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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
Porter felt that the artist who imposes his own order on things kills the life of the painting, but he believed it “impossible not to get some sort of form if you don’t think about it.”
Something extraordinary happened in the years following Porter’s death. The first big event was the publication of his selected criticism in a volume entitled Fairfield Porter: Art in Its Own Terms in 1979. Reviewing the work for The New York Times , Hilton Kramer was unequivocal in his praise: “This is an extraordinary book, one that places Porter among the most important critics of his time. What once seemed fragmentary and somewhat unfocused (owing perhaps to its original mode of publication) now turns out to have been the most consistently sensitive and thoughtful writing on new art, and on the art of the recent past, that any critic of the time gave us.”
It was the landmark Porter exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 1983 that did more than anything else to cause a meteoric rise in his posthumous reputation. This, the first major retrospective of Porter’s work, was subtitled “Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction,” a resonant phrase that captured his peculiar achievement. Press reaction to the show was ecstatic. John Updike weighed in at The New Republic , and Whitney Balliett at The New Yorker . Writing in Newsweek , John Ashbery argued “for a new assessment of Porter as perhaps the major American artist of this century.” Hilton Kramer, who was and is better known for his animadversions than his enthusiasms, called Porter “an American classic.” As a painter, Kramer wrote, Porter was “superior to de Kooning in achievement.” After the Boston exhibition “the history of American painting is going to have to be rewritten to give Fairfield Porter a larger place than he has heretofore been granted. He is going to have to be recognized as one of the classics of our art.”
Porter as “perhaps the major American artist of this century”? That is quite a statement. Ours has been, after all, the century of Abstract Expressionism, the first indigenous American art movement to have conquered the world. There is a bittersweet pleasure in belated recognition, a confirmation of one’s hopeful sense that there is justice in the long run in matters of artistic dispute. The sustained uptick in Porter’s critical reception is all the sweeter when one recalls that never in his lifetime did he enjoy the benefit of a retrospective exhibition in a major museum, this despite the fact that his was a familiar presence in the New York art world.
Content with the conventional brush and easel, Porter specialized in landscapes, still lifes, interiors, and portraits. He painted what he saw in a life lived with a large family and constant houseguests in Southampton, Long Island (where the painter and his wife, the poet Anne Porter, moved in 1949, before the Hamptons became posh), and in their summer home on Great Spruce Head Island in Maine. In a Porter still life you may have a bouquet of flowers at the center, but you also have the artist’s daughter and the remnants of breakfast on the table and a copy of Wallace Stevens’s Collected Poems beside the sugar bowl and a jar of jam. In such a work as Lizzie at the Table (1958), nothing has been arranged. Porter felt that the artist who imposes his own order on things kills the life of the painting. “Often in still lifes—almost always in still lifes—I don’t arrange them,” he commented. “Usually it’s just that the way the dishes are on the table at the end of the meal strikes me suddenly. And so I paint it. Part of my idea or my feeling about form that’s interesting is that it is discovered—that it’s the effect of something unconscious like, you know, the dishes are in a certain arrangement at the end of a meal because people without thinking have moved things and then have gone away. And I think it’s impossible not to get some sort of form if you don’t think about it. If you do think about it you can get chaos. But if you don’t think about it you get form.”
Wallace Stevens had asserted that art (and poetry too) had been decisively altered by Picasso. Picasso had proved that a picture could consist of a “horde of destructions,” and the same was true of a poem. “Things as they are /Are changed upon the blue guitar,” Stevens wrote in “The Man With The Blue Guitar.” Porter asserted the opposite. Not necessarily approval but “ respect for things as they are” was his animating principle, as he remarked in a letter to the critic Claire Nicolas White. The poet James Schuyler, who lodged with the Porters for a decade following a nervous breakdown, adopted Porter’s aesthetic ideal as his own. This is from Schuyler’s poem “Dec. 28, 1974”: