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Fairfield Porter: an American classic
On the Porter retrospective at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
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Not the least of the many extraordinary about the Fairfield Porter retrospective, which Kenworth Moffett recently organized at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, was the way it resulted—overnight, as it were—in a sweeping transformation of the artist’s reputation and status. It is one of the functions of a retrospective exhibition, of course, to enlarge our understanding of an artist’s work, and this often leads to some modification in our estimate of his achievement. But it is rare, all the same, for such exhibitions to produce the kind of prompt and categorical change in critical opinion that greeted this show. Porter, who died in 1975 at the age of sixty-eight, did not lack for serious admirers in his lifetime. Among certain painters and poets, as among certain critics and collectors, his work had for years commanded an almost abject loyalty. Yet beyond the circle of devotees he continued to be regarded as a minor and somewhat eccentric figure, and the public at large was hardly acquainted with his name. It is not exactly a secret that in New York, where Porter was well known in art circles both as a painter and as a critic, no museum would undertake to organize an exhibition of his work. Even the Whitney Museum, famous for its eclectic taste and flexible standards, had to be coerced into accepting even an abridged version of the Boston show.
It is no exaggeration, then, to say that it is only with this retrospective that Porter has emerged for the first time as an American classic—and an immensely popular one, too. In Boston the Porter show proved to be something of a sensation, bringing in some eighty-five thousand visitor s in a period of two months—an astonishing number for an exhibition devoted to a little-known contemporary artist. In the national press, too, the show was treated as a major art event. Even journals that are normally content to act as if contemporary art does not exist—I think particularly of The New Republic and The New York Review of Books—felt obliged to make an exception in this case and pay the Porter exhibition some sort of critical attention. The former invited no less a literary personage than John Updike to review the show—presumably on the grounds that it takes a WASP to understand a WASP, and that only a professional observer of American middle-class manners could be expected to come to terms with the world depicted in Porter’s paintings—while the latter simply reprinted John Ashbery’s affectionate little essay for the exhibition catalogue. (Like many things written about Porter by his friends, this paid a handsome tribute to the man, but had virtually nothing to say about the paintings.) At The New Yorker, the assignment to cover the exhibition for “The Art World” column did not go to the magazine’s regular art critic—a specialist in the antics of Andy Warhol, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg—but to Whitney Balliett, the resident jazz critic and sometime reviewer of novels who happens to be the fortunate owner of one of the best pictures in the exhibition and may thus be presumed to be a passionate admirer of Porter’s work. What is remarkable about all this is not, alas, the critical content of the articles in question—Mr. Balliett’s was by far the best, if only for its quotations from Anne Porter, the artist’s widow—but just the fact of their publication. Nothing quite like the press coverage of the Porter show had been seen hereabouts since the great Picasso retrospective in 1977, and in that case, of course, it was Picasso’s legend that determined the attention. With Porter, it was the exhibition and its coverage that contributed to the creation of a legend.
How are we to account for this response, from both the public and the press, to an artist whose name could scarcely have meant much of anything to either only a short time before? It is usually the case, I think, that such questions, even when answerable, tell us little or nothing about the art that occasions them. But in regard to the Porter exhibition I believe the question goes to something central in the art itself. For Porter’s painting seems to elicit in its public a response—a sense of connection and integration—very much akin to the impulse that moved the artist to create it in the first place. We are given a glimpse of what that impulse was in a particularly illuminating passage in Mr. Moffett’s essay for the catalogue of the exhibition. (Mr. Moffett’s penetrating essay, “The Art of Fairfield Porter,” is by far the best thing ever written on Porter’s paintings.) in this passage, Mr. Moffett is speaking of Porter’s special admiration for the paintings of Vuillard and Velázquez, and he draws from this a compelling insight into Porter’s own work:
It was upon such a hard-won effort to combine his “love of the medium” and his “love of visual reality” that Porter based his own painting from the 1950s onward. Of that, I think, there can be no doubt. And it is in his unusual success in achieving this synthesis of “medium” and “reality” in his painting that the key to his immense appeal at the present time is to be found. For in this painting what Mr. Moffett aptly describes as the “presence of the world” is restored to a place of high importance in pictorial experience, yet this is accomplished without any forfeiture of that priority given to the medium that Porter himself recognized as one of the hallmarks of modernist sensibility. It is precisely this ability to bring together in a unified vision what had more and more come to be divided and codified into separate artistic impulses that distinguishes Porter’s work. This is what some of the younger painters of the Fifties and the Sixties were moved to emulate in their own work—and the reason, incidentally, why they looked upon Porter as a hero and an inspiration—and it is what the public has now responded to with so much pleasure and satisfaction. What is involved in this response is not so much a rejection of modernism in painting entails. What is rejected in this revisionist view, if only by implication, is the notion that the only viable modernist art in our time is to be found in the more reductionist modes of abstraction.
