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.
James Porter started off wanting to be a biologist, but when eye problems intervened he switched to architecture. Soon he had sacrificed this new career to tend the family’s Chicago real estate business (the Porter family trust would ensure that for much of their lives James and Ruth’s children did not have to support themselves). His architectural work was essentially limited to buildings the family lived in, including a large and unwinterized house on an uninhabited island in Penobscot Bay that he bought in 1912. An inveterate naturalist, he collected specimens of everything on the island (and passed his involvement on to his eldest son, the photographer Eliot Porter). Fairfield apparently identified with his father. Fairfield understood that in making the inside and outside of the big house on Great Spruce Head Island, along with other buildings James put up there, a perennial subject, he was also continually acknowledging his father. It’s surprising to realize just how many of his strongest paintings include buildings and how often, whether they’re farmhouses, skyscrapers, row houses, nineteenth-century homes, island cottages, or shanties, he shows them as fragments, peeping into view from some covering.
Yet James pointedly didn’t believe Fairfield had any artistic talent and actually, reports Spring, disliked his son. Having been forced as a young man to give up two promising careers probably didn’t help a man who was by temperament shy and removed. James’s increasingly distant disposition seems to have put the finishing touches on a bottled-up family atmosphere that, by the 1930s, when Fairfield was bringing his own friends to the island, had become near frigid. Anne Porter remembered that even on boat outings James would be turned away from everybody, looking back into the boat’s wake. Nothing in Spring’s biography had for me quite the impact of the facts that, when James died, in 1939, he was cremated and his ashes “went unclaimed,” and when Ruth died, in 1942, and was cremated, again the remains “went unclaimed.”
Visitors to Great Spruce Head Island would note how, among the Spartan conditions that prevailed, there was never enough food, and that Fairfield in particular was perpetually hungry. Friends would shove him their leftovers when Ruth left the table. Fairfield’s hunger was part of what differentiated him from his sister and brothers, even Eliot, and kept him emotionally alive. From his twenties on and right to his last years, he was on the lookout for individuals and ideas that might feed him. The way, especially in the late 1920s and 1930s, he was responsive to so many different kinds of people he came in contact with, whether Bernard Berenson or the Chicago radical social thinker Paul Mattick, the underground filmmaker and photographer Rudy Burckhardt or the music critic Paul Rosenfeld, the young and then unknown Willem de Kooning or Alfred Stieglitz, is one of the most attractive aspects of his character.
Until he was on the verge of middle age, though, Porter’s life reads as a kind of nightmare. Up until the late 1940s, he couldn’t advance his realistic, American Scene-type painting to square one, nor could he do anything meaningful with his desire for social change or his intellectual preoccupation with Marxism. Unable to believe fully in any one leftist cause, he couldn’t find a way to be the political artist he thought he should be. His deepest love was for an Englishman he met in Florence, Arthur Giardelli, though nothing was said or done about it. In time, Porter married Anne Channing, not failing to inform her beforehand, with that devotion to truth-telling at the expense of anyone’s feelings that became one of his most widely remarked upon traits, that by nature he was bisexual, even though what he meant was that he remained attracted to Giardelli.
Marrying Anne turned out to be the wisest move Porter ever made. She remained calm, reasonable, humorous, and in love with him no matter where his difficult nature took them, though during the early decades of their marriage she was tested not only by Porter’s motionlessness but by the fact that their first child, Johnny, was retarded. The boy might, today, be called autistic, but then he represented a grievous failure of the Porters as parents, not to mention the phenomenal expense of years of consultations with doctors and educators and an ever-changing round of private schools (and, ultimately, homes). For Fairfield, writes Spring, the inability to reach Johnny only compounded the sense of himself as a failure bequeathed to him from his father.
