Fairfield Porter

         Fairfield Porter was a mid-twentieth century painter and critic whose time was mostly split between Southampton, Long Island and Great Spruce Head Island, Maine. Though he was friends with many abstract painters and had a breadth of knowledge about and deep understanding of the popular expressionist styles of the time, his work was both figurative and “realistic”, in that its subject matter seemed easily recognizable and readable. His work was already unique for being representational in a nonrepresentational climate, but there was also insouciance and irreverence underlying his approach that modified the apparent inoffensiveness of his content, which may have been generated through defensive posturing. While his contemporaries sought to break boundaries, Porter had the luxury, the bravery, and the contrariness to bend them. His upper class roots and Ivy League education unquestionably allowed him tact, but his bisexuality, leftist politics, and challenges as the father to an undiagnosed autistic son, provided fodder for the communication of life’s perhaps subtler concerns.

         Chrysanthemums under a Blue Sky is an oil painting on canvas made in 1966, when Porter was 59 years old. It is a picture of a landscape. The blue sky, in the top third of the composition, is an almost completely flat, consistent color that cuts a jagged edge into the horizon. The tree line is made up of a dark, equally flat green in the center and a slightly brushier, tawny color on the right side, perhaps indicating it is early autumn. On the left, the sky cuts into and around a more or less two-toned tree, yellow-green atop a deep, dark green, which is closer to us, rising from the middle ground.

Chrysanthemums under a Blue Sky

Chrysanthemums under a Blue Sky

         Sitting on the flat sky blue, just above the crisp edge of the tree line, centered and to the right, are three small horizontally oblong daubs of straight-from-the-tube white paint, representing the only clouds in an otherwise cloudless sky. The largest and leftmost hangs slightly away from and lower than the other two. It is centered at the bottom of the upper third of the picture. The eye is first drawn to this trio, which feels alone but together, contrasted against and at the very bottom of the monochromatic sky.

         Just below the distant dark green and tawny trees, lighter horizontal blue strokes represent a river or lagoon and, like the sky, seem to have been brushed over the “vegetation” rather than the other way around, as one might expect (art dealer and author John Bernard Myers observed that Porter seemed “to perceive forms backward[1]). A yellower green tree, closer to us than those on the horizon but farther than the two-toned middle ground tree, interrupts the river while simultaneously being encroached upon by it. This tree’s extremities appear to be “under” the river paint. This yellower green tree also sits at the foot of what presumably is a small hill that slopes up to the left, rendered in dark brown with six or seven small, amorphous, green and light brown forms, which seem to represent more foliage.

         To the left of the foot of the yellower tree and centered below our leftmost cloud, is an even yellower green, washy stroke, presumably meant to be a bush. This bush mimics the shape of our leftmost cloud, which is directly above it, as well as the shape of a daub of the blue river, which is between the two.

         On the even yellower bush’s left is a two-toned brown shape that appears to represent an animal; possibly a dog sniffing or a horse with its head bent to eat grass. A light brown highlight illuminating the left side of the animal is similar to the tawny autumn tree color and gives us an indication that the sun is entering the picture from the upper left. It also gives the animal a hint of three-dimensionality in an image that feels very two-dimensional, almost posterized. It has no eyes and very little detail and as a result is given equal importance to the rest of the landscape.

         The grass is a single color with only the subtlest variations. It could perhaps be called something between lime and kelly green. In the same way that the sky cuts into the horizon and the river eats into the trees, the almost monochrome grass color cuts into the objects it surrounds as well. It appears to be brushed over and around the shadow cast by the two-toned middle ground tree, which is the second indication of the sun’s location. This shadow was painted as a subtle gradation between cooler blue-green and olive green. It is cast from left to center of the middle ground, ending below the brown animal and appearing, in other words, to be closer to us. Porter defended his at times unrealistic depiction of shadows once by telling John Bernard Myers, he could, “show [him] a Titian, a Caravaggio, even a Rembrandt, where the shadows fall in sixteen ‘wrong’ directions.”[2]