Given the appetite for representational imagery that persisted at one or another level of taste, even so-called “advanced” taste, through all the years that abstraction was establishing its reputation as the dominant mode of contemporary art, it may seem surprising that recognition of Porter’s quality was so long in coming. After all, the subject-matter of his pictures, with its affectionate concentration on family and friends, on fine houses and flowers and agreeable landscapes, should not in itself have been problematic for conventional taste,s and his handling of these subjects gained significantly in fluency, vitality, and confidence as the artist grew older. All the same, Porter’s art proved to be difficult to grasp. It looked too conventional to be avant-garde, yet was insufficiently “reactionary” in outlook or method to satisfy the philistine standards of the time.
If Porter failed to win the kind of approbation that now seems appropriate to his achievement, it was not simply because his paintings were representational, however. To believe this, as may partisans of representational painting apparently do, betrays a serious misunderstanding of the art history of the last thirty years. In the Fifties, when Porter began exhibition his work regularly for the first time, there was in fact a distinct prejudice in favor of certain representational styles—and not only among critics writing in the mass media, who for the most part were utterly hostile to the emergence of abstract art, but even among such champions of the avant-garde as Art News and the Museum of Modern Art. It is worth recalling, in this connection, that it was in the Fifties that Larry Rivers and other “second generation” figurative painters of the New York School achieved a swift success, and in the Sixties, too, the widespread attention and acclaim that greeted Pop art on its initial appearance can hardly be taken as evidence of a dogmatic resistance to representation as such. What met with resistance wasn’t representation, then, but Porter’s particular use of it—and the revisionist “reading” of the modernist enterprise that was implied in that use. It was this that made Porter an isolated figure in the Fifties, and it probably accounts as well for the resistance that his painting continued to meet for a long time thereafter. If this resistance has now abated, as I believe it has, it may be that more orthodox interpretations of modernism have had to run their course and more clearly exhibit their exhaustion before this “conservative” view could be given its due.
In the subtitle that he has given to the Boston retrospective—“Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction”—Mr. Moffett alludes to Porter’s isolated position while at the same time affirming his own belief in abstraction as the dominant style of the age. This in turn suggests that Porter was something of an anomaly in the art of his time—which, in some respects, he certainly was. Yet he nonetheless had something in common with the abstract painters of his generation, and I don’t mean only his often professed debt to Willem de Kooning. I think it sheds an interesting light on Porter’s development if we see what that common ground was. But in order to understand what it was that he shared with those painters, it must first be understood that it was to the Abstract Expressionist generation that Porter himself belonged—a fact that has been obscured by the history of his reputation. His first solo exhibition took place at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1951, and his work from this period marks the beginning of the oeuvre that Mr. Moffett has brought together in the current retrospective. (The very few earlier works in the exhibition have, at best, a documentary rather than an artistic interest.) This would seem to place Porter in the generation of Larry Rivers, Helen Frakenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Jane Freilicher, and Robert Goodnough—the so-called “second generation” of the New York School. But it is not to this chronological generation that Porter belongs. In 1951 he was forty-four years old—only three years younger than de Kooning, but actually a few years older than Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Ad Reinhardt. What he shared with some of the older members of this first generation was a protracted and no doubt painful period of uncertainty that effectively postponed the development of an independent style until the brink of middle age.
To what may we ascribe this phenomenon of delayed development in artists who consequently displayed not only conspicuous talent in many cases but a real gift for invention and originality? Surely there were important personal factors involved, but exactly what these were we are unlikely to know in any concrete detail until a time comes when the biographies of these painters can be written without the restrictions that are inevitably imposed by their heirs and beneficiaries. Yet I doubt if purely personal circumstances will even then account for a phenomenon so widespread in a generation as diverse as this one. We must look, rather, for some larger shaping factor in the history of the period, and my own view is that we are more likely to find it in the cultural imperatives of the Thirties than in the biographies of individual artists.
