A Tutorial in Economy

Fairfield Porter at Tibor de Nagy

Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter, Untitled (View Outside Southampton Studio), 1968, oil on Masonite, 20¼ x 18 in. Private Collection, Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York

An exhibition of paintings by Fairfield Porter, small of scope and uneven in quality, is still well worth wading through the congestion of Fifth Avenue and Fifty Seventh Street in order to view. The current show is the first that Tibor de Nagy has devoted to Porter in eighteen years, though the place and time have turned out to be less than optimal, what with the gallery situated across the street from Trump Tower. A protest march closed off the avenue and snuffed my initial attempt to visit.

Porter’s timing has been bad before. Enthusiastic recognition came belatedly, with a major exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts eight years after his death. The problem was that Porter painted images of a leisurely life on Long Island and in Maine when abstract expressionism was ascendant, and in that zeitgeist the idea of an American artist chronicling a trouble-free suburban environment would easily be taken for dilettantism. His work fit neither the prevailing nor reactionary styles of his time; he borrowed painterly elements from his friend Willem de Kooning while maintaining a representational style, and the fusion made his work difficult to categorize. His primary influence was Edouard Vuillard, whose love of hue and pattern was also out of fashion for much of the twentieth century.

Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter, Katie and Dorothy E., 1957, oil on canvas, 16 x 20¾ in. Private Collection, Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York

In years past my reservations about Porter were twofold. The first had to do with his figures, which have the paint-by-numbers quality of Neil Welliver, though less well-drawn. His subjects’ eyes are disconcertingly small and have a creepy intensity, with white highlights invariably dropped into the center of the pupils; beyond poor drawing they suggest an emotional disconnection on the artist’s part. I’ve been twice commissioned by the Harvard Club of New York, where my portraits hang at some remove from one painted by Porter. It’s apparent that he was not able to adapt, as did Vuillard, to conventional portraiture, with its emphasis on likeness and anecdote—of course, one could see this as a sign of integrity, if the issues were not pervasive in his personal work as well. The second problem I had was frankly cultural—I was flat-out distrustful of WASPish images which, no matter how colorful, are redolent of a privileged intellectualism. To me, Porter’s world was alien, and I wonder if he sometimes felt the same way; the Harvard Club portrait indicates his unease with the old world of money and mahogany. Nonetheless, my reading was at least a little superficial. One has to take care not to mistake thoughtfulness for diffidence.

There were times when the artist had doubts. Describing a rough period in 1968, Porter wrote from his summer home in Great Spruce Head Island, Maine,

I think I was also tired of landscape. Why make it? Who cares? In a short time we will be back
in Southampton. It is more beautiful here, in fact this is one of the beauty spots of the world.
But that too, puts me off. Why reproduce this, when what matters, if it does, is just to look.
How does this beauty connect with everything else?

Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter, Claire White, 1960, oil on canvas, 45½ x 45 in. Private Collection, Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York

These questions are inevitable for modern and post-modern artists working in a figurative vernacular, especially when celebrating the well-heeled pleasures of the material world. At his best Porter resoundingly answers these doubts, and merits Hilton Kramer’s pronouncement after seeing the Boston show that “the history of American painting is going to have to be rewritten to give Fairfield Porter a larger place than he has heretofore been granted.” My thawing to paintings like Claire White signals a gradual appreciation of his painterly assets. The canvas, conceived as an impressionist portrait, frustrates for its lack of individualism despite the specificity of its title—the subject’s face is, in terms of characterization, a wall. The painting’s attributes can barely be appreciated in reproduction, where the loose and lively application of Maroger-laden pigment is all but lost. Everything from the hieroglyphic rug to the kitchenette table to—most crucially—the blue stripes on Ms. White’s dress, are graphically pleasing and set in a fluid space. Two other portraits in the show suggest what Porter was capable of when more engaged with his subjects. In Katie and Dorothy E., the little girls’ impatient figures melt into the patterned sofa, a tutorial in economy. At times Porter appears to connect with an individual and awaken to his sitter’s personality, as in John MacWhinnie. On occasion the pieces fell divinely into place, as in The Mirror (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art), and we’re reminded that a cool-handed approach can yield moving results.

Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter, View From Bear Island, 1968, oil on board, 14 x 15 in. Private Collection, Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York

Arguably it is as a landscape painter that Porter is best known. When seeking to explain to students the value of flat pattern combined with attention to shape, he’s the standard I summon. He makes it look easy enough for anyone to do, which is a neat deception; I’ve gone to the Maine coast and tried to paint a flat field in the foreground, a tree punctuating the middle distance and expanses of water and sky beyond, as Porter did in View from Bear Island, and the results have never been happy. If many a painter’s misapprehension is that a surfeit of detail will win the day, the attendant fallacy is that simplification is simple. Successful demonstrations of low-key visual wit are exceedingly difficult, and Porter regularly walks the line between blandness and bliss. In the backyards of Southampton he sought out different challenges while painting suburban lawns, reveling in complex patterns of trees and bushes. Trees in Bloom, a misnomer when applied to the foreground horse chestnut, shows how much Porter really did enjoy drawing with the brush, and of the satisfying mean to be struck betwixt breadth and detail, a pale spring light unifying all. In Untitled (View Outside Southampton Studio), he was free to indulge perhaps his definitive characteristic, in which patterns were haphazardly broken into positive and negative shapes. Distant foliage appears between houses and against the sky, their organic patchwork an echo of the light and shadow playing across a blazing row of forsythia. It is in these clarifications of visual busyness, whence a proper organization of flat colors can be read as atmosphere, that Porter’s true genius lay.

I think it’s no coincidence that Porter questioned the relevance of painting beautiful things in 1968, a year of war and protests, violent political conventions and assassinations. “Why make it? Who cares?” One may justifiably ask the same questions now. The answer is that appreciation of beauty is not an indulgence but a necessity.

Fairfield Porter: Things as They Are, will be showing at Tibor de Nagy at 724 Fifth Avenue until December 10.

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