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Modern Artist: Fairfield Porter
Widely considered to be one of America's most influential 20th-century painters, Porter was also a critic, theorist and scholar. Although his artistic achievements (realist, representational paintings) were overshadowed by the popularity of Abstract Expressionism, Porter embraced the aesthetic differences between himself and some of the more renowned artists of his time. Porter was non-conformist in both his art and writing; his manner and style were closer to a late-19th-century European bohemianism than the 20th-century New York School.

Porter's tastes cut across certain stylistic divides that other artists and critics found puzzling; he often favored the work of artists who belonged to schools of art he generally disfavored, as in the case of his favorite artist Willem de Kooning. In short, he took the role of art critic very seriously, and felt it his duty to locate the connecting principle between art's future and its immediate past, to be the intermediary for art and its public.

Key Ideas / Information
  • Porter believed that in art, feelings cannot be divorced from ideas, which is why he was skeptical toward some Abstract art, Pop art, and the mid-century resurgence of Dada (Neo-Dada); he believed many artists of this time were too preoccupied with aesthetic form, and unconcerned with their artistic tools or with depicting anything real.
  • For Porter, all great painting expresses a reality, whether abstract or representational; a work of art is made great by the artist's earnestness of expression.
  • In the role of art critic, Porter believed that the true purpose of art criticism was to accurately describe how something looked, which may lead to discovering some truth within the artwork.
  • Porter believed that there are a number of fundamental truths that art can reveal about nature, but it is not necessarily the job of the artist or even the critic to find these truths, leaving us to ponder whether Porter meant for the viewer locate it.

Fairfield Porter was the fourth of five children, born in a Chicago suburb to James Porter and Ruth Furness Porter. Their Porter family fortune was several generations old, based mostly in real estate, but throughout Fairfield's childhood it was clear that his parents were more concerned with instilling in their children a love of the arts and literature than with holding on to their wealth.

Porter was schooled in the arts, poetry and literature by his mother Ruth, whose own family had deep New England Unitarian roots. (The Unitarians were known for their progressive views on child rearing and education.) Through his mother, Porter learned at an early age to adopt a critical eye when viewing pictures and artworks.

Porter's father James had a degree in architecture from Columbia University, and had designed the family homes in Winnetka, Illinois, as well as the Porter vacation home on Great Spruce Head Island off the coast of Maine, which they purchased in 1912. However, James was unable to make his living as an architect, and was instead obliged to assist his mother in managing the family real estate business during difficult economic times.

Early Training
Porter attended Harvard University between the years 1924 and '28, mostly to study philosophy. He also developed a strong interest in art history, studying under Arthur Pope, a well-known archeologist and historian of ancient Persian art. Porter was also known to read and write a lot of poetry during this time, and began to take an interest in leftist politics.

While at Harvard, Porter attended lectures delivered by the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. Porter would continually cite these lectures as a crucial moment in his own development as an artist and writer, saying how they instilled in him the importance of portraying the immediacy of experience.

In the summer of 1927, shortly before graduating from Harvard, Porter made a walking and bicycle tour in France, which eventually took him to Berlin and finally Moscow. While in Russia he witnessed an interview of Leon Trotsky, an experience which would inform Porter's political views, especially during the years of the Great Depression.

Mature Period
Between 1928 and 1930, Porter settled in New York City and studied under the American painter and muralist Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League of New York. During this time, Porter began to immerse himself in the radical politics and art of the bohemian scene in Greenwich Village.

In 1931 Porter set off to travel through Europe once more, only now to tour the museums and galleries and educate himself in the works of the Old Masters. This, in addition to his studies at Harvard, afforded Porter a firsthand knowledge of nearly every movement and style in Western art, from Ancient Greece to Picasso and early abstractions.

Upon his return to the States, Porter set out to become more politically active and to create socially relevant art. He made artwork on behalf of the communist John Reed Club, taught drawing classes for the Socialist arts group Rebel Arts, and began work as an editor for a short-lived American Socialist tabloid called Arise! It was during this time that Porter, already a burgeoning artist in New York, became interested in art criticism.

