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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
“to say that you cannot paint the figure today,” Porter wrote in 1962, “is like an architectural critic saying that you must not use ornament, or as if a literary critic proscribed reminiscence.”
An even greater influence on porter was Édouard Vuillard, whose paintings electrified the thirty-one-year-old American when he saw them at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938: “I looked at the Vuillards and thought—maybe it was just a sort of revelation of the obvious, and why does one think of doing anything else when it’s so natural to do this.” Kenworth Moffett, curator of the 1983 Porter show in Boston, explained Porter’s predilection for Vuillard: “He felt that it was Vuillard, not Cézanne, who had ‘made of Impressionism something solid and durable like the art of the museums.’ ‘Vuillard organized Impressionist discoveries about color and pigments into a coherent whole.’ Or Vuillard was more ‘coherent and orderly’ than Monet. Now it can be said that more than Cézanne or Bonnard or Monet, Vuillard, especially the later Vuillard, kept to traditional perspective and drawing. He was innovative, fresh, personal, mostly in his handling of paint and in his unusual sense of color. Something like this could be said about Porter, too; he experienced what we think of as Vuillard’s conservatism, a respect for the wholeness, uniqueness, and presence of the world.”
An opinionated and impulsive man, Porter fired off letters to magazine editors with the gusto of an autodidact. He tangled memorably with Clement Greenberg, the ayatollah of abstract art, on several occasions. Porter dissented from Greenberg’s major pronouncements in Partisan Review in 1940 and again fifteen years later. What he particularly objected to in Greenberg’s criticism was its heavy emphasis on historical reasoning: Greenberg argued for the new art on the basis of its historical inevitability. The logic of Greenberg’s position obliged him to claim, in Porter’s words, that “it was impossible to paint the figure any more” since “it had already been so thoroughly done that nothing new could be added—an important consideration to a critic allied to the principle of social progress.”
Porter saw the dangers of a position that would subordinate aesthetics to art history and would confuse the descriptive role of the critic with the prognosticative role of a dictator or seer. “To say that you cannot paint the figure today, is like an architectural critic saying that you must not use ornament, or as if a literary critic proscribed reminiscence,” Porter wrote in 1962. “In each case the critical remark is less descriptive of what is going on than it is a call for a following—a slogan demanding allegiance. In this case criticism is so much influenced by politics that it imitates the technique of a totalitarian party on the way to power.”
For Porter the function of art criticism could be summarized in a single sentence: “The best criticism is simply the best description.” The statement is beautifully continuous with Porter’s own painterly practice.
It was in opposition to Greenberg’s dicta about modern art that Porter defined himself. His personal relations with the redoubtable critic had been cordial enough to permit Porter to introduce Greenberg to Willem de Kooning in the early 1950s. At the time, the art world seemed divided neatly into two: those who thought Pollock the acme of abstract art and those who opted for de Kooning. Greenberg, Pollock’s strongest advocate, told de Kooning that his new series Women was old hat. “You can’t paint this way nowadays,” Greenberg said. For Porter, who was present at the time, it was a moment of illumination. “I thought, ‘If that’s what he says, I think I will do just exactly what he says I can’t do! That’s all I will do.’ I might have become an abstract painter except for that.”
Porter’s account of how he became a figurative painter does not tell the whole story. There is too much reason to believe that he would have painted portraits and landscapes whatever Greenberg said or didn’t say. Still, the anecdote makes its point about Porter’s stubborn perversity, which under the circumstances seems like a euphemism for integrity.
The painter’s contrariness was exemplary. “I want to do everything that avant-garde theoreticians say you can’t do,” he remarked. “When someone says you can’t disregard the past fifty years of art history, it makes me want to prove you can—the avant-garde implies a protocol which is more a challenge than a guide.”