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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 his lifetime Fairfield Porter (1907–75) appeared on no one’s list of the greatest American painters of the twentieth century. Although he was respected and admired for both his painting and his criticism from the early 1950s on, Porter achieved neither the popular celebrity nor the critical acclaim that attended the ballyhooed careers of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol.
It is easy to see why. Porter was not only a maverick, deliberately out of step with his time, but a heretic who dissented from the central tenet of the credo of the age. A realist who found his inspiration in the realm of external appearances, Porter developed his distinctive and mature style in the last twenty-five years of his life, a period coinciding exactly with the triumph of the New York school of painting. Abstract art was king. Radical new methods of composition had found acceptance, and artists exercised unprecedented freedom in their conception of what a painting could look like, how big it could be, and how little relation it needed to have to the traditional ways and means of representational art.
In the climate of the late 1940s, it took daring and will to commit oneself resolutely to representational art. This is what Porter did. With quiet tenacity he revitalized the American landscape tradition.
In the late 1940s Jackson Pollock, the icebreaker, had begun pouring his paint straight from the tube or can onto a canvas the size of a mural stretched on the floor. A Pollock painting like Number 1 (1948) or Blue Poles (1953) was an exhibition of primal energy. It was about nothing besides itself; the history of its making was the painting’s true subject. Following Pollock’s lead, one New York-based painter after another converted to the abstract creed. Nature considered as something external to the painter was repudiated, disfigured, or discarded. “A time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it,” Mark Rothko observed. The paintings in Willem de Kooning’s famous series Women were gigantic, distorted, monstrous. Some artists abjured the figure altogether. Rothko’s signature style consisted of stacked cubes of saturated color; Barnett Newman split his canvases, using a thin vertical stripe to separate two wide fields of color; Ad Reinhardt, the purist par excellence, was famous for his series of black-on-black pictures. A mnemonic that helped gallery-goers learn who was who in abstract art said that Rothko had pulled down the shades, Newman closed the door, and Reinhardt shut off the lights.
In this climate it took daring and will to commit oneself resolutely to representational art. This is what Porter did. With quiet tenacity he revitalized the American landscape tradition. He reinvented figurative painting as a legitimate—and modern—enterprise in the teeth of the pressure (and it was fierce) to regard it as outmoded and passé. Yet Porter did not paint in ignorance of contemporary trends. On the contrary, the record he left as an art critic for Art News in the 1950s and The Nation in the 1960s shows him to have been one of the most astute—and sympathetic—observers of the period. He immersed himself in the new art and found in de Kooning, in particular, a master whose lessons he endeavored to apply in his own works; he wrote penetratingly on de Kooning and became good friends of the painter and his wife, Elaine. But for all his exposure to Rothko’s rectangles (“A whole Mondrian equals the sum of its parts, but a whole Rothko is greater than the sum of its parts,” Porter wrote) and Robert Motherwell’s abstract “formalities” (which “makes mess into organism”), Porter’s whole painterly career affirmed an old-fashioned mimetic ideal: the idea of depicting things as they are, not as we might will them to be; the idea that reality resides neither in Platonic forms nor in the dark recesses of the artist’s unconscious but in the actual way things appear to an attentive observer.
In an age when to be avant-garde seemed the highest good, Porter took the terrible risk of being dismissed as eccentric, reactionary, or, worst of all, academic. The irony is that he managed to be a figurative painter without turning his back on modern art; he reconciled his deep steeping in the art of the past with the liberating sense of the medium that he found in the big powerful brushstrokes of de Kooning’s paintings. The further irony is that Porter’s go-your-own-way individualism makes him seem, from our vantage point today, nothing if not an avant-garde hero.
When Porter died at the age of sixty-eight in 1975, a charmed circle of intimate friends—including the poets John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler and the painters Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers—joined the painter’s widow and their children in grief. He was mourned publicly too. The obituary writers noted his accomplishments as a painter and critic of the first order. Grace Glueck in The New York Times called him a “late bloomer,” who “did not, in fact, until the last decade get the wide recognition that knowledgeable critics and his painter friends felt he deserved.”
Porter felt that the artist who imposes his own order on things kills the life of the painting, but he believed it “impossible not to get some sort of form if you don’t think about it.”
Something extraordinary happened in the years following Porter’s death. The first big event was the publication of his selected criticism in a volume entitled Fairfield Porter: Art in Its Own Terms in 1979. Reviewing the work for The New York Times , Hilton Kramer was unequivocal in his praise: “This is an extraordinary book, one that places Porter among the most important critics of his time. What once seemed fragmentary and somewhat unfocused (owing perhaps to its original mode of publication) now turns out to have been the most consistently sensitive and thoughtful writing on new art, and on the art of the recent past, that any critic of the time gave us.”
It was the landmark Porter exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 1983 that did more than anything else to cause a meteoric rise in his posthumous reputation. This, the first major retrospective of Porter’s work, was subtitled “Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction,” a resonant phrase that captured his peculiar achievement. Press reaction to the show was ecstatic. John Updike weighed in at The New Republic , and Whitney Balliett at The New Yorker . Writing in Newsweek , John Ashbery argued “for a new assessment of Porter as perhaps the major American artist of this century.” Hilton Kramer, who was and is better known for his animadversions than his enthusiasms, called Porter “an American classic.” As a painter, Kramer wrote, Porter was “superior to de Kooning in achievement.” After the Boston exhibition “the history of American painting is going to have to be rewritten to give Fairfield Porter a larger place than he has heretofore been granted. He is going to have to be recognized as one of the classics of our art.”
