In 1993-1994 the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York organized and circulated an exhibition in honor of the American painter, Fairfield Porter. This project drew heavily upon the museum’s own collection, which included 237 paintings and drawings from the Fairfield Porter Bequest. The exhibition was presented at several other East Coast museums, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and traveled as far west as the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.
In writing about Porter, the art historian William C. Agee described, and helped to define, the position of this very independent artist. “Above all, Porter should be seen in the tradition of American individualism. In his insistence on the real and concrete nature of experience, on the distinctiveness and diversity, even the arbitrary nature, of facts, Porter proclaimed the triumph of the individual. It was a triumph of the individual over technocracy and the state, of the singular over the general, of the real and vital over the standardized and the routine, of the natural over the artificial.”[i]
It could also be said that Fairfield Porter sought the disciplined over the undisciplined, as both a painter and a poet. He was difficult to categorize aesthetically and was often aligned with a varied community of other artists and writers both in and outside of the New York School. Elaine and Willem de Kooning were both close friends and colleagues. Others, such as John Ashberry, Kenneth Koch, Jane Freilicher, and Rackstraw Downes were within a close circle of friends and influences.
As a poet, he practiced several literary forms and structures. These included the sonnet, the sestina, and the technique of counting syllables. He was also an important and prolific art critic, writing for both Art News and The Nation from 1951 to 1961. Writing in The Nation on 6 June 1959 regarding Willem de Kooning’s exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, Porter observed:
“A painter of my acquaintance said of de Kooning, ‘He leaves a vacuum behind him.’”
“…de Kooning’s abstractions…release human significances that cannot be expressed verbally. It is as though his painting reached a different level of consciousness than painting that refers to a theory of aesthetics, or that refers to any sort of program: in short any painting that is extensively verbalized. His meaning is not that the paintings have Meaning, like certain vast canvases notable for the difficulty of containing them in any given space. Nor is their meaning that They Have Not Been Done Before. Nor is it the romanticizing of nature, as with the West Coast abstractionists. The vacuum they leave behind them is a vacuum in accomplishment, in significance and in genuineness.”[ii]
Porter’s play with words, in both his criticism and his poetry, clearly comes out of an intense vision of the world around him. Whether it is a comment on de Kooning’s paintings, or a dialogue with Kenneth Koch on sonnets and sestinas, Porter brings the very same intensity of seeing to the objects included in his own paintings: still lives left on the breakfast table, or in the artist’s studio, or his children at play, or the family dog resting in the shadows of a summer’s day.
A Painter Obsessed By Blue
“No color isolates itself like blue.
If the lamp’s blue shadow equals the yellow
Shadow of the sky, in what way is one
Different from the other? Was he on the verge of a discovery
When he fell into a tulip’s bottomless red?
Who is the mysterious and difficult adversary?
If he were clever enough for the adversary
He should not have to substitute for blue,
For a blue flower radiates as only red
Does, and red is bottomless like blue. Who loves yellow
Will certainly make in his life some discovery
Say about the color of the sky, or another one.
That the last color is the difficult one
Proves the subtlety of the adversary.
Will he ever make the difficult discovery
Of how to gain the confidence of blue?
Blue is for children; so is the last yellow
Between the twigs at evening, with more poignancy than red.
A furnace with a roar consumes the red
Silk shade of a lamp whose light is not one
Like birds’ wings or valentines or yellow,
Able to blot out the mysterious adversary
Resisted only by a certain blue
Illusively resisting all discovery.”[iii]
“In the blue still air
The spruce pollen shaken from the trees
At the tenderest stir,
Moves in tall clouds before them
To drift uselessly
Salting the moss and leaves underfoot,
And settle promiscuously
On the table and chairs and cement
In mustard ripples.
The boys living in the next house
Burst into giggles
At every careless observation,
The food they cook
In vast quantities is quite inedible,
Their faces look
As burned and tawny as the spruce flowers.”[iv]
[i] Agee, William C., et al; Fairfield Porter: An American Painter; The Parrish Art Museum; South Hampton, New York; 1993; pp. 18-19.
[ii] Porter, Fairfield; Art in its Own Terms: Selected Criticism 1935-1975; (edited and with an introduction by Rackstraw Downes); Taplinger Publishing Company; New York, New York; 1979; pp. 36 & 37-38.
[iii] Porter, Fairfield; The Collected Poems, with selected drawings; (edited by John Yau with an introduction by John Ashbery); Tibor de Nagy Editions/The Promise of Learnings, Inc.; New York, New York; 1985; pp. 75-76.
[iv] Porter, Fairfield; The Collected Poems, with selected drawings; (edited by John Yau with an introduction by John Ashbery); Tibor de Nagy Editions/The Promise of Learnings, Inc.; New York, New York; 1985; p. 11.