things alone.”7

Porter studied with Thomas Hart Benton and Boardman Robinson at the Art Students League, but felt he didn’t learn anything about painting from them. After the war, Porter studied with Jacques Maroger, who had been a restorer at the Louvre and introduced him to a medium of beeswax, linseed oil and lead carbonate which he claimed had been used by the old masters, that had a wonderful luster and allowed for great flexibility in reworking painted areas. Porter used it for most of his life. During this time, he had a few lessons with the French painter van Houten, who remarked on Porter’s ability to paint light.8

Porter had become friends with Willem de Kooning sometime before 1940, bought his work and supported him critically. He envied de Kooning’s formal training as an artist9 and acknowledged that he learned a lot from him.10 The influence of de Kooning’s bravura paint handling technique is particularly obvious in Porter’s land- and seascapes, which may have afforded him more leeway for broad, painterly responses to the experience of his subject. Porter’s Calm Morning (1961) and The Beginning of the Fields (1973) resonate with the quick liquid notation of de Kooning. Both paintings also exhibit Porter’s sensitivity to the way nuances of color are sensate indicators of time, season, temperature and atmosphere. The change in paint transparency, brushstroke and movement from a grey tinged with pink in the water to an equal-value grey with hints of white and blue in the sky of Calm Morning is Porter at his most poetic.

As he matured, Porter’s ideas about what art does changed a great deal. He had, like so many artists of his era, been deeply influenced by a Socialist vision of art as an instrument of change. While at Harvard, he went to Russia and met with and sketched Trotsky. Throughout the 1930s Porter worked on projects inspired by progressive and leftist politics. But very little of that work exists, and while Porter’s politics remained relatively progressive throughout his life, he grew increasingly critical of the political in art. In his review of the controversial “New Images of Man” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959, Porter criticized the idea that disquieting imagery made for significance in art: “The violent image of man has the purpose of making a creation acceptable to critics, it gives an easy subject matter to critical writing, for these paintings and sculptures seem to mean something profound in proportion to the amount of distortion and the violence of their appearance….”11

For Porter, ultimately, the experience of art was its own justification, and he repeatedly criticized the interpretation or defense of art through appeals to history, sociology or philosophical ideas. Porter’s art and his view of what art does best might be called poetic. He himself wrote poetry, and many of his friends—Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler and John Ashbery—were accomplished poets. Porter admired Stéphane Mallarmé, who had been friends with Vuillard, and translated some of Mallarmé’s poetry, which taught him the limitations of equivalency. He believed that in translation one can only approximate a work of art, for there is no idea or core underneath the form that can be abstracted and effectively represented through a different medium. The art work is its own best representation.12

Porter’s commitment to the objecthood of the artwork was not related to the reductive materiality in some strains of Minimalism, such as Frank Stella’s or Donald Judd’s in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Porter was tenaciously representational in an age of aggressive, triumphalist abstraction. He told Paul Cummings that he might have become an abstract painter had it not been for hearing Clement Greenberg assert that one couldn’t paint figuratively “nowadays.” He thought “who the hell is he to say that?” and “… I think I will do exactly what he says I can’t do.”13 In reality, Porter’s preference for representation was considered and deliberate, and not simply contrarian. For all of his admiration of de Kooning, he found abstraction insufficient in its particularity. Representation allows for specific responses to this person, this experience at this moment, in this place. Particularity was part of the poetic sensibility he found in Mallarmé and Vuillard. Poetic evocation came from attentiveness to the thing itself, with a corresponding willingness to seek order within that moment, rather than impose it from pre-existing concepts of composition or significance. Justin Spring suggests that, for Porter, the poetic evocation of the artist’s experience constituted a kind of “nonreligious spiritual awareness.”14 Interestingly, Rackstraw Downes relates Porter’s poetics to the “inscape” of the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose work was consciously religious.15

Many people have commented on the “awkwardness” of Porter’s work. Some of the awkardness may be accounted for by the singular nature of his aesthetic ambition. The devotion to a subject’s unique moment can produce the painterly sense of the splendor of a thing, which I find in a painting such as Plane Tree (1973). Here the tree is bodying forth, in the clear cool light of early spring with all of its new life, tender and mutable. But Porter’s artistic procedure was risky, and he judged many of his efforts to be failures, even building a special incinerator for the purpose of destroying bad paintings. He did, however, save paintings that had characteristics he cherished, even if the work as a whole was not entirely consistent. Porter’s standards for finished work, as for the act of painting, considered a thing for its uniqueness, and not for its ability to fulfill some generalized aesthetic.16

It is this quality of crafting a personal, intuitive response within conventional representational means that characterizes Porter’s modernity. And that modernity blurs our awareness of the historic tradition that Porter learned from and admired, even as we sense his connectedness and feel him to be classic. Of course, many modern artists have used the historic works of Western art as sources, references or material for their own ends. Picasso chewed his way through Rembrandt, Velázquez, Poussin and the Greeks, as grist for his powerful artistic mill. Porter’s use of older art seems to be more respectful of the art as it exists and less opportunistic. This is entirely consistent with his desire to take something on its own terms, to leave it alone even as he responds to it. The artists Porter loved tended to inspire a holistic sensibility, rather than providing recognizable bits and pieces for a compositional puzzle. He wasn’t interested in stripmining the past for solutions to his painterly problems.

