Fairfield Porter images and biography
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Fairfield Porter

See also: American Art


"An older artist than either Pearlstein or Welliver, Fairfield Porter was a more reticent realist, and with no link to Abstract Expressionism. He was largely self-taught. From the mid-1950s on he stayed away from Manhattan, preferring to paint on Long Island and on Great Spruce Head Island in Maine, which his family owned. This didn't put him out of touch with "the scene" - Porter was a gifted and lucid art critic as well as a painter - but he needed to be in constant touch with his motifs, especially American light and the still expanses of coastal field and sea. Porter rejected the piety that the empirically painted figure or landscape was dead. It simply didn't accord with his deepest convictions about how art relates to experience and conveys its "density" - a favorite word of his.

"Porter's was very much a modernist vision, but classically so. Its main source was the work of Bonnard and Vuillard. In Vuillard's scenes of bourgeois life, he remarked, "what he's doing seems ordinary, but the extraordinary is everywhere." It was "concrete in detail and abstract as a whole," and therefore 'Just the opposite of Cubism," whose influence, he thought, overintellectualized American art at the expense of its sensuous qualities. Aspects of the work of older American artists also appear: Marsden Hartley's love of bony mass, Edward Hopper's treatment of light. But Porter was a more nuanced and daring colorist than Hartley, and his world was untouched by Hopper's melancholy and more generalized in treatment. In a large painting, Island Farmbouse, 1969, the white weatherboard asserts itself in a blast of light like a Doric temple; the lines of shadow are a burning visionary yellow; everything, from the angular dog in the shade to the ragged trees, is seen in sharp patches, and yet one's eye seems bathed in atmosphere, all the way out to the blue island on the remote horizon. Artists who were in other ways close to Porter, like Alex Katz, never quite equaled his ability to suggest the air around things by the use of color alone. And for Porter, classicism counted deeply. In his best paintings you sense a whole culture at work, easily accessible through long absorption but never invoked in a facile spirit. The Mirror, 1966, quotes from Velazquez's Meninas with a sort of discreet frankness, but it isn't touched by pastiche, and what you are most aware of is the subtlety of the color, the direct gaze of the artist's daughter at her father (who stands reflected in the mirror), and the perfect registration of tonal levels, from the white blaze of the window on down the scale.

"There was always an awkwardness to Porter's treatment of the human body - a Yankee stiffness, the opposite of Bonnard's sensuous fluency. The figures in his paintings are never not in the right place, but his work didn't show much feel for the movement or the solid presence of the body, and it always preferred sociability to any hint of sensuality - a trait also shared by Katz. He never painted a nude. What he connected to best was landscape, houses, interiors. There, the reticence he brought to the scrutiny of other people melted away. Not that the landscapes are more "expressive"; they just radiate more freedom, and a fuller sense of Porter's desire to find concrete shapes that spoke on their own: presences. "The presence in a painting," he once wrote,

is like the presence a child feels and recognizes in things and the way they relate, like a doorknob, the slant of a roof or its flatness, or the personality of a tool. Art does not succeed by compelling you to like it, but by making you feel this presence in it. Is someone there? This someone can be impersonal.

- From Robert Hughes, "American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America"

Further reading on Fairfield Porter:

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  Fairfield Porter Images
c. 1940 Red Cables
1953 Laurence at the Piano
1960 Wheat
c. 1962 Long Island Landscape with Red Building
1963 October Interior
1964 July Interior
1965 Girl in a Landscape
1966 Iced Coffee
1966 The Mirror
1967 Anne in a Striped Dress
1969 Amherst Campus, No. 1
1971 July
1972 Self-Portrait
1974 Anne in Doorway

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