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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
Although he was older than Pollock and only three years younger than de Kooning, Porter behaved like a contemporary of the younger artists in the so-called second generation of New York-school painters. He allied himself with Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher, two close friends who had studied with Hans Hofmann at his legendary Eighth Street art school. Rivers and Freilicher were intent on absorbing the technical lessons of the abstract revolution without renouncing figuration. It is perhaps in the light of this shared aim that one can best understand Porter’s cryptic remark that “the important thing for critics to remember is the ‘subject matter’ in abstract painting and the abstraction in representational work.” That is, the important thing for critics to consider is the way in which certain abstract principles condition a Rivers pastiche (such as his rendering of George Washington Crossing the Delaware ), a Freilicher landscape, or a Porter view of the harbor at Great Spruce Head Island.
In October 1952 Porter’s one-man show opened. The critics yawned. Few paintings were sold. But during the three weeks they were up, the gallery’s director found himself liking them more and more.
“art does not stand for something outside itself,” Porter wrote, summarizing one lesson he derived from the nonobjective painting of the time. A second lesson concerned the “organic use of accident” in works of art: “When an artist pays the closest possible attention to the work as it goes along, it does not escape his attention that the accident may have a place.” A third lesson was to be “playful about work,” as if the composition of a painting resembled in its processes those of a game.
Porter was forty-five years old when he had his first one-man show in a New York gallery. Rivers and Freilicher, mainstays of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, had talked up Porter to the gallery’s director, John Bernard Myers. Myers, a flamboyant impresario, liked nothing better than pairing off poets and painters on collaborative projects. An unabashed advocate of avantgarde causes from the time he was managing editor of the surrealist magazine View in the 1940s, Myers published the first chapbooks by John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara, and it was he who christened them the “New York school of poetry.” According to Myers’s account, Willem de Kooning interceded crucially in Porter’s behalf. “I’ve got a terrific painter for you to show,” de Kooning said.
“And who might that be?” Myers replied.
“Someone whose work I’m really crazy for—Fairfield Porter.”
“Come on, Bill. Aren’t you pushing one of your friends?”
“No, I mean what I’m saying. Fairfield is terrific.”
Myers was so impressed with de Kooning’s enthusiasm that he agreed to take on Porter “sight unseen”—and was astonished when he encountered representational pictures that resembled Vuillards in their calm and warmth.
In October 1952 Porter’s one-man show opened at Tibor de Nagy. The critics yawned. Few paintings were sold. But Myers himself liked his new artist more and more. “Each day during the three weeks the show was up I found myself studying the paintings carefully, and bit by bit, I could discern the quality, the seriousness that went into them,” he wrote. The fact that his partner at the gallery disliked the pictures had the perverse effect of convincing Myers that “Porter was on the way to doing excellent work.” Porter would show his work annually at Tibor de Nagy for years to come, and it did start selling—luckily, since the income from Porter’s family trust, which had supported the painter through the 1930s and 1940s, had run out.
A year before Myers signed up Porter for Tibor de Nagy, another de Kooning—Elaine—had stepped in with equal decisiveness in shaping Porter’s career as a critic. Porter and Elaine de Kooning had gone together to the Arshile Gorky retrospective at the Whitney Museum in January 1951. They disagreed vehemently on Gorky’s pictures. “She talked to me about how good they were,” Porter said. “And I talked to her about how bad they were.” He apparently argued well. When Elaine decided to stop writing reviews for Art News , she recommended Porter as her replacement. Though Alfred Frankfurter, the editor, thought Porter was too intense to last more than six months, he wrote for the magazine monthly until 1959.