A Long Shadow: The Influence of Fairfield Porter
"All experience to anyone who is alert to things is valid. Even the most ordinary things are quite as full of significance as the most dramatic."
-- Fairfield Porter
". . . I think what I meant by cliff-hanging was partly that I go through stages of wondering whether my paintings are any good at all, alternating with optimistic periods. And then I sometimes see a painting or a few in a different context, and am surprised and relatively pleased . . . . The difficulty--for me--in chance taking is that if you know you are taking a chance, then in a sense you know what the picture is going to look like, or you have some notion, though of course it is likely to be wrong. So perhaps the biggest chance is taken when you know nothing, not even or especially not in any way that a chance is being taken. That is the difference between artistic action and technical action. About all you can know during artistic action, like for instance any activity involving, eventually, discovery, is that you are looking for distinctions, not similarities; the particular, not a generalization . . . ."
-- Fairfield Porter
In 1972, two years after studying painting with Fairfield Porter at Amherst College, I wrote to ask his opinion about early modern painters. Did he like Monet, as I did? He LOVED Monet. John Singer Sargent? A qualified yes, but only the late watercolors with their genuine feeling for light, which Porter suspected that Sargent considered his unimportant work, but was truly dazzling. Porter once said that he "cordially despised" the paintings of the famed Edward Hopper (whom I liked). He thought Hopper's treatment of shadows anti-sensuous and resembled "bruises" and that his foliage was "puttyish." He wrote:
Porter knew what the matter with America was. Our national glorification of utilitarian values and fear of pleasure had relegated art and artists to the level of frivolity and effeminacy. Porter called it "the American Cramp," and he had a major case himself.
The son of wealthy, cultured parents who exposed their children to European travel and decorated their house with masterpiece reproductions, Porter had wanted to be a painter from childhood, but showed little talent and got little encouragement. His grandmother, Julie Porter, was known to close her eyes while brushing her hair, "for fear of vanity." A pious preacher's widow, Julia's religion made a militant atheist of Fairfield's father and passed her unease with sensuality right down the line. Writing was something else. Fairfield was close to his verbally gifted Mother and was a precocious wrier with a precocious aesthetic opinions. He studies at the Art Students' League after Harvard and had an independent income, but for ten years Porter distracted himself from the kind of painting he longed to do by involvement in radical politics (more "important" work)? Duties in parenting a growing family with an autistic son diverted his energies further.
Spurred by a deepening crisis in his marriage in the 1940's Porter underwent several years of psychoanalysis, which helped him to accept himself as he was, not the way other people expected him to be. And finally, twenty years into his practice as a painter, he began to tap his deep love of painting his immediate world filled with light by sensuous means. A job as a reviewer at ArtNews magazine secured him a place among the younger avant-guard of New York City painters and writers. He spent half the month with the family in Southampton near the ocean and half in Manhattan writing reviews and exploring his emerging bi-sexual life.
His disillusioning experience of communist politics in the pre-War years and the difficulties required in shedding a restricting psychic skin in psychoanalysis fortified Porter to do battle in his writing for artists' independence from the dictates of both conservative opponents of advanced painting and avant-guard ones who wrote off realism. As a critic (and teacher) he considered the work in front of him with intensity and respect and above all, on its own terms, regardless of style. Writers valued his reading their work and artist's prized studio visits from Porter because he listened to or looked at your work with the deepest empathy and insight. He had no agenda and he was honest.
His body of work as a painter grew in boldness and freedom by the year, while some of his generation, like Jackson Pollock, exhausted themselves quickly or ended their own lives tragically and prematurely (Rothko).
Porter developed an ethetic philosophy and a practice of applying it that focused on the concrete art object and the viewer's experience of its vitality and uniqueness rather than its general characteristics, its reference to ideas or ideology. To Porter, art was about making contact, through arbitrary facts, with an order bigger than the human mind can comprehend, a discovered order that can't be explained (or dismissed) verbally as contemporary critics constantly tried to do. In effect, he developed an artist's spirituality out of the material of our experience.
Porter gave creative people hope that we have everything that we need right now. He wrote to a young painter named Dick Freeman who worried about what to paint. "All experience to anyone who is alert to things is valid. Even the most ordinary things are quite as full of significance as the most dramatic." And in a 1966 article for ArtNews, "Wholeness is as close to you as yourself and your immediate surroundings. You need not pursue it, you have only accept it . . . . In a statement of esthetic belief Pasternak said, 'Poetry is in the grass.'"
A Long Shadow assembles a sample of the work of the large community of artists who are indebted to Porter. The debts are unique and different, naturally, but they all share a respect for Porter's courage in painting the world around him through an era where abstract painting ruled and figurative painters were dismissed.
By the mid-1960's, Raoul Middleman had worked out a Pop vein in his work and began painting landscape directly from nature (with Porter's example in the background). "It was dumb and rebellious to paint that way and I liked it."
Emily Brown wrote that she "loved the accessibility of [Porter's] work. Drawn from familiar surroundings in his daily life . . . [psychological tensions] were understated. His world seemed safe - nearly banal - and yet it was dynamic. His use of paint had a natural ease to it. He didn't force his materials and he did not force ideology."
Barb Gruber was impressed at Porter's ability to make a simple area of color palpably represent air. She hadn't been sure that she liked his work when she first saw it, but after finishing her very next painting a friend asked if she had been looking at Fairfield Porter.
Those who knew Fairfield personally valued his insight and generosity. Ruth Channing Middleman was Fairfield's niece and was around him often growing up. She had made art since childhood and once, when she was drawing a series of imagined "hairstyles," he looked over her shoulder and announced seriously, "That's the best work that you've done." This was an accurate prediction of Ruth's mature graphic work, which includes narrative figure dramas generated from her imagination, as well as an unusual gift for a child to be taken seriously by an adult professional.
In a lecture on art education, Porter once wrote, "Make a mess and see what happens." His espousal of receptiveness to "what is," whatever that means to a particular artist, was his testament and should be our gospel.