In any reckoning of these imperatives, especially as they affected Porter’s artistic development (but not his alone), there are three that strike me as particularly salient. The first is the immense influence exerted by Marxism and the ethos of the radical movement. Notwithstanding his private income and the leisure and independence this guaranteed him, Porter was more deeply affected by this political current than is nowadays generally recognized. (Not until Rackstraw Downes produced his excellent edition of Porter’s critical writings in 1979 was this aspect of the artist’s intellectual outlook first documented for us.) He had gone to the Soviet Union as early as 1927, his junior year at Harvard, and is said to have made a sketch of Trotsky at that time. From the Thirties onward Porter seems to have remained some sort of unaffiliated radical, and as late as 1962 he wrote an essay on “Class Content in American Abstract Painting” for Art News. For much of his adult life, it seems, Porter was haunted by the need to reconcile art—not only his own, but any art that really meant something to him—with his political and social interests. I think it is this need, not always acknowledged as such, that gives to some his criticism its special moral fervor.
The second of the cultural imperatives I have in mind—the modernist art of Europe, especially as it was shaping American art in the Thirties—was more directly aesthetic. Yet for Porter this aesthetic imperative proved to be almost as difficult to come to terms with as his political interests. He seems not to have been able to make up his mind about it. He neither embraced it nor rejected it, but remained a little outside its appeals. In the Thirties he got to know de Kooning, and bought his work, and in 1938 he saw an exhibition of Bonnard and Vuillard at the Art Institute of Chicago that made an enduring impression on his artistic thought. But the affinity he felt for both de Kooning and Vuillard in the Thirties did not bring Porter any closer to the more radical impulses of modernist painting. This may sound paradoxical, but it isn’t. For in the Thirties, de Kooning’s painting was not yet as “advanced” as it afterwards became, and Vuillard could certainly not be counted as an avatar of the avant-garde.
In the Thirties, then, Porter could fairly be characterized as a political radical and an artistic conservative. This was not, by the way, at all an uncommon combination of cultural loyalties at the time. One finds something similar in artists as different from each other—and from Porter—as Thomas Hart Benton and Arshile Gorky, even though Benton was more of a reactionary in his attitude toward modernism and Gorky more of an acolyte. (It is a matter of interest, of course, that Porter studied with Benton at the Art Students League.) For Porter, however, more than for many artists of his generation, there was a third imperative that exacerbated his relation to modernist art and contributed to his diffidence. This was his early and enduring admiration for and knowledge of the Old Masters. Mr. Moffett speaks of the role played in the formation of his art by Porter’s “early experiences with Old Master painting and his training at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, which was then permeated by Renaissance ideals and classical aesthetics.” “When studying with Arthur Pope or reading Bernard Berenson’s books,” Mr. Moffett writes, “Porter’s taste for traditional structure and pictorial decorum was probably first confirmed,” and he suggests that this was reinforced by Benton’s teaching. Porter had met Berenson in Italy in 1931, and this venerable figure—so remote from the concerns of modernist art, yet so authoritative in his discrimination of aesthetic quality—remained for Porter a touchstone of critical wisdom to the end. It seems to me that there was little likelihood that a mind so disposed could ever have brought itself to align its artistic ambitions with the more revolt innovations of modernist art, and in fact Porter never did.
It is in the light of these imperatives that we are obliged to consider the most celebrated of the anecdotes connected with Porter’s career—the encounter with Clement Greenberg in de Kooning’s studio in the late Forties. The story is told by Porter in a conversation he once recorded with Paul Cummings. (An excerpt is reprinted in the catalogue of the exhibition.) Cummings asked Porter if he had ever been an abstract painter, and Porter replied:
No. One reason I never became an abstract painter is that I used to see Clement Greenberg regularly and we always argued, we always disagreed. Everything one of us said, the other would say no to. He told me I was very conceited. I thought my opinions were as good as his or better. I introduced him to de Kooning (Greenberg was publicizing Pollock at that time), and he said to de Kooning (who was painting the women), “You can’t paint this way nowadays.” And I thought: “You can’t paint figuratively today.” And I thought: If that’s what he says, I think I will do just exactly what he says I can’t do. I might have become an abstract painter except for that.
Porter then went on to say:
Another reason I paint the way I do is that in 1938 at the Art institute of Chicago there was an exhibition of Vuillard and Bonnard. I looked at the Vuillards and thought that maybe they were just a revelation of the obvious, and why did one think of doing anything else when it was so natural to do that.
Now this is a very curious story, and is not, I think, to be taken at face value. I am not persuaded that Porter “might have become an abstract painter” under any circumstances, and I doubt if Porter really believed this himself. Everything we know about the artist and the man makes it highly improbable that he would have based the most important artistic decision of his life on such a facile gesture of intellectual defiance. Yet I believe that this story nonetheless offers us an important clue to the development of Porter’s art—and, indeed, to the very nature of his art.