In 1967 Porter took his wife and two daughters to Europe, his first trip back since his studies in the early 1930s, visiting Naples, Rome, Orvieto, Florence and Venice. Towards the end of an exhilarating and exhausting trip, he wrote to James Schuyler: “I will be glad to get home and back to painting. But Italian art and architecture reduce all of the Avant Garde from Picasso on to a rather smallish bubble. Which does not in any way elevate the rear guard. There is no answer, if you know what I mean.”17 This enigmatic aside is revealing. On the one hand, Porter seems to admit to the superiority of the old masters (or at least the Italian ones) in comparison to the modern movement of which he was a strong—albeit independent—partisan. On the other hand, he believed that the attempts by traditionalists to return to the past were untenable. The position is consistent with the way Porter wrote about artistic traditionalists on several occasions. He did not see the art of the past as an ideal to return to but thought of tradition as organic. He began one essay with the assertion that tradition is “incarnate,” giving the example of “Poussin who transmitted Italian form to France ….”18 This view of tradition seems similar to that of his cousin, the poet T.S. Eliot, in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” who described the complex relations between earlier artworks and the innovations of living artists.

Porter’s aesthetic ideas were not conceived in isolation, but were part of a larger outlook. Porter had studied with the influential mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead at Harvard, and Whitehead’s philosophy continued to play a role in Porter’s thought until the end of his life. Whitehead, and through Whitehead, Hume, instilled in Porter a distrust of generalized knowledge that either obscured or sought to control the vagaries of lived experience.19 Porter ruminated on this theme in several versions of an essay (and lecture) that preoccupied him in the last decade of his life. He, like many people in the 1960s, grew alarmed over environmental degradation and potential nuclear annihilation, which he felt stemmed from a scientific quest to control nature and human affairs. Speaking at Yale in 1975, he argued: “As long as we remain dominated by the illusion that the general is truer than the particular, and by organizations which society uses to protect its interests against the individual, we will, to our very great peril, even to the peril of our lives, become more and more separated from the inexplicable and immeasurable world of matters of fact.”20 He went on to assert that the slow, limited, pluralist, and contingent way of knowing practiced by artists offered a haven from—and a way out of—threatening scientific depredations.

It is worth mentioning Porter’s broader philosophic stance because, first, it demonstrates the scope and depth of his intellectual work, which is belied by the apparent ease and accessibility of his paintings. Secondly, it suggests, although it does not prove, that he was predisposed to think that the past was genuinely shut off from us. Porter was conditioned by the scientific and empirical emphases of modernity. The past was past not only by its chronological position, but also because a great cognitive and perceptual gulf lay between twentieth-century reality and the reality of the Italian Renaissance. Against the vast generalizing enterprise of modern scientific culture, Porter proposed a modern solution, in the authentically lived individual life. If he had really turned his attention to the old masters’ ideas, no doubt he would have found a lot to criticize in their dedication to the knowledge of general types found within the particularities of an individual subject. But the core of his problem with the past was rooted in the Enlightenment critique of old universal verities, and his solution was found in the autonomous Enlightenment individual. This raises a third point. If one looks at the growing amount, and to a lesser degree quality, of contemporary art obviously dedicated to the recovery of the past, both in technique and content, one may conclude that Porter and a host of other twentieth-century artists were wrong. The artistic past is apparently alive and well, if not always given its due by the artistic mainstream, which continues to perpetuate modernist values. There is good work to admire and enjoy in this revival.

But some of what gives Porter his poignancy as an artist is that his art was part of a larger view. He desired to live wholly, even if that whole was circumscribed by more doubt than we find in many premodern lives. I wonder about the roots of the contemporary movement indebted to the look of the past. Is today’s rear guard adopting an isolated aesthetic, unencumbered by the questions about the past raised by Porter and his contemporaries? Or, are we witnessing a fundamental shift in the tectonic plates below the visible surface of culture?

American Arts Quarterly, Volume 22, number 1.

  1. Justin Spring, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 193.
  2. Ibid., p. 192.
  3. Ibid., pp. 321 and 335.
  4. In a 1983 essay, Kramer, an early and influential supporter, describes Porter’s knowledge of and admiration for the old masters as being one of the formative elements in his aesthetic. See Kramer’s The Revenge of the Philistines: Art and Culture 1972–84 (New York: Free Press, 1985), pp. 157–67.
  5. Fairfield Porter, “Abstract Expressionism and Landscape,” Art in Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism 1935–75, edited by Rackstraw Downes (Cambridge: Zoland Books, 1979), p. 111.
  6. Spring, op. cit., p. 66.
  7. Paul Cummings, in Fairfield Porter: Realist Painter in An Age of Abstraction, edited by Kenworth Moffett (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1982), pp. 49–51.
  8. John Spike, Fairfield Porter: An American Classic (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1992), pp. 77–79.
  9. Spring, op. cit., p. 155.
  10. Cummings, op. cit., p. 56.
  11. Fairfield Porter, “New Images of Man,” 1959, Downes, op. cit., p. 61.
  12. Spring, op. cit., pp. 200–02.
  13. Cummings, op. cit., p. 56.
  14. Spring, op. cit., p. 203.
  15. Rackstraw Downes, “Fairfield Porter: The Thought Behind the Painting,” in Joan Ludman, Fairfield Porter: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Watercolors, and Pastels (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2001), p. 16.
  16. Spring, op. cit., pp. 295–96.
  17. Spike, op. cit., p. 212.
  18. Fairfield Porter, “Tradition and Originality,” 1961, Downes, op. cit., p. 121.
  19. Spring, op. cit., pp. 37–39.
  20. Fairfield Porter, “Technology and Artistic Perception,” 1975, Downes, op. cit., p. 280.
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