         Finally, in the foreground, we have a bush on the left side that has a similar two-toned appearance as the middle ground tree and a similar but smaller olive-y green shadow. Centered and to the viewer’s right, grows the chrysanthemum bush, which Porter’s title indicates is our main subject. The foliage on the bush is represented by three shades of green, a light, medium, and dark, and the flowers are daubs of red, orange, pale pink, and yellow. The shape and size of the flowers are similar to that of the clouds, the left daub of river blue, the yellower bush, and the holes through which we see “sky” in the two-toned tree’s leaves, give a sense of even dispersal of this size and shape object. This consistently sized and shaped object is allowed by and also creates the sense of depth in the picture, despite the intensity of their colors all being similar. The correspondence in size, shape, value, and chroma of these objects or paint daubs allows the eye to move unperturbed over the painting, as does the fairly uniform texture of the paint, which is quite smooth with the exception of some apparent brushstrokes, like those just below the chrysanthemum bush.

         While Porter’s title points us to the colorful flowers specifically, it also highlights that they are under the blue sky. And the three clouds that reside there, in addition to their compositional relationship with similarly sized objects, seem to play a larger, unstated role. Their locations are both completely plausible, if they were simply captured en plein air from real life, and completely loaded with meaning, if they were intentionally placed after the fact. Because Porter didn’t dwell on capturing a certain kind of light, I suspect some combination of these two. Whatever the case, the sky is not empty of clouds, nor is it stuffed full of them. Rather, here, it might be more accurate to say that the sky and the painting are punctuated by their presence. Or, put another way: they define the temper of the rest of the painting.

         The scene feels calm and the placement and size of the clouds feel achingly perfect. The serenity of the scene, I believe, comes equally from Porter’s control of color and composition as from its content, or apparent lack thereof. He studied art history and theory at Harvard with Arthur Upham Pope[3], and technique at The Art Students League with Regionalists Thomas Hart Benton and Boardman Robinson.[4] Copying Tiepolo’s Adoration of the Magi at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, he also met Georges Van Houton, who he would hire for lessons.[5] And by this stage of his career he had written award-winning criticism for ArtNews, The Nation, and a book about Thomas Eakins.[6] He had been included regularly in the Whitney Annuals since first being included in1959.[7] There is a sense of confident choreography in this painting, despite it being a supposedly natural scene. By simplifying the colors and shapes, distilling them to an essence, and giving us only a hint of what the light is doing, Porter offers us a very real mood but delivered in an easily digestible but not storybook or advertisement fashion. The grazing animal, whether it is a dog sniffing or a horse eating, is content to go about its business, not disturbed by anything outside the picture, including the observer, who seems clearly to be the painter himself. And because the piece feels autobiographical there is a duality experienced of being both oneself and of embodying Porter. The longer one looks at it the longer one knows that that is Porter’s dog, one’s own dog, off in the distance and that, if we somehow didn’t know this was a painting, perhaps it would be absorbed simply as a moment from an afternoon walk. The distilled, amplified color and lack of chiaroscuro creates a dreamlike quality that evokes something more like déjà vu than sentimentality. In a sense, Porter spoke to this affect, generally, in a 1968 interview with Paul Cummings when he said, “For one thing [the people looking at a painting] see something that the person who’s painted it hasn’t seen—that’s very hard for him to see. They are communicated with. They see the person who has painted it and his emotions, which he, maybe, doesn’t see. When they say they don’t like such and such an art, what they don’t like is something that is really there.”[8]

         The three clouds play an important compositional role that confirms the hand and eye of a mature and self-assured painter. Whether they were real or not is ultimately unimportant because they serve to balance the composition by “speaking” back to the other objects around them. But what I am reminded of most while looking at these three clouds, feeling as though I am gazing through Porter’s eyes, is the way his marriage was triangulated by his desire for other people.

         The title points us to the flowers, the most colorful event in the picture, and the fact that they are under the blue sky. Only the clouds sit there, like three small dashes of Morse code. If there were two clouds they would be reminiscent of eyes. But with three there is no such distraction or pareidolia effect. And yet there is still a sense of watchfulness, as if these three clouds are lording something over the rest of the picture. Perhaps they contain a message, consciously or unconsciously put there by Porter. The holy trinity comes to mind but Porter was an agnostic, raised by an atheist father and Unitarian mother.[9] Perhaps there’s an argument to be made about a latent cultural Christianity bleeding into Porter’s outlook. Spiritual or not, the artist clearly found peace in the natural setting, yet his handling of paint conveys an equal or perhaps even predominant love for painting itself. He said, “…it’s a way of making the connection between yourself and everything. You connect yourself to everything that includes yourself by the process of painting. And the person who looks at it gets it vicariously.”[10]      

         It could be argued that a nature-obsessed artist might dwell like a botanist on every petal of a chrysanthemum (and it should be noted that Porter was interested in environmental issues and organic farming.[11]) Equally so, a religious fanatic would give the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost a more conspicuous role. On a more comical note, the positioning and shape of the clouds could also evoke an association to UFO pictures. The recent New York Times article “‘Wow, What Is That’ Navy Pilots Report Unexplained Flying Objects” tells of a “whitish oval object described as a giant Tic Tac.”[12] The Kecksburg Incident[13], in Pennsylvania, and The Exeter Incident[14], in New Hampshire, were both highly publicized UFO sightings in 1965. But, as with nature or religion, a ufologist would probably include the unexplained phenomena in their title. In any case, the placement of these clouds comes across as cheeky, either on Porter’s part or the atmosphere’s. They seem to be imbued with personality.

         Porter developed an unrequited infatuation for his son John’s assistant teacher, Ilse Hamm, who had been a student anarchist, escaped from Nazi Germany[15], and invited her along on family events, eventually telling his wife Anne that Ilse had accepted his marriage proposal, despite the fact that she hadn’t. “The problem with my relationship to Fairfield was that after a point he felt like he owned me, and he didn’t[16],” Ilse said. He suggested to Anne that they all live in a “triangle way”. Hamm would in fact be married to a good friend soon after, Paul Mattick. Anne would eventually have her own affair.[17]

         Young John had behavioral difficulties that are now believed to be associated with autism. Fairfield devoted himself to trying to help the boy for the decade after his birth, saying, “[I am] always confusing [Johnny] with myself, and my disappointment with him with my father’s disappointment with me...all my father’s and my own disappointment with myself is incarnate in Johnny.”[18] Eventually John would be sent to live with foster parents on a farm in Vermont who, in Fairfield’s words, kept “schizophrenics and such like (meaning Johnny) free from any responsibilities…no psychiatrists or doctors seemed to know anything definite about him.”[19]

         Later, Porter would fall in love with the New York School poet James Schuyler. The artist went to Ilse Mattick for consultation about his feelings for him. She knew Schuyler and had hosted him, telling Porter that, “there was something sleazy about him.”[20] Schuyler would be invited to stay with the Porter family as a houseguest but would not leave for some time. His relationship with Fairfield was a sexual one and at times one of necessity.[21] Schuyler was poor, had no real family to speak of, and had a history of mental illness.[22] The author dedicated a book of poetry, called Freely Espousing, to both Fairfield and Anne and wrote many poems about life with them. He lived with the couple on and off from the mid-1960s until the mid-1970s, during which time he suffered emotional breakdowns and hospitalization[23] and Fairfield became more of a caretaker than a partner.[24]

         Porter was known for his candidness. Rackstraw Downes said of him, “No more did he hide in a show the awkward paintings than he hid in a conversation parts of his personality he was not content with…I’ve never met anyone so straightforward in my life and I don’t suspect I ever will.”[25] This plain talk comes through in the work. And yet it would be a mistake to process any of Porter’s paintings as mere representations of real life. For indeed, these works, like any, are only symbolic productions of an actual existence. Did Porter really intend those three small clouds to represent he, his wife, and his lover or potential lover? I doubt it. But such spare and specific detail opens each painting to interpretation.

