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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
Through his friendship with Rivers and Freilicher, Porter met Ashbery, Koch, O’Hara, and Schuyler, the four core members of the New York school of poetry. The circle these poets and painters formed was based equally on friendship and artistic affinity, a shared aesthetic point of view and an ideal of intense personal loyalty. For the pages of Art News , Porter wrote “Larry Rivers Paints a Picture” and “Jane Freilicher Paints a Picture,” and O’Hara reciprocated with “Fairfield Porter Paints a Picture.” Porter also put his friends into his paintings. His 1951 portrait Larry Rivers , his double portrait of Schuyler and Ashbery ( Jimmy and John , 1957–58), his 1967 picture of Freilicher with her daughter, Elizabeth ( Jane and Elizabeth ), and his rendering the same year of John Ashbery and James Schuyler Writing “A Nest of Ninnies” are particularly fine.
Inspired by the poets, Porter took to writing poems and often attached his latest efforts to letters sent to friends. He learned the rules of the sestina from Kenneth Koch, and this became his favorite form; he and Koch even corresponded in sestinas for several years. Some of these are charming. But my favorite Porter poem is “I Wonder What They Think of My Verses,” a kind of group portrait of his circle of friends in their reactions to the painter’s poems:
The poem names, in order, Jimmy Schuyler, Larry Rivers, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Jane Freilicher, Anne Porter, the photographer Rudy Burckhardt, the photographer Walter Auerbach, the dance critic and poet Edwin Denby, Kenneth Koch, and two of Porter’s sons, Jerry and Laurence.
Porter proved himself to be an able polemicist in favor of the poetry his friends were writing. Ashbery’s first book, Some Trees (1956), selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets series, baffled many readers. William Arrowsmith aired his misgivings in the pages of The Hudson Review . “I have no idea most of the time what Mr. Ashbery is talking about or being, beyond the communication of an intolerable vagueness that looks as if it was meant for precision,” Arrowsmith complained. “What does come through is an impression of an impossibly fractured brittle private world, depersonalized and discontinuous, whose characteristic emotional gesture is an effete and cerebral whimsy.” Porter defended Ashbery at length. “In Ashbery’s poetry there is a kind of music new to poetry,” he argued. “Ashbery’s verbal phrases are to me ideas in the way that musical phrases may be so considered.”