Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art
Selections from the Fairfield Porter Papers Institution, New York, March 16-July 10, 2000
Art in Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism, 1935-1975 (1983)
Fairfield Porter: An American Classic (1992)
Fairfield Porter: The Collected Poems, with Selected Drawings (1985)
Thomas Eakins (1959)
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 instance, he could give it the appearance of some light-filled organic entity, and while a number of his pictures present a brilliant, summer-afternoon sunniness, many more show a heatless light suffusing the colors that he made especially his own: yellow, lavender, pink, orange, lime and forest green, grayed-out blue.
Porter was a wonderful abbreviator of forms. In his hands, the outline of a pine tree, patches of light or shadow, dormer windows, or docks are transformed into so many notchlike shapes. His lobster boats, always seen from afar, and drawn with a few swift, jutting lines, are sometimes what your eye finally settles on in his vistas of pine trees and Maine islands. The most “Porteresque” part of his views, though, are the cars and trucks that he’ll occasionally plant here and there. They’re cousins of all the toy cars whose fronts can’t be told from their backs. And when, on unfortunately even rarer occasions, he adds little figures walking in the distance, they stride forth appealingly with stiff, straight legs. They’re the toy people who’d drive the toy cars.
Yet when Porter paints people directly he goes dead. From his first mature pictures his motifs were his wife Anne, their five children, and the many poets and painters who were part of their lives, and these images may outnumber the works without people. For Spring and other commentators, one of Porter’s signal accomplishments is the record he left of family life. But what is he saying about family life? His effort hardly seems to be more than getting a likeness and relating his sitters in a balanced way to the surrounding furniture and light.
The paintings occasionally have details to savor, such as the sneakers Porter’s son Laurence wears in one portrait or the bedroom slippers his son Jerry wears in another. Yet there’s nothing about the relation the artist has to his sitters that we can get our teeth into; there’s little to remember about how, exactly, he sees people. It’s hard to feel that Porter has any awareness of the psychological presence of the individual or individuals before him. There is certainly a homely ordinariness to his sitters, and perhaps he sought this, though even his family, the people who posed for him, joked about the flatfootedness. An inert picture of four figures called The Screen Porch (1964) was known at home as “The Four Ugly People,” while Anne wondered whether July Interior (1964), a painting of her in bed staring off into nowhere, might best be called “The Last Illness of Marvin Ginsberg.”
Porter’s pictures of people are so flattening at their core that even his brushwork seems to disappear, and his color loses its precision, too. When, for example, in Morning Landscape (1965), a little girl in a red outfit and a red hat sits next to purple and lavender flowers, and beyond is a Maine landscape with greens, blues, yellows, grays, and so on, the result is a greeting-card prettiness—not because of the many strong colors in themselves but because they bring out the underlying vapidity of the image.
Justin Spring wants to leave us with the sense that Porter needs to be judged as more than a painter. His point is that Porter’s full measure can only be had when his writing is considered as well, and this makes sense, since his painting, which feels more like the work of two different men than merely uneven, has never added up right. And writing was a natural, everyday occupation for him. Throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s, he was a full-time art critic, first for Art News and then for The Nation, while after that, on and off in the 1960s and 1970s, he wrote on more general subjects, particularly on art and technology. A generous selection of these pieces, edited by Rackstraw Downes, was published, in 1979, in Art in Its Own Terms, a volume that has been reprinted a number of times—it has a forceful, partisan introduction by Downes—and continues to be discovered. Porter also contributed the text for a little picture book on Thomas Eakins, in 1959, and his basically private career as a poet resulted in a collection put together by John Yau, with David Kermani, in 1985. A selection of his copious correspondence is due to be published this year.
More than the fact that he wrote so much, though, Porter approached his career as an artist the way a writer would (which differentiates him from Marsden Hartley, say, or Donald Judd, who also wrote a good deal). As his criticism shows, Porter was a deeply theoretical man whose chief point was always the life-giving value of art itself. Although many of his remarks show that he had a street-smart view of artists and the art scene, he saw his own life as an artist as a calling. And the actual making of pictures was, to boot, always an uphill battle for him. Spring describes how getting a likeness was consistently a struggle and how he threw away failed work on a regular basis right to the end of his life. (He had a special incinerator built in his yard just for this.)
Yet Spring hasn’t brought off the “intimate literary and intellectual biography” that he proposes. He hasn’t made a coherent whole out of the different elements of Porter’s work. Part of the issue is that there’s too much biographical material here, and Porter, whether taken as artist, writer, thinker, or even person, gets lost in it. The larger issue, though, is that, while Porter may be the “philosopher-artist” Spring calls him, he was also, as Spring writes, someone who “always identified himself first and foremost as a painter,” and Spring hasn’t looked at the paintings critically or personally. He astutely draws our attention to a powerful early lithograph Porter did as an illustration for Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, and remarks on how there’s an unhinged tension to it that Porter completely muffled when, years later, he found his style. Yet for the most part Spring offers lip service to the paintings, with the result that it’s hard to trust his presentation of Porter the “philosopher-artist.”
What Spring has contributed that’s new, and genuinely helps to explain the Porter who’s sensuously alive in one picture and neutered in the next, is a more detailed look at the painter’s upbringing than has been available so far. John T. Spike, it turns out, presented a very partial account of the painter’s parents and his home life in his biography. (He also didn’t mention Porter’s bisexuality, an issue Spring works in with a likable lack of fuss.) As Spike presented it, Porter’s more influential parent seemed to be his mother, Ruth Furness Porter. She fostered in Fairfield, certainly, the fourth of her and James Porter’s five children, a love of poetry and a belief that a life without a serious commitment to social betterment was hardly worth living. A graduate of Bryn Mawr at a time when a woman with a college degree was a rarity, she might have turned her keen knowledge of classical Greek literature and language into an academic career had she not married a wealthy man. As it was, her “personality was unusually sympathetic,” Spike wrote, and “her tolerant spirit and love of fellowship set the tone in the household.”
The picture Spring gives of Porter’s parents and background centers on James, and it’s less sympathetic. And while James and Ruth together don’t take up that much actual space in his biography, their joint presence dominates it. They clearly left Fairfield the man we meet in these pages, a figure who, while commandingly certain in his beliefs and opinions about art and at home discussing issues of science, philosophy, and political theory, was also helplessly unable to ex-press his feelings and profoundly self-deprecatory. The Porter family story that Spring has unearthed is one where learning and scientific and intellectual pursuits were promoted but at the price of a forbidding emotional deprivation. To Ruth’s active interests in literature and one’s civic and everyday ethical duties James added an appreciation of the masterworks of European art and architecture and a working familiarity with the scientific method and the order of the natural world. Yet in the Porter household, anything merely personal—acknowledging birthdays, for instance—was unheard of.