In 1932, Porter married Boston poet Anne Channing and the two settled in New York. They briefly lived in Porter's hometown of Winnetka in the late '30s, where he had his first solo exhibition of paintings.

The Porters returned to New York in 1939 and became close friends with Edwin Denby, Rudy Burkhardt, and Willem and Elaine de Kooning. Porter quickly became an admirer of Willem de Kooning and was one of the first people to purchase de Kooning's artwork.

One year later in 1940, Clement Greenberg - who along with Dwight MacDonald was working as an editor for Partisan Review - recommended to Porter that he contribute a piece on Willem de Kooning. Both Greenberg and MacDonald liked the piece, but the other editors turned it down on the grounds that no one had heard of de Kooning. This is believed to be the very first review ever written about Willem de Kooning.

Late Period and Death
In 1949, the Porters moved to the seaside town of Southampton on Long Island, NY. Their new seasonal home would become the inspiration for many of Porter's landscape paintings over the next twenty-five years.

Porter began establishing his place in the New York art world in the '50s and early '60s. In 1951 he became an associate editor at Art News, and had his first New York exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, run by John Bernard Myers. (Myers had agreed to exhibit Porter's art - sight unseen - on the recommendation of Willem de Kooning, who unequivocally praised Porter's art while at the same time admitting they are drastically different than what people will expect to see.) From that point forward, Myers represented Porter and gave him annual exhibitions at Tibor de Nagy, as well as regular shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Porter's most prolific period as an art critic was the 1950s. After getting into a heated argument with Elaine de Kooning at the Whitney Museum over the quality of Arshile Gorky's paintings (she approved; Porter did not), she recommended Porter to Hess, the editor-in-chief of Art News. Thus began Porter's tenure at Art News, where he reviewed roughly 12 gallery shows and museum exhibits every month.

In addition to writing and editing for Art News (1951-1967), Porter also became a regular contributor to the leftist periodical The Nation, and Art and Literature. He consistently wrote a column almost every week for The Nation, which he regarded as some of his best criticism.

Porter and his family mostly divided their time between living in Southampton, NY in the winter and Great Spruce Head Island in Maine in the summer (they also had a home in midtown Manhattan for several years). He and his wife Anne never separated, despite Porter's bisexuality (which Anne knew about and for the most part accepted; their children were oblivious) and Anne's extramarital affair (which occurred while the family lived in New York City in the early 40s).

In 1959 Porter wrote an essay on the American realist and landscape artist Thomas Eakins for a series on American painters, published by Hess. Porter reportedly wanted to write about de Kooning, but Eakins was the only subject left. This Eakins essay, along with many of Porter's Art News reviews on older, pre-abstract American painters, largely misrepresented Porter's outlook on art. Despite being a Realist painter, Porter was not a terribly huge fan of American Realism or grounded in any ideological condition that opposed non-Realist art.

As a bohemian and political leftist, Porter was a nice fit with the New York School of artists and intellectuals of the Abstract Expressionist movement, but his artwork - realistic and representational - expressed something utterly different. While Porter continually expressed a deep interest in abstraction, and believed artists like de Kooning and Johns were true Modern masters, Porter wanted to express a different reality in his paintings; something closer to what he saw with his eyes instead of strictly experimenting with flat surfaces.

Porter wrote occasionally throughout the '60s and early '70s, but did not produce nearly as much as in the previous decade (he officially stopped reviewing exhibits and gallery shows in 1961). He continued to paint through his final years; in fact, many of his most famous landscapes were painted in the last five years of his life.

Fairfield Porter is generally better known for his contributions to art than to art criticism, though in his writing there is an interesting parallel between his standing as an artist and who he chose to write about. As much as Porter admired the works of Modern masters like de Kooning, Johns and Giacometti, he also wanted to make his literary mark by writing about contemporary artists whose work lay outside the realm of the New York School, including Joseph Cornell, Elmer Bischoff, Robert Goodnough and John Ferren.