During his many years in the wilderness, Porter had begun to figure out what kind of art mattered to him, what didn’t, and what, ideally, his own work would be like. He came up with answers first in his writing, which, in the 1950s and until 1961, when he stopped regular reviewing, was a more developed and powerful tool than his painting. After that, with his painting finally more under control, there was less time, or need, to write reviews. As he came to see it, making art was about existing in a realm of pure instinct. It was about putting aside strictures, and finding an idea only as you worked with your materials. Although he didn’t put it in these terms, he seemed to believe that art was a kind of therapy; it represented a liberation from the mind’s clutches. And while it’s pat to say so, and doesn’t repre-sent all of his thinking, his conclusions feel as if they were a reply to his parents and to his conscience-laden upbringing, where family get-togethers resembled seminars. Whether or not he was addressing Ruth and James, he rarely thought about the freeing power of art without wanting to describe the threats to it.
Porter’s writing, it should be said, hasn’t been seen this way. His criticism has generally been taken as the work of a philosophically-minded and independent observer who was as interested in pinning down the qualities of little-known artists on his reviewer’s beat as he was of tackling vast themes. Porter spoke about his writing with a confidence, at times a swagger, that is the complete opposite of how he referred to his painting, and the mind and sensibility we encounter in his pieces is certainly formidable. Porter’s gift was for the unexpected and understated remark that casts a transforming light on the subject. Degas, we read, “seems to dislike life for not being art,” while a Cornell box is set in “a carefully and imperfectly made frame.” We hear that “tidiness is inadequate formality,” and that the found objects a sculptor incorporates into his work bring with them a vitality that is “as important as the smell of someone else’s clothes.”
Insisting, though, that his individual piece be as compressed and technical as possible, Porter’s criticism is also slow going, and often he’s plain incomprehensible. A reading of any half- dozen of these articles also shows Porter doing exactly what he was quick to accuse Clement Greenberg and others of doing—being led by an idea instead of confronting each work “in its own terms.” His point in writing about art is unimpeachable. He was looking for “illogical immediacy” and “unconscious awareness,” while his foe was any form of “systematic rules” or “the distant and the ideal.” (As he aged, he saw the threat to artistic understanding coming more and more from science and technology.) Yet Porter hits on his theme so insistently that he’s no different from the makers of systems he abhors. Besides, the premium he put on “materiality,” on art being about nothing more than the process and energy that went into its creation, puts him, despite his independent stance, in the same boat as the major critics of his period.
What’s engaging about Porter’s thought was how he saw his battle playing out in history. His vision of art history runs so counter to orthodox interpretations that no one but Porter, probably, could buy it; yet there’s an outlandishness and an audacity to it that his painting sorely lacks. Porter may have been the last critic (or artist) for whom Impressionism was a vital movement. He saw the classic Monets and Sisleys, and then the late work of Vuillard, which might be called Indoor Impressionism, as the backbone of the art he wanted to make and as the high point of modern art. These were pictures where the artist passively accepts, and uses as the sole basis of his picture, what his eye encounters before him at a glance. It was an art that didn’t look to reshape the world but grabbed existence at the moment a child would, when sense impressions are flooding the brain and it’s enough to swim in them. Porter felt that most modern art, to its detriment, didn’t allow for this. Beginning with Cézanne and the Postimpressionists, and including Picasso, Mondrian, and the other textbook heroes, he saw art as being held captive by ideas. Unlike the work he loved, it was dominated by drawn shapes, which for him represented preconceptions.
Porter greeted Abstract Expressionism as continuing where Monet and Vuillard left off because, in part, there was no drawing in it. The new American painting of the late 1940s could also be seen as an unthinking embrace of the moment—though if Porter is read carefully it appears that his feeling for this work didn’t extend far beyond de Kooning. During his long years of indecision, de Kooning provided Porter with the only example he had found in New York of an artist whose physical freedom with the materials of his craft seemed almost the point of his work, and Porter remained permanently in awe of him.
The AEs were, at least, an improvement on the American artists who preceded them, Porter believed. His essays on Prendergast and Marin, say, which include some of his liveliest if wackiest writing, describe a world of hopeless provincials; but Porter’s real theme seems to be some sheer sad-ness pervading nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America. His underlying subject, to my ear, is James Porter and his overeducated yet stymied life. Porter’s little book on Eakins shows him at his most ruthless; he’s blithely oblivious of all received opinion as he mops the floor with the poor Philadelphia painter. This was an Eakins who, we’re told in a typical passage, was burdened by “a rigidity that followed from fulfilling the demands of an inorganic conscience.” Is it far-fetched to believe we’re actually reading about both James Porter and the Fairfield that Fairfield desperately didn’t want to be?
