Artist with a Calling

Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art

an exhibition at the AXA Gallery, New York, March 23-May 27, 2000

Selections from the Fairfield Porter Papers Institution, New York, March 16-July 10, 2000

an exhibition at the Archives of American Art/Smithsonian

Art in Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism, 1935-1975 (1983)

by Fairfield Porter, edited and with an introduction by Rackstraw Downes
Zoland Books, 288 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Fairfield Porter: An American Classic (1992)

by John T. Spike
Abrams, 320 pp., $75

Fairfield Porter: The Collected Poems, with Selected Drawings (1985)

edited by John Yau and with David Kermani, with an introduction by John Ashbery
Tibor de Nagy Editions/The Promise of Learnings, Inc., 90 pp., $20.00 (paper)

Thomas Eakins (1959)

by Fairfield Porter
Braziller, 127 pp., (out of print)

Fairfield Porter was one of the most intensely ethical painters in the annals of American art, so he might wonder about the claims that have been made for him in the years since his death. Justin Spring’s biography is now the second major study of the painter that fudges the significance of a figure whose standing was ambiguous already for most of his career. Spring begins and ends his account by quoting John Ashbery’s estimation that Porter is “perhaps the major American artist of this century.” John T. Spike, in turn, in his profusely illustrated 1992 account of Porter’s art and life, used as his shield, as it were, Hilton Kramer’s belief that Porter is “an American classic.” Both of Porter’s biographers imply that they understand that the high claims of Ashbery and Kramer (and a few others) aren’t universally held; but neither stops to examine, really, what is now a growing chasm between this artist’s admirers and those for whom he’s barely on the chart. Neither acknowledges that Porter, who was also a serious and shrewd critic, came far closer to the reality of the situation when he wrote in his last years, “I think sometimes that as far as museums and patrons are concerned that I may be ‘finished,’ that is, that it has been decided that my work is not really any good.”

Justin Spring has also organized a small Porter exhibition at the AXA Gallery in New York, and it, complemented by his biography and a show at the Archives of American Art of their Porter holdings, brings back with full force that mixture of the endearing and the disheartening that the artist arouses. Porter, whose very name can conjure up everything that’s idyllic about a summer on the Maine coast, was, besides a landscapist, a painter of people, city views, and the occasional still life. Classy and solid in one picture, he is strikingly vacant in the next, making paintings that look like the work of a student so determined to pin down the rudiments of his art that there’s nothing remotely personal about the work. Even at his best, which is invariably in his pictures without people, Porter, whose work took off in the early 1960s, when he was in his mid-fifties, isn’t saying anything particularly new about how to perceive reality. But his view—it might be of Maine islands seen from a distance, a Long Island back yard, or even some cars pulled up by the side of a house—has a memorable mixture of suavity and clunkiness.

Whether his brushwork and surfaces were oily and dense, or appeared in thin, runny, and fumbling strokes, Porter made the very act of painting inviting. The ultimate message of his strongest pictures sometimes seems to be “Why don’t you try making one?” Porter also became over the years one of our best painters of light. He’s amazing at suggesting any number of different intensities of light permeating oil itself. When he painted a room’s floor, for…

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