- Historic Sites
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
A porter letter to Frank O’hara contains the description of a concentration-camp nightmare that the reader will not soon forget. “I was in a concentration camp on the public common of a suburban town,” Porter wrote. “The guards had us crawl toward the sidewalk and we were all issued little torn pieces of paper. On mine was written only w . This meant I was not a Jew. But a bright little boy of about five was a Jew. I was about 25. He and I crawled away and escaped. We were captured again, and I was therefore on probation: if I escaped again I would be a Jew, and the Jews would eventually be sent to the gas chamber. The little boy and I escaped again, and we hid under the porch of the house of some rich people who were possibly Jews, though not in a concentration camp. I wrapped myself in dead leaves for warmth, but the little boy who was so hopelessly volatile, wanted to wrap himself in ice and salt. I warned him he would get cold, and he was restless and wanted to go out from under the porch; it was dangerous, but I was fond of him and did not get angry or feel even reproachful, but I told him that if he attracted attention not only would he suffer, but I too, and that he was endangering my life as well as his own. But he climbed through the lattice work into the leaf-filled hollow garden, and I went with him. Then the owners of the house appeared, and fed us with plates of meat under the leaves and I was happy because I knew that I and the little boy whom I loved would be able to escape to America! and to freedom and happiness.”
In another letter Porter’s great admiration of de Kooning sparks the epiphany that in his work “painting’is released, and more so than by Picasso even, or some Frenchmen. Painting is released—it is like the perfect orgasm, which one would not have dreamt to be possible, especially as long as the perfect orgasm is the desired end in view. Only after this end is forgotten, only when one knows how unimportant it is, only when one is no longer interested in such things, is it achieved.” And there are the pleasures of idle chatter, as when Porter dines with Elaine de Kooning. “Elaine said to me, ‘Is that pure sugar that you are eating?’ and at my admission that it was, she leaned earnestly across the table at me, looking deeply in my eyes, to say with shattering emphasis: ‘Why that’s childish .’”
Porter observed to Kenneth Koch that “illusion is what the American avant garde thinks they don’t like.” His own work is a testament to the enduring value of painterly illusion. “I do not like to be superior to a story or a picture,” he wrote to a friend. “I like to be able to be lost in it. This is not a desire for escape; it is a desire for direct understanding, which is a feeling that gives a sense of psychological power. That is my enjoyment of art.” Porter went on in this letter to describe the kind of art that he had in mind to create: “Art is an image: and it is a clear image which gives you a sense of control over your own life. I remember a movie I once saw, an advertisement of St. Moritz in the wintertime, which started with shots of the hotel, from the front, from the side, from back, from a little distance, and from near. But it was about the hotel, not about the camera moving. I felt that I understood the hotel in a way that would be impossible if you walked around it and saw it in nature. It was like being in a new dimension, the way a two-dimensional creature would feel if he could be taken into a third dimension and for the first time in his life see a square at once and as a whole. Then there were shots of crowds, with details of individuals, just enough, and just long enough, to give me a sense of the crowd as a group, and as made up of separate unconnected people, each of whom it was suggested had a private life which had nothing to do with the accident of their being temporarily together.”
Porter understood that it was pointless to seek out experience, since the most ordinary events are as charged with significance as the most dramatic ones.
For Porter “things as they are” are things as they appear to be: accidental, casual, and unprepared. He understood that it was pointless to seek out experience, since the most ordinary events are as charged with significance as the most dramatic ones. His clear images—so radiant with light—meet reality on its own terms, without prejudice or preconception, transcending the ordinary by reveling in it.