         Porter said of art making, “It comes from the unconscious. Once I was psychoanalyzed. And in psychoanalysis, of course, you follow your free associations without criticism. And what you get when you’re all through (or you’re never through) is that you get yourself. This is your shape...What you get is simply what you are…In other words, what is the form is what is real and that is something you can’t get outside of, in psychoanalysis or in art.”[26]

         Any artwork can become a Rorschach test, arguably more so with representations of real life, and when one is aware of an artist’s biography it is difficult to resist applying meaning to such quirky details. But while Porter’s contemporaries were abstractionists who were often first or second generation immigrants or European refugees[27], he had relatives who “came over on the Mayflower.”[28] His father had bought Spruce Head Island in Maine, sight unseen, in 1912 for ten thousand dollars[29] with money whose history included the family selling the land that is now Chicago’s Loop[30]. Porter also had a long running friendship-turned-feud with the critic Clement Greenberg and claimed he would have become an abstractionist if not for Greenberg insisting that one could no longer paint the figure.[31] So, Porter held a social position that allowed him to make artistic decisions on their own merits. As a young man he shared artistic sympathies with the socialist cause, although he was not a member of the Socialist Party. He did serve as a board member for Rebel Arts who “sought to change the entire structure of the art world... Their art was intended to inform, educate and radicalize the worker”[32]. He also did work for John Reed Club, and the Council Communist movement[33], painting murals inspired by Jose Clemente Orozco.[34] He travelled to The Soviet Union to hear Leon Trostky speak in 1927, later raised money for his legal defense, and even entertained the idea of inviting him to live with the family[35]. Until the Porter Realty Trust, off which Porter had lived, began to dwindle[36], his artwork and criticism was not driven by financial gain. He would, however, have to sell some of his friend Willem DeKooning’s paintings to fix his roof.[37] As a young man, Fairfield said, “I do not have a very possessive feeling about my money, because it is like the rain, I never did anything about it, neither to make it, nor enhance it.”[38]

Porch in Maine

Porch in Maine

         In the oil on canvas Porch in Maine, 1970, we find looser brushwork than in Chrysanthemums under a Blue Sky. Anne sits at a dining table in the middle third of the composition, their dog sits beneath it, in the lower third, and someone’s legs are seen in the background, through a doorway. The table is strewn with objects, as if a meal has just ended, and there is a reflection in the wood of the scene out the window. Anne’s face, which seems impatient, is the focal point both because of the strong contrast of her almost drawn-on dark eyes and eyebrows against her pale painted skin and because, unlike Chrysanthemum there is a person in the picture. But on the same latitude as her face and just left of center, is a Kellogg’s Special K box, which seems to be of equal interest. Porter said that he did not arrange his scenes, saying, “I think it’s impossible not to get some sort of form if you don’t think about it”[39], and yet this is clearly not an accident. The bright red letter on its stark white box competes for attention with his wife’s face. At first it seems to be a mundane scene, but in the same way that the three Tic Tac clouds begin to nag, this detail when dwelled upon, raises an eyebrow. It might be either funny or strange or offensive, depending on who you are. Moreover, these details reveal Porter to be a “painter’s painter” in that he doesn’t seem to be showboating (the settings are so boring and bourgeous if you want them to be) but only because he is so deft. Is he telling us that the Special K box is as important as Anne? For the purposes of his painting, it may be, and that may reveal where his priorities were as well as his and Anne’s marital dynamics.  

         The Screen Porch, painted in 1964, features Schuyler and two of the Porter’s daughters, Katie and Elizabeth, on a porch while Anne stands outside, gazing in. A can of brush cleaner in the lower left corner seems, with its text, to be rendered in greater detail than the faces of the figures. The children seem quite posed, almost as if they’re being forced to participate, Schuyler appears casual in comparison, but still as though he is acting, while Anne seems to wear an expression, though rendered loosely, of actual concern.

