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At the height of the American avant-garde movement, Fairfield Porter’s realistic paintings defied the orthodoxy of Abstract Expressionism— and risked rejection by the art world. But today his true stature is becoming apparent: He may just be the best we have.
September 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 5
In his lifetime Fairfield Porter (1907–75) appeared on no one’s list of the greatest American painters of the twentieth century. Although he was respected and admired for both his painting and his criticism from the early 1950s on, Porter achieved neither the popular celebrity nor the critical acclaim that attended the ballyhooed careers of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol.
It is easy to see why. Porter was not only a maverick, deliberately out of step with his time, but a heretic who dissented from the central tenet of the credo of the age. A realist who found his inspiration in the realm of external appearances, Porter developed his distinctive and mature style in the last twenty-five years of his life, a period coinciding exactly with the triumph of the New York school of painting. Abstract art was king. Radical new methods of composition had found acceptance, and artists exercised unprecedented freedom in their conception of what a painting could look like, how big it could be, and how little relation it needed to have to the traditional ways and means of representational art.
In the climate of the late 1940s, it took daring and will to commit oneself resolutely to representational art. This is what Porter did. With quiet tenacity he revitalized the American landscape tradition.
In the late 1940s Jackson Pollock, the icebreaker, had begun pouring his paint straight from the tube or can onto a canvas the size of a mural stretched on the floor. A Pollock painting like Number 1 (1948) or Blue Poles (1953) was an exhibition of primal energy. It was about nothing besides itself; the history of its making was the painting’s true subject. Following Pollock’s lead, one New York-based painter after another converted to the abstract creed. Nature considered as something external to the painter was repudiated, disfigured, or discarded. “A time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it,” Mark Rothko observed. The paintings in Willem de Kooning’s famous series Women were gigantic, distorted, monstrous. Some artists abjured the figure altogether. Rothko’s signature style consisted of stacked cubes of saturated color; Barnett Newman split his canvases, using a thin vertical stripe to separate two wide fields of color; Ad Reinhardt, the purist par excellence, was famous for his series of black-on-black pictures. A mnemonic that helped gallery-goers learn who was who in abstract art said that Rothko had pulled down the shades, Newman closed the door, and Reinhardt shut off the lights.
In this climate it took daring and will to commit oneself resolutely to representational art. This is what Porter did. With quiet tenacity he revitalized the American landscape tradition. He reinvented figurative painting as a legitimate—and modern—enterprise in the teeth of the pressure (and it was fierce) to regard it as outmoded and passé. Yet Porter did not paint in ignorance of contemporary trends. On the contrary, the record he left as an art critic for Art News in the 1950s and The Nation in the 1960s shows him to have been one of the most astute—and sympathetic—observers of the period. He immersed himself in the new art and found in de Kooning, in particular, a master whose lessons he endeavored to apply in his own works; he wrote penetratingly on de Kooning and became good friends of the painter and his wife, Elaine. But for all his exposure to Rothko’s rectangles (“A whole Mondrian equals the sum of its parts, but a whole Rothko is greater than the sum of its parts,” Porter wrote) and Robert Motherwell’s abstract “formalities” (which “makes mess into organism”), Porter’s whole painterly career affirmed an old-fashioned mimetic ideal: the idea of depicting things as they are, not as we might will them to be; the idea that reality resides neither in Platonic forms nor in the dark recesses of the artist’s unconscious but in the actual way things appear to an attentive observer.
In an age when to be avant-garde seemed the highest good, Porter took the terrible risk of being dismissed as eccentric, reactionary, or, worst of all, academic. The irony is that he managed to be a figurative painter without turning his back on modern art; he reconciled his deep steeping in the art of the past with the liberating sense of the medium that he found in the big powerful brushstrokes of de Kooning’s paintings. The further irony is that Porter’s go-your-own-way individualism makes him seem, from our vantage point today, nothing if not an avant-garde hero.
When Porter died at the age of sixty-eight in 1975, a charmed circle of intimate friends—including the poets John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler and the painters Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers—joined the painter’s widow and their children in grief. He was mourned publicly too. The obituary writers noted his accomplishments as a painter and critic of the first order. Grace Glueck in The New York Times called him a “late bloomer,” who “did not, in fact, until the last decade get the wide recognition that knowledgeable critics and his painter friends felt he deserved.”