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The Contrarian Modernism of Fairfield Porter

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Fairfield Porter, “Untitled [standing nude]” (1969-70), oil on gessoed canvas board, 10 x 8 inches (all photos courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York)

Fairfield Porter’s turning point as a painter crops up in every account of his life. In the early 1950s, while his close friend Willem de Kooning was painting the Women series, critic Clement Greenberg remarked that, “You can’t paint that way anymore. You can’t paint figuratively today.” Porter reacted with irritation and resolve: “I thought, ‘If that’s what [Greenberg] says, I will do exactly what he says I can’t do.’ I might have become an abstract painter except for that [remark].”

Fairfield Porter: Amherst and Other Places, which wraps up today at Betty Cuningham Gallery, reminds the visitor how Porter, even in the 1960s and early ‘70s, calmly and insistently rejected critical expectations.

In hindsight, it is rather too easy to side with Porter-the-artist against Clement Greenberg, the critic-as-blowhard, in what sounds like a burst of rebellion. Yet alongside his art, Porter’s nuanced and overlooked art writing projects a radical theme: namely, that artists ought to roundly reject the arrogant cultural assumption — voiced by Greenberg and still in vogue today — that art represents, and therefore serves, history, defined as a purposeful march away from the backward past toward a progressive future.

In debunking this entrenched premise, Porter writes that much art criticism, as well as art school manifestos and other statements, amount to “a call for a following – a slogan demanding allegiance” adding that “[art] criticism is so much influenced by politics that it imitates the technique of a totalitarian party on the way to power.”

Perhaps Porter’s inherited cultural authority inoculated him against this naïve American assumption that aesthetics and history lead to social progress. He was born in 1907 in Winnetka, Illinois, a place he dubbed the “Scarsdale of Chicago.” His family was so well-off that he inherited Great Spruce Head Island off the coast of Maine. He studied at Harvard, and later, The Art Students League; he traveled throughout Europe in the 1920s and 30s. An avowed atheist and early prophet of humanity’s ecological suicide, Porter read Alfred North Whitehead and Leon Trotsky with equal enthusiasm. In the 1930s, he got involved with The Rebel Arts Center and edited the socialist magazine Arise.

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Fairfield Porter, “Untitled [still life with bottle]” (1969-70), oil on gessoed panel, 12 x 9 inches

As an aspiring artist, though, he converted to poetic still life, portraiture, and landscape after seeing Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard exhibited at The Art Institute of Chicago in 1938. Though Porter preserved an intellectual and geographical distance from downtown New York’s art world factionalism, he honed his craft for decades by paying attention to Modernists of all stripes, even learning tricks from younger peers like Wolf Kahn and Jane Freilicher. John Bernard Myers, co-founder of Tibor de Nagy Gallery, gave Porter his first New York exhibition in 1951, sight unseen, based on the recommendation of Willem de Kooning. In his memoirs, Myers recalls his dismay on finally seeing Porter’s “low key” and “dark” figurative works, a marked contrast to the bright, boisterous and newly lucrative Abstract Expressionism.

While Porter developed as a painter, he published art reviews in The Nation, Art News, and Art in America. Those critical pieces retain a subtle political significance that suits present-day debates over the role of art, the responsibility of the artist, and the foolishness of political groupthink. As an artist sensitive to the experiment that each new work poses to its maker, Porter writes about art with a therapist’s succinct and scrupulous empathy, delineating how a particular artist deploys her or his idiosyncratic energy. He notes how Alberto Giacometti’s hyper-attenuated figures make the concept of infinity visible and proximate; he dissects how Paul Cézanne’s struggles in capturing contour led to an obsessive-compulsiveness in his practice that evolved into a single-handed renewal of the still-life genre; writing on the art of his friend Elaine de Kooning, he calls her decades-long work in abstraction a limitation on her talent, akin to the artist just “making conversation” before embarking on her breakthrough work in portraiture.

We can only guess what Porter-the-critic might have to say, today, about Porter-the-artist. The selection of late period works at Betty Cuningham reveals how the artist’s gentle lyricism produced disparate signatures. And in these works, as in so much of his output, American loneliness coincides with American leisureliness, often uneasily.

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Fairfield Porter, “Untitled (Landscape)” (ca. 1960), ink on paper, 21 x 17 3/4 inches

A series of landscape drawings from 1960 look fevered in their abrupt turns, jagged lines, and rounded loops, while their overall structure preserves the panoramic cool of architectural studies.

Most of the other works were completed while the artist taught at Amherst College in 1969-1970. Small oil paintings on boards and panels look at first glance radically abstract, at least by Porter’s usual standards. On closer inspection, those thick-painted blocks of color suggest realities seen from a foggy distance, or through blurred or just-waking eyes – a tree in a remote field, a nude after her bath, a bottle amid domestic objects randomly positioned on a dining room chair.

In the landscape paintings, a few depicting the grounds of the Amherst campus, such as “Untitled” [Amherst building in snow]” (1969-70), the artist’s trademark attention to changing casts of sunlight, including the radiant, reflective play of fresh snow and autumn colors, create placid harmonies despite deliberately slanted or skewed vantage points.

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Fairfield Porter, “Untitled [Amherst College building in snow]” (1969-70), oil on panel, 12 x 9 inches

To me, one of the most compelling and puzzling aspects of Porter’s art is how, quite often, the human element seems frozen over or inexpressive while architectural features or the natural world evince a visual exuberance and animated depths. It is as if human bodies and faces and general sociability merely supplement the beauty in the nonhuman natural world.

Nowhere is this strange genius — or genius for human estrangement — more on display than in the crisp, meticulous large portrait of the artist’s son, “Jerry” (1955/75). The painting’s completion date is the year Porter died, lending the portrait, in hindsight, an even greater autobiographical significance than its familial subject already grants it.

The sitter is in his late teens. Yet it appears to be a portrait of a young man as a somehow exhausted old man. He stares blankly forward, his lips almost pursed. His formal attire — red and green socks, pale khakis, white shirt, plaid tie — combined with his self-consciously “grown up” pose — right hand pressed to his head while his left hand cups his left leg — lend him the look of a corporate manager bored to death, as if he were listening to an oral report from the legal department.

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Fairfield Porter, “Jerry” (1955, 1975), oil on canvas, 62 x 37 inches

The young man’s semi-slouched figure is situated squarely within the trappings of WASP privilege — heavy dining room table, ornate wall embellishments, a sideboard stacked with crisp white cloths. And yet his presence is purely physical, signaling little or no emotion. Only by stepping farther back, can we register how it is paint itself that this painting honors. Porter may have been a covert abstractionist after all.

Within the re-creation of shadow and light, the painting’s surfaces — walls, doorway, floor — ricochet to life in grays, yellows, and browns. These colors shift and elide one another; some seem organized into bands of competing tones as they transect and bisect the portrait’s almost suffocating stillness.

And in “Jerry,” Porter has once again scored a low-key visual symphony, one that unites the colors of human flesh to its mixed furnishings, lit here and there by unexpected light, an always tentative light cast into interiors so secure and so sequestered that their inhabitants seem to ask, as if from out of the silence or glazed expressions, is this, really, all that the American pursuit of happiness provides?