The Screen Porch

The Screen Porch

         Porter’s control over the narrative, as with the three clouds and the strewn objects on the breakfast table, strikes me as passive aggressive. He is a master of his medium and a master of orchestration. It is a purposeful or even feigned casualness that, rather than depicting a fleeting moment, depicts a real moment made staged. As in the case of the natural setting, the picture’s purpose exists not in what’s apparently being depicted but in the question of what is truthful and what is not. Porter is comfortable with and even insistent upon his audience understanding that they are looking at a painting, which is in itself a sort of fiction. But here especially, he seems interested in also revealing a very real familial and romantic discomfort. The tension created by this unreality or hyper-reality seems to be the point. Porter is being both curt and coy at the same time. Or maybe he is using an honest-seeming delivery to hide his mischievousness or complicated feelings. He said, “A painting should contain a mystery, but not for mystery’s sake: a mystery that is essential to reality.”[40]

         Porter’s privilege may have granted him the time for a certain elegance that his peers didn’t necessarily have. He is not playing the role of the trickster, which probably would have been too boorish for him. When it came to his paintings, I believe Porter was instead an extremely subtle manipulator, and not necessarily in a bad way. The mundane but relatively exclusive settings that he chose tended often to display a certain level of leisure and space for contemplation. There is a quiet common to them that is destabilized by the generalized approach to color and form and the often well-captured discomfort, nervousness, awkwardness, or simple awareness of his sitters or in cases such as The Screen Porch, the unease of the scene itself. What he created was and is, in a sense, experiential: an exchange of energy from the sight of his subject and that of his viewer.  

         The artist’s letters reveal a person who could be exacting and sometimes prone to bursts of outrage. The application of paint for the practically pastel pictures was an act of simplification, perhaps meditation, and communication but it is only in the subtleties of the approach that we get the message. Three clouds could mean nothing, could mean everything, or, as I am wont to believe, could be an expression of Porter’s particularity, abruptness, and domination of his inner turmoil. And likewise, Anne’s relationship to a cereal box can be seen as happenstance or a micro aggression, and his family members being staged uncomfortably around his lover could be seen as confessional or sadistic or both.

         In Porter’s own words, “For me, painting does not illustrate or prove anything; neither “realism” nor “abstraction” nor any of the categories invented by journalists. It is a way of expressing the connections between the infinity of the diverse elements that constitute the world of matters of fact.”[41]

         Porter’s instinct to paint the underneath objects as above, such as the sky or river nibbling at the trees or the grass brimming at the edge of a shadow, rather than the shadow spilling out over the grass, or bestowing a cereal box or a can of paint thinner equal or greater dominance than his human subjects, I believe reveals not only a painterly compulsion but a part of his character; a loving but split, romantic but intellectual, generally irked-seeming person whose complexities could not be muted by or hidden behind artistic concerns. Anyone who seeks to deride Porter’s work by seeing it simply as realistic or mundane must willfully forget the inherent intricacy of his real life.

 

 

[1] Moffet, Kenworth, Fairfield Porter, Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982, p 45

[2] Moffet, Kenworth, Fairfield Porter, Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982, p 43

[3] Spring, Justin, Fairfield Porter: a life in art, Yale University Press, 2000, p 30

[4] Leigh, Ted ed., Material witness: the selected letters of Fairfield Porter, University of Michigan Press, 2005, p 30

[5] Spring, Justin, Fairfield Porter: a life in art, Yale University Press, 2000, p 156-157

[6] Fairfield Porter, 68, a Realist In an Age of Abstract Art Dies, The New York Times, September 20, 1975

[7] Spring, Justin, Fairfield Porter: a life in art, Yale University Press, 2000, p 242

[8] Moffet, Kenworth, Fairfield Porter, Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982

[9] Spring, Justin, Fairfield Porter: a life in art, Yale University Press, 2000, p 6,