In the 1950s, Porter was in the exciting position where his needs coincided with those of an up-and-coming generation of painters who wanted to paint figuratively. Abstract art had become overnight the law of the land, and to paint the figure, which de Kooning, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, and Alex Katz, among others, were doing in New York, and David Park and Richard Diebenkorn, among others, were doing in California, took a considerable inner strength. Porter was now in step with artists who were in some cases twenty years younger than himself, and they had in their work the same “morning awareness” he received from his favorite French painters. It was what, in writing about John Button’s realist rooftop views, he called the sense that “here painting begins again.”
Porter received a similar stimulus from such young poets of the time as John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler and Kenneth Koch. They were more a part of Fairfield and Anne’s life, whether at their house in Southampton or, in the summer, on Great Spruce Head Island, than any painter. Porter, who had grown up in a family where poetry was taken seriously, began writing poems himself, while Anne had always written poems when she wasn’t caring for a household and her children. Schuyler in time became a kind of sixth Porter child. His stay extended throughout the 1960s, and for part of it he and Porter were lovers, though for all the pages Spring devotes to the difficulties of having the emotionally fragile Schuyler as a permanent house guest, it’s hard to understand how his and Porter’s affair worked.
But then Porter’s relationship with the people in his pictures was mysteriously vague, too. More than any other artist, he gave an impetus for a new figurative art in the 1950s, but he never came near what Alex Katz or David Park accomplished. In different ways, Katz and Park conveyed that they had been able to get the din of past art traditions out of their heads and were now, without being primitive or childlike, making images of the world from scratch. Each managed to put on canvas another kind of breezy yet tentative, and very American, face and body—whereas the people in Porter’s pictures evoke very little. The faces of his figures, unlike those of Katz or Park, don’t come up from the paint itself. He imposed faces on his figures, yet he couldn’t make a face that suggested a feeling somewhere inside it.
Porter’s landscapes and views, though, kept getting better. In his last decade or so—he died in 1975, at sixty-eight—he was still discovering possibilities in himself. In Columbus Day (1968) and Island Farmhouse (1969), he proved that his vision could be the basis for pictures almost seven feet on a side. His city scenes also became more imposing. Taking such sites as Union Square as his motif, he caught the everyday, defiantly unpicturesque New York we all walk through as no other painter had. A year’s residence at Amherst, which, with his polymath’s mind, he understandably loved, produced equally strong views of outwardly nondescript sites, and the weather there prompted many successful snow scenes, his first. He painted close-ups of the sea for the first time, too. These pictures of the rhythm of waves and foam-specked water at different times of day are the most abstract images he ever made and, as well, harbingers of the far bigger but inherently similar close-ups of water and forest brooks that Katz would be making a decade or more later.
The landscapes, views, and sea pictures are violations in a sense of Porter’s guiding theories. They no doubt came about with the groping, unthinking method he believed in, but they’re as strong as they are because they’re essentially taut, super-subtle designs. They succeed because, far more than the pictures by Monet, Vuillard, or de Kooning that were Porter’s models, they’re built on loose-limbed yet emphatic linear scaffoldings.
Porter naturally didn’t think much of his actual drawings. Yet, with their staccato jabs and limp, scrawly zones and lines that hold in place unusually large areas of blankness, they communicate more effectively than his paintings his desire to make pictures out of his immediate, unfiltered impressions. They’re the work of someone who, despite his theories about drawn shapes getting in the way of instinct, could be a masterful graphic designer. The drawings reproduced in the collection of Porter’s poetry, along with the sampling of earlier, more tightly descriptive, and equally first-rate examples at the AXA Gallery and Archives exhibitions, make clear that this aspect of his work should, one day, be seen on its own. Surely the artist would smile to know that the most modest of his many endeavors strike some of us as among his most distinctive.
June 15, 2000