As an artist, Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) elaborated a style of painting that has become known as “painterly realism.” During a period when American art was dominated by Abstract Expressionism, he stubbornly clung to his own intimist, suavely painted view of things: portraits of his wife, children, and friends; domestic still lifes; landscapes around his house on Long Island and on Great Spruce Head Island in Maine, the latter a family property that has also been depicted by his brother, the photographer Eliot Porter. Nevertheless his taste in art was broad and unorthodox, and he valued the work of some of the Abstract Expressionists, particularly de Kooning, over that of many contemporary realists. He wrote much art criticism, mostly for Art News and The Nation, though his full importance as a critic has become apparent only since the posthumous publication of his reviews and essays in the collection Art in Its Own Terms. The essay below appears in the catalogue for Porter’s retrospective show now at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which will travel in somewhat abridged form to other museums including the Whitney in New York.
In his introduction to Fairfield Porter’s posthumous collection of art criticism, Art in Its Own Terms, Rackstraw Downes quotes a remark Fairfield Porter made during what must have been one of the more Byzantine discussions at the Artists’ Club on Eighth Street in New York, circa 1952. The members were arguing about whether or not it was vain to sign your paintings. With the flustered lucidity of Alice in the courtroom, Porter sliced this particular Gordian knot once and for all: “If you are vain it is vain to sign your pictures and vain not to sign them. If you are not vain it is not vain to sign them and not vain not to sign them.” We do not know the reaction of his colleagues; quite possibly this mise au net fell on the same deaf ears that ignored the urgent but plain and unpalatable truths that Porter voiced again and again in his writings on art, at a time of particularly hysterical factionalism.
No one likes to be reminded of the obvious, when half-truths are so much richer and more provocative; thus it was Porter’s fate both as critic and as painter to play the role of a Molière gadfly, an Alceste or a Clitandre in a society of stentorian précieuses ridicules. And to a certain extent his reputation as an eccentric remains, though it stemmed from a single-minded determination to speak the truth. If you are vain, your acts will illustrate your vanity despite what fair appearances they may assume; if you are not, your apparent vanity will remain modesty and need occasion no anguished self-examination. Handsome is as handsome does; actions speak louder than words: who, in the course of the Artists’ Club’s tumultuous sessions, could pause to listen to such drivel?
I hadn’t known this statement of Porter’s before reading Downes …
Copyright © 1983 John Ashbery. Reprinted by permission of New York Graphic Society Books/Little, Brown & Co.