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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 1961 Porter’s essay “Poets and Painters in Collaboration” was the first serious critical effort to come to terms with the New York school of poetry. Characteristically, Porter considered the four poets less a unified movement than a quartet of highly distinctive individuals. He was especially eloquent in putting the case for Ashbery, who of all the poets came the nearest in his verbal practice to the methods of Abstract Expressionism. “Ashbery’s language is opaque; you cannot see through it any more than you can look through a fresco,” Porter observed. “And as the most interesting thing about abstract painting is its subject matter, so one is held by the sibylline clarity of Ashbery’s simple sentences.” Porter was moved to an epiphany. Ashbery, he wrote in a lovely sentence, “has retained the clear but incommunicable knowledge of the child who was surrounded by heaven in his infancy, when a sense of wonder precluded judgment.”
Of the poets in the New York school, Porter was closest to James Schuyler personally and in artistic temperament. Schuyler, who suffered from psychotic fits (on one occasion washing money in the sink under the delusion that he was Jesus Christ), found tranquility living with the Porters. As Anne Porter put it, he came to lunch one day and stayed for eleven years. There is a sense in which Porter’s paintings and Schuyler’s poems amount to a largely unconscious collaboration of kindred sensibilities. Schuyler was once asked whether he ever wrote poems about Porter’s paintings. “No,” he replied, “but I tried to write poems that were like his painting.” And indeed, Porter could have been describing his own art when he wrote of Schuyler’s verse that it “tends toward a deceptively simple Chinese visibility, like transparent windows on a complex view.”
Porter’s correspondence has now been gathered, and a selection of his letters, edited by his former student Ted Leigh, is scheduled for publication next year by the University of Michigan Press. The imminent appearance of the letters marks an occasion for a renewed celebration of Porter’s painting and for an appreciation of the artist’s quirky, indeed ornery personality. Porter was a feisty correspondent, who fearlessly entered the intellectual discourse of his time. He liked telling off pundits, and he refused to commit himself to leftist politics in the approved ideological manner of the 1930s. In his frequent exchanges with the poet John Wheelwright, another Harvard-educated eccentric genius, Porter struck the note of obstinate independence that would always be his. Wheelwright had urged Porter to join the Socialist party. He refused to join “any radical party,” Porter explained, “because I don’t feel that I could then continue being a painter, or at least not an honest one. How can one both believe in revolution strongly enough to want to work for it and at the same time paint pictures? Pictures aren’t useful enough.”
John Ashbery once observed that Porter “could veer from far left to extreme right without any apparent transition.” The dangers of nuclear power and “the plutonium economy” impelled him to write letters to The New York Times : “Our society has taken the forward step of promoting a world-wide cancer epidemic in order to expand the use of radioactive elements, and put money in the right pockets.” In conversation Porter could go off on a tirade while his friends stifled giggles and groans. Still, there is wisdom where the crank and epigrammatist meet: “Technology is what threatens all life on this planet. It is idealism put into practice.” There is also much critical insight: “Order seems to come from searching for disorder, and awkwardness from searching for harmony or likeness, or the following of a system. The truest order is what you already find there, or that will be given if you don’t try for it. When you arrange, you fail.”
From his wife, anne (whose collected poems were on the shortlist for the National Book Award in poetry in 1994), Porter developed his understanding of the clarity and lucidity that characterize both his pictures and his literary taste. “Anne has a word for a kind of writing she admires, which is: transparency. This has nothing to do with making something clearly understandable as an idea. She said about the poems of John Ashbery that she admired that he lucidly showed you something that is a mystery.” Porter’s take on the poetry of his time is rewarding. He was a big fan of Elizabeth Bishop, didn’t care for Robert Lowell, and had shrewd and perceptive things to say about both of them. About Lowell: “Like his aunt, he is a tourist, but not in Italy—in history.” About Bishop: “Her relaxed line … allows each word enough space to be savored properly for what it is.”