A PAINTER OBSESSED BY THE COLOR BLUE

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.     

Elaine de Kooning
“Fairfield Porter #1”
1954
Oil on canvas
48” x 31 7/8”
Estate of Elaine de Kooning

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.

Fairfield Porter
“Self Portrait in the Studio”
1968
Oil on canvas
22” x 16”
Private Collection

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]

Fairfield Porter
“Island Farmhouse”
1969
Oil on canvas
80” x 79”
Private Collection

(Untitled)

         “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.

NIGHTHAWKS

night1
Edward Hopper
“Study for Nighthawks”
1941-1942
Chalk and charcoal on paper
8 1/2” x 14 1/8” (irregular)
Josephine N. Hopper Bequest,
Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, New York

Even from the beginning he knew that it was going to be a very important painting. He produced a series of preparatory drawings, both of the overall composition and each of the individual figures inhabiting this lonely corner diner.  No matter what his doubts or concerns were, Edward Hopper continued to work on the “Night Hawks” and completed it on 21 January 1942.  It was soon displayed in a local gallery where it was seen by both Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art and Daniel Catton Rich from the Art Institute of Chicago.  “Nighthawks” entered the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago within months of its completion, and for many visitors it has become one of the most important paintings in that collection.

Over the years the “Nighthawks” has inspired many writers and poets, and the Art Institute itself has published a book[i] celebrating the ekphrastic tradition, with its collection and the “Nighthawks” having significant roles in this process.  Even in beginning writing and composition classes we are directed to start with something that we know.  Direct observation and description are often followed by reflection or meditation, which then leads into metaphor and lyricism.  Here are examples from three contemporary writers:  Joseph Stanton, Joyce Carol Oates, and last but not least, Tom Waits.  Although each has written about the same painting, they have moved in very different directions.  Always incorporating a very important and uniquely American aesthetic principle, the transformation of the commonplace.

night2
Edward Hopper
“Nighthawks”
1942
Oil on canvas
33 1/8” x 60”
Friends of American Art,
The Art Institute of Chicago

Nighthawks

“It is about 11 p.m.  It is 1942.  Edward and Jo have just seen The Skin of Our Teeth, off-Broadway.  They have sought the solace of a cup of coffee and a moment’s respite before the five-block walk back to Washington Square.  They have been here before and can call the counter man by name.  They sit near where he works at the slicings for tomorrow’s sandwiches, knowing he will ask about the play.  They want to talk about it.  Edward found it funny.  Jo thought it sad.”

“The man across the counter, who sits alone, is Mr. Antrobus, disguised as Thornton Wilder, but the Hoppers know nothing of this, nor that this scene is a continuation of the play, nor that it will become Edward’s most famous picture.”

“Edward and Jo talk about the Antrobus children and think, without sharing their thoughts, about the Hopper children that will never be.”

“Jo rides the high stool, turning over and over a matchbook that says ‘God is love’ on both sides.  Edward’s right hand, holding a cigarette, rests on the counter a fraction of an inch from Jo’s left hand, but they do not touch.”

“The café is a cool slice of flourescent light jutting into the darkness that is New York City night.  It is the prow of a ship riding the ghosted blue of doorways and the long, dangerous green of alleyways – shoals of shadow.”

“The war is everywhere and nowhere.  The casualty lists in the evening paper tick off the seconds till dawn.”

“Mr. Antrobus/Wilder – missing his haunted, imaginary domesticity – shoves his Times into his coat pocket, leaves a tip, and leaves.  He is thinking he will ride the last train out of Penn Station to a little, nonexistent suburb in New Jersey, where, in a little house near a pond, a little family he will never have waits crouching around a fire, while dinosaurs thunder down suburban streets and the terrible, ridiculous cold comes on.”[ii]

 

night3
Edward Hopper,
“Study for Nighthawks”
1941 or 1942
Chalk and charcoal on paper
8 1/8” x 8”
The Josephine N. Hopper Bequest,
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