Porter as “perhaps the major American artist of this century”? That is quite a statement. Ours has been, after all, the century of Abstract Expressionism, the first indigenous American art movement to have conquered the world. There is a bittersweet pleasure in belated recognition, a confirmation of one’s hopeful sense that there is justice in the long run in matters of artistic dispute. The sustained uptick in Porter’s critical reception is all the sweeter when one recalls that never in his lifetime did he enjoy the benefit of a retrospective exhibition in a major museum, this despite the fact that his was a familiar presence in the New York art world.
Content with the conventional brush and easel, Porter specialized in landscapes, still lifes, interiors, and portraits. He painted what he saw in a life lived with a large family and constant houseguests in Southampton, Long Island (where the painter and his wife, the poet Anne Porter, moved in 1949, before the Hamptons became posh), and in their summer home on Great Spruce Head Island in Maine. In a Porter still life you may have a bouquet of flowers at the center, but you also have the artist’s daughter and the remnants of breakfast on the table and a copy of Wallace Stevens’s Collected Poems beside the sugar bowl and a jar of jam. In such a work as Lizzie at the Table (1958), nothing has been arranged. Porter felt that the artist who imposes his own order on things kills the life of the painting. “Often in still lifes—almost always in still lifes—I don’t arrange them,” he commented. “Usually it’s just that the way the dishes are on the table at the end of the meal strikes me suddenly. And so I paint it. Part of my idea or my feeling about form that’s interesting is that it is discovered—that it’s the effect of something unconscious like, you know, the dishes are in a certain arrangement at the end of a meal because people without thinking have moved things and then have gone away. And I think it’s impossible not to get some sort of form if you don’t think about it. If you do think about it you can get chaos. But if you don’t think about it you get form.”
Wallace Stevens had asserted that art (and poetry too) had been decisively altered by Picasso. Picasso had proved that a picture could consist of a “horde of destructions,” and the same was true of a poem. “Things as they are /Are changed upon the blue guitar,” Stevens wrote in “The Man With The Blue Guitar.” Porter asserted the opposite. Not necessarily approval but “ respect for things as they are” was his animating principle, as he remarked in a letter to the critic Claire Nicolas White. The poet James Schuyler, who lodged with the Porters for a decade following a nervous breakdown, adopted Porter’s aesthetic ideal as his own. This is from Schuyler’s poem “Dec. 28, 1974”:
It is Porter’s “inward glow” that shines in Schuyler’s poems.
Light is the invisible subject of Porter’s paintings. It is there in the mellow gray of Calm Morning (1961), in which sea and sky fade into fog, while the oranges and yellows in the foreground are reminders of the brightness of the light from the absent sun. It is there, too, in the warmth of October Interior (1963), in which the foliage seen in the window blends into the potted palms on the table inside. Porter’s color is in a high key: intense, bright, unmuted, and brimming with light. “I never was one to paint space ” he once wrote. “I paint air.”
Porter was born on an unseasonably cold June day in Hubbard Woods, now Winnetka, just north of Chicago, in 1907. “It was snowing on the day I was born and I’ve had a cold ever since,” he liked to say. The Porter family came from patrician origins; T. S. Eliot was a distant relation. Fairfield, the fourth of five children, studied art history at Harvard (class of ’28) and at the Art Students League, where he took instruction from Thomas Hart Benton. He visited Russia in 1927, his junior year at Harvard, and took leftist politics to heart. But he grew disenchanted with the Soviet experiment, and his letters from the 1930s chronicle a continual quarrel with Marxism. In 1931 he went to Italy, where he met Bernard Berenson. The paintings of the Italian Renaissance proved to be a more durable source of inspiration than socialist politics for the young painter.
In 1932 Porter married Anne Channing, whom he had met when he was a student at Harvard, and the couple settled in New York City. They would have five children. John, their first child, was born with a serious mental illness, and it is possible that Porter’s development as a painter was slowed because of his preoccupation with the boy’s malady. “No psychiatrists or doctors seemed to know anything definite about him, and the result on me was that I really did nothing for about the first ten years of his life but try to somehow help him,” Porter wrote in 1958. “This was a most frustrating experience, because I was trying to solve something for which there was no solution.” Only after sending John to a foster home in Vermont did Porter feel he could have a career of his own. “It wasn’t until after the war that I could concentrate on painting, that means paint without thinking of my supposed failure as a father in this one case.”
Porter was influenced by Velázquez, whose masterpiece Las Meninas inspired Porter’s magnificent picture The Mirror (1966). In The Mirror , as in its source, the depiction of a busy interior doubles as a self-portrait of the artist in his studio. The Mirror centers on Porter’s daughter Lizzie, posed on a stool in his Southampton studio. But the mirror behind her reveals not only her back but the painter himself, brush in hand, standing in front of a wall filled with pictures (or representations of pictures, the Mona Lisa among them). In the adjacent window a tree shades a neighboring house. The picture resolves all the antitheses in it—father/daughter, mirror/window, inside/outside—with the twist that the painter emerges as not only the agent of aesthetic contemplation but also its observer. I met the grown-up Lizzie Porter recently and asked her about what it was like modeling for that painting. “It was hard to sit still,” she recalled. “I was only ten years old. But my father would talk to me or Jimmy [Schuyler] would read to me.”
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.