The encounter in de Kooning’s studio would have taken place in 1947 and 1948, approximately ten years after the Vuillard exhibition in Chicago. We may thus wonder why, if Vuillard’s “revelation of the obvious” struck Porter with such force in 1938, it took him the better part of a decade to act upon it in his own work. In 198 Porter was thirty-one years old—still a “young” artist by the standards of the day, but not exactly an unformed youth. There were no economic obstacles to be overcome, and his sense of vocation seems to have been reasonably secure—as secure, anyway, as it can ever be in an artist who has not yet discovered his forte. He was gifted, intelligent, independent, and knowledgeable, and ambitious enough to be on the lookout for a viable point of entry into the art of his time. If he felt he had found it in Vuillard, how are we to account for this protracted delay in his development?
The truth is, I believe, that Porter found only part of what he was looking for in his experience of what Mr. Moffett describes as ?Vuillard’s conservatism, a respect for the wholeness, uniqueness, and presence of the world.” This, to be sure, remained a necessary and indispensable term in the dialectic of Porter’s mature style. But it wasn’t enough to inspired that style. What Porter still lacked even after his discovery of Vuillard—and what it took him another decade to acquire—was a redefinition of the medium in which the “love of visual reality” that he shared with Vuillard could be effectively realized in unmistakably contemporary terms. It was precisely this that Porter discovered in de Kooning’s paintings of the late Forties, and why de Kooning always remained a sacred figure for him—a touchstone of the age. Abstract Expressionism, at least as it was practiced by de Kooning (and Kline too, probably) supplied Porter with the kind of contemporary redefinition of the painting medium that he needed as the other term in the dialectic of his style.
Abstract Expressionism thus served Porter’s artistic interests very much as Impressionism had served Vuillard’s. It gave him the means of producing art that was modern as well as traditional—for producing an art that he could somehow regard as complete. Now that we have been able to take the measure of Porter’s achievement in tis retrospective exhibition, we can see more clearly than ever before that what he, too, aspired to make was “something solid and durable like the art of the museums,” and that it was of the relationship that he forged between Abstract Expressionism (“the love of the medium”) and his own “love of visual reality” that he made it. He was not alone in this ambition, of course. Many of the “second generation” figurative painters in the Fifties shared the same kind of ambition. Yet Porter succeeded in a way that most of them did not, and on a larger and more consistent scale too, not only because his dependence on de Kooning was notably less abject than theirs but also—and more importantly—because he was equipped by training and experience to bring to bear on his painting a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of what “the art of the museums” actually consisted of. He was not dependent on de Kooning, as many of the younger painters were, for his notion of what that art was. His knowledge of it had long preceded his own ambition to produce it himself.
Oddly enough, it was Porter?s independence—for he never belonged to the legion of de Kooning’s imitators—that contributed to his isolation in the Fifties. He could not be considered a part of the ABstract Expressionist movement, and he could not be entirely separated from it, either. He had to wait until Abstract Expressionism had itself become as historical as Impressionism before the splendor of his stubborn individualism could be fully grasped and appreciated. Now that it has been, or at least he begun to be, we may note a further irony in Porter’s situation as an artist. During all the years that he was openly acknowledging his debt to de Kooning and (as a critic) elucidating what he saw as de Kooning’s special quality, he was himself emerging as a painter superior to de Kooning in his achievement. That, it seems to me, is one of the things we learn from this exhibition. Porter himself would probably have been horrified by this judgment—or maybe not: he was a proud man—but it is a conclusion that strikes me as inescapable for anyone who studies this exhibition with careful attention. Only in the last gallery of the show did Porter seem, strangely, to lose his way occasionally, either by venturing toward an Avery-ish mode of abstraction for which he had no gift or by doing just the opposite—basing his pictures on a literalism that did not suit him. Otherwise, the exhibition moved from strength to strength with a consistency and eloquence that were overwhelming.
Make no mistake: after this 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. For myself, though as a critic I had praised Porter’s work on a number of occasions during the last twenty years and thought I knew it well, I found I was not really prepared for what I found in this exhibition, either. For a critic it is a very odd experience to praise an artist’s work over a long period of time and then discover, as I did in Boston, that I had actually underrated it. For at least one visitor, that too made this exhibition a truly extraordinary event.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 May 1983, on page 1
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