The Man Who Came to Dinner


The poet James Schuyler (1923– 1991) and the painter Fairfield Porter (1907–1975) met in 1952. Abstract Expressionism was at its most triumphant and seemingly irresistible, with New York poised to supplant Paris as the epicenter of modern art. The experiments of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning were beginning to influence those working in other art forms too: “New York poets,” Schuyler once observed, “except I suppose the color-blind, are affected most by the floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble.”

Schuyler and Porter both reviewed the work of abstract artists admiringly for ARTNews, and were among the first to praise the genius of de Kooning, whose works Porter began collecting in the mid-Thirties. The contemporary poets whose work most excited and inspired them adopted as radical an approach to words as the action painters had done to paint: Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Barbara Guest each found startling new ways of moving beyond the dry, ironic, New Criticism–friendly lyric that dominated the official postwar American poetry scene, composed, as Schuyler caustically observed, by “campus dry-heads”—he was probably thinking of formalist poets such as Anthony Hecht or Richard Wilbur—“who wishfully descend tum-ti-tumming from Yeats out of Graves with a big kiss for Mother England.” In his “Fresh Air” of 1955 Kenneth Koch imagined a strangler who murders these “castrati of poetry” as they set about composing odes to maple trees or the Villa d’Este or a lighthouse in Rhode Island.

The work of Porter and Schuyler was, in turn, promoted by the leading figures in the circles of experimental artists and writers in which they moved. Yet neither Porter’s painting nor Schuyler’s poetry looks particularly avant-garde. It took concerted pressure from such artists as Willem de Kooning and Larry Rivers to persuade John Bernard Myers to offer Porter his first one-man show at the Tibor de Nagy gallery in 1952: Myers was worried that Porter’s low-key realist interiors and landscapes would compromise his gallery’s reputation at the cutting edge of the new. And while the poets O’Hara and Ashbery and Koch were deliberately challenging traditional conceptions of poetry, rupturing syntax, fracturing narrative, at times almost obliterating form, Schuyler’s poetry is written—as Ashbery pointed out in an introduction to the first public reading Schuyler gave, in 1988—in “what Marianne Moore called ‘plain American which cats and dogs can read.'” “He makes sense, dammit,” Ashbery continues, “and he manages to do so without falsifying or simplifying the daunting complexity of life as we are living it today.”

In his excellent biography, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art (2000), Justin Spring explores in detail the nature and development of their relationship. It was, briefly, sexual. Porter had been married for twenty years when they were introduced at the photographer Rudy Burckhardt’s house. He had four children—a fifth would be born four years later—the eldest of whom, Johnny, suffered from a severe form of autism. Porter had devoted much time in his…

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