[10] Moffet, Kenworth, Fairfield Porter, Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982, p 60

[11] Spring, Justin, Fairfield Porter: a life in art, Yale University Press, 2000, p 309

[12] Cooper, Helene, Blumenthal, Ralph, Kean, Leslie, “’Wow, What Is That?’ Navy pilots Report Unexplained Flying Objects, The New York Times, May 26, 2019  

[13] Ellich, Judy, “UFO sighting legend coming to the big screen in rural western Pennsylvania”, Associated Press News, December 21, 2018

[14] Speigel, Lee, “Exeter UFO Sighting: An Unsolved Mystery, 46 Years Later”, Huffington Post, December 6, 2017

[15] Spring, Justin, Fairfield Porter: a life in art, Yale University Press, 2000, p 133

[16] Spring, Justin, Fairfield Porter: a life in art, Yale University Press, 2000, p 163

[17] Leigh, Ted ed., Material witness: the selected letters of Fairfield Porter, University of Michigan Press, 2005, p 104-105

[18] Spring, Justin, Fairfield Porter: a life in art, Yale University Press, 2000, p 111

[19] Leigh, Ted ed., Material witness: the selected letters of Fairfield Porter, University of Michigan Press, 2005, p 172

[20] Spring, Justin, Fairfield Porter: a life in art, Yale University Press, 2000, p

[21] Ibid. p 271

[22] Ibid p 225

[23] Spring, Justin, Fairfield Porter: a life in art, Yale University Press, 2000, p 343

[24] Ibid., p 307

[25] “Fairfield Porter”, CBS Morning, 1993, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6M4vlqS-_s, 5:55

[26] Moffet, Kenworth, Fairfield Porter, Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982, p 59

[27] Spring, Justin, Fairfield Porter: a life in art, Yale University Press, 2000, p 2

[28] Ibid., p 1

[29] Ibid., p 15

[30] Ibid., p 8

[31] Leigh, Ted ed., Material witness: the selected letters of Fairfield Porter, University of Michigan Press, 2005, p 7

[32] Spring, Justin, Fairfield Porter: a life in art, Yale University Press, 2000, p 90

[33] Ibid, p 148

[34] Ibid, p 91

[35] Ibid, p 47

[36] Spring, Justin, Fairfield Porter: a life in art, Yale University Press, 2000, p 189

[37] Leigh, Ted ed., Material witness: the selected letters of Fairfield Porter, University of Michigan Press, 2005, p 190

[38] Ibid. p 105

[39] Moffet, Kenworth, Fairfield Porter, Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982, p 57

[40] Spring, Justin, Fairfield Porter: a life in art, Yale University Press, 2000

[41] Porter, Mrs. Fairfield, Fairfield Porter: Art In Its Own Terms, MFA Publications, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1979

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

Ellich, Judy, “UFO sighting legend coming to the big screen in rural western Pennsylvania”, Associated Press News, December 21, 2018

 

“Fairfield Porter”, CBS Morning, 1993, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6M4vlqS-_s

 

Fairfield Porter, 68, a Realist In an Age of Abstract Art Dies, The New York Times, September 20, 1975

 

Keane, Tim “The Contrarian Modernism of Fairfield Porter, Hyperallergic.com May 25, 2019 https://hyperallergic.com/501640/the-contrarian-modernism-of-fairfield-porter/

 

Leigh, Ted ed., Material witness: the selected letters of Fairfield Porter, University of Michigan Press, 2005

 

Moffet, Kenworth, Fairfield Porter, Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982

 

Porter, Mrs. Fairfield, Fairfield Porter: Art In Its Own Terms, MFA Publications, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1979

 

Speigel, Lee, “Exeter UFO Sighting: An Unsolved Mystery, 46 Years Later”, Huffington Post, December 6, 2017

 

Spring, Justin, Fairfield Porter: a life in art, Yale University Press, 2000

 

Wilmerding, John, Wilkin, Karen, Fairfield Porter, Rizzoli, New York, 2016