EDWARD HOPPER’S NIGHTHAWKS, 1942

“The three men are fully clothed, long sleeves,
even hats, though it’s indoors, and brightly lit,
and there’s a woman. The woman is wearing
a short-sleeved red dress cut to expose her arms,
a curve of her creamy chest; she’s contemplating
a cigarette in her right hand, thinking that
her companion has finally left his wife but
can she trust him? Her heavy-lidded eyes,
pouty lipsticked mouth, she has the redhead’s
true pallor like skim milk, damned good-looking
and she guesses she knows it, but what exactly
has it gotten her so far, and where? — he’ll start
to feel guilty in a few days, she knows
the signs, an actual smell, sweaty, rancid, like
dirty socks; he’ll slip away to make telephone calls
and she swears she isn’t going to go through that
again, isn’t going to break down crying or begging
nor is she going to scream at him, she’s finished
with all that. And he’s silent beside her,
not the kind to talk much but he’s thinking
thank God he made the right move at last,
he’s a little dazed like a man in a dream —
is this a dream? — so much that’s wide, still,
mute, horizontal, and the counterman in white,
stooped as he is and unmoving, and the man
on the other stool unmoving except to sip
his coffee; but he’s feeling pretty good,
it’s primarily relief, this time he’s sure
as h*** going to make it work, he owes it to her
and to himself. . . . And she’s thinking
the light in this place is too bright, probably
not very flattering, she hates it when her lipstick
wears off and her makeup gets caked, she’d like
to use a ladies’ room but there isn’t one here
and . . . how long before a gas station opens? —
it’s the middle of the night and she has a feeling
time is never going to budge. This time
though she isn’t going to demean herself —
he starts in about his wife, his kids, how
he let them down, they trusted him and he let
them down, she’ll slam out of the g*******d room
and if he calls her Sugar or Baby in that voice,
running his hands over her like he has the right,
she’ll slap his face hard, You know I hate that: STOP!
And he’ll stop. He’d better. The angrier
she gets the stiller she is, hasn’t said a word
for the past ten minutes, not a strand
of her hair stirs, and it smells a little like ashes
or like the henna she uses to brighten it, but
the smell is faint or anyway, crazy for her
like he is, he doesn’t notice, or mind —
burying his hot face in her neck. . . . She’s still contemplating
the cigarette burning in her hand,
the counterman is still stooped gaping
at her, and he doesn’t mind that, why not,
as long as she doesn’t look back, in fact
he’s thinking he’s the luckiest man in the world
so why isn’t he happier?”[iii]

 

night4
Edward Hopper
“Study for Nighthawks”
1941 or 1942
Chalk and charcoal on paper
15 1/16” x 11 1/16” (irregular)
The Josephine N. Hopper Bequest,
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson)
“Nighthawks at the diner of Emma’s Forty-Niner
There’s a rendezvous of strangers around the coffee urn tonight
All the gypsy hacks and the insomniacs
Now the paper’s been read, now the waitress said

‘Eggs and sausage and a side of toast
Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy
Chili in a bowl with burgers and fries
What kind of pie? Yeah’

It’s a graveyard charade, it’s a late shift masquerade
And it’s two for a quarter, dime for a dance
Woolworth’s rhinestone diamond earrings and a sideways glance
Now the register rings, now the waitress sings

‘Eggs and sausage and a side of toast
Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy
Chili in a bowl with burgers and fries
What kind of pie? Yeah’

Now well, the classified section offers no direction
It’s a cold caffeine in a nicotine cloud
Now the touch of your fingers lingers burning in my memory
I’ve been eighty-sixed from your scheme
Now I’m in a melodramatic nocturnal scene
Now I’m a refugee from a disconcerted affair
Now the lead pipe morning falls, now the waitress calls
‘Eggs and sausage, another side of toast
Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy
Chili in a bowl with burgers and fries
Now what kind of pie?’

À la mode if you will
Just come in and join the crowd
Had some time to kill, yeah
You see, I just come in to join the crowd
Had some time to kill
Just come in to join the crowd
‘Cause I had some time to kill”[iv]

 

night5
Edward Hopper
“Study for Nighthawks”
1941 or 1942
Chalk on paper
7 1/4” x 4 7/16” (irregular)
The Josephine N. Hopper Bequest,
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

 


[i] Hirsch, Edward, and the Art Institute of Chicago; Transforming Vision:  Writers on Art; A Bullfinch Press Book & Little, Brown and Company; Boston, New York, Toronto, London; 1994.

[ii] Stanton, Joseph; “Nighthawks” Imaginary Museum; Time Being Books; St. Louis, Missouri; 1999; p. 98.

[iii] Oates, Joyce Carol; “Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, 1942” The Time Traveler; E. P. Dutton; New York, New York; 1989; pp. 40-42.

[iv] Waits, Tom; “Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson)” Nighthawks at the Dinner; Audio CD B000002GYG; Asylum Records; New York, New York; 1990.