Porter was chiefly responsible for keeping the Realism torch burning during a time when Abstraction was the dominant style. But as an artist and critic, Porter was largely misunderstood; he was in fact a Modernist who just happened to be very discerning when it came to Abstract art. He believed that paintings should be facts, both arbitrary and individual. He also believed, in an almost Classicist point of view, that great art derived from an artist's mastery of the canvas and the natural elements around him. When visiting the galleries of New York to find subjects for his writing, Porter looked for artists who likewise refused to adhere to prevailing trends.


Key Points:
  • Porter's letter to Partisan Review is two-fold: it's an attack on Greenberg's lack of clarity and definition, and a protest of Greenberg's take on what constitutes "value" in Modern American art. "I agree that there is such a thing [as American-Type Painting] and that there are more good abstract painters in America than in Europe," wrote Porter. "But Greenberg does not describe 'American-type' painting. He evaluates it too easily in a favorable light." Furthermore, Porter observed that "What Greenberg calls in the case of Monet the suppression of value, is really an emphasis on value, through dissociating it from chiaroscuro."
  • Porter's chief concern with Greenberg's essay is that it attempts to define something without clearly divulging the very artworks that help make up the something in question. But more so, Porter believed that Greenberg's understanding of the very artists who informed "American-Type" Painting (Cézanne, Kandinsky, Matisse, the Cubists) was flawed. As an example of this, Porter wrote, "Greenberg says Rothko's opposition of pure color makes him think of Matisse. But Matisse shows far greater sensitivity to an abstract use of color by attention to 'value' (not as Greenberg uses the word) than Rothko has shown."
  • At the heart of this letter lies the real debate between these two men. Greenberg had once mentioned to Porter in conversation that the figure has no place in contemporary art; an observation that clearly irked Porter. "There is now figure painting being done by Americans," wrote Porter, "but Greenberg doubts its validity, telling them in effect to stick to their old provincialism; and this misunderstanding of value is also provincial." Porter staunchly opposed this assertion that figure painting was dead; he believed Greenberg's perspective was compromised by a very limited view of the history of American painting; just because pre-abstract American artists preferred landscapes to figure painting doesn't imply that figure painting can never again be relevant.

Key Points:
  • By 1959 Porter had become quite comfortable writing about de Kooning, not to mention very familiar with the artist's works. This review both praised de Kooning's newest works (Lizbeth's Painting, Ruth's Zowie, and September Morn) and assessed other critics' attempts to simplify de Kooning as just an Abstract painter or "abstract-expressionist," as Porter downplayed the term by placing it in quotations.
  • "Abstraction in these paintings has a different significance from that in other abstractions," wrote Porter. "Thus there is an abstract element in classical Florentine painting which says that the deepest quality is tactile: what is real is what you can touch." Possibly more than any other art critic of this time, Porter wanted to broaden the history of Abstract painting, and reveal it as something more than a 20th-century development. A representational painting can contain abstract elements, just as an Abstract painting can contain representational elements (say in the case of de Kooning's Woman paintings).
  • In Porter's view, de Kooning's abstractions exist on a different aesthetic plane, a higher level of consciousness than other abstract works. Even if they represent nothing, there is always the suggestion of something hidden within the intense colors and lines, and this something releases an energy that few other artists can achieve.

Introduction to Fairfield Porter's Art Theories
With his learned mind and keen eye for detail, Fairfield Porter had very straightforward ideas about art. In his essay The Arts Today: Reflection of a Sick Society? he wrote, "Art has material existence: it is present to you. It may refer to ideas, and this reference can be talked about, but its presence can only be described. Knowledge of art is subjective and practical. It is inseparable from its terms: paint, language, and instrument. You do not control art, you go along with it. You follow it, you do not interfere with it." For Porter, the sum of paintings' parts was quite simple, and as a critic he sought to be honest with the historical standard by which art was measured. He never set out to redefine history or to revolutionize the way people perceived art. If anything, Porter sought to simplify these processes and help others view art on its own terms. He believed artists who applied their tools to create something expressive and fluent were artists worth noticing.

On Painting as a Profession
Porter was widely accomplished in the world of art: a painter, critic and scholar (he was also a lithographer and poet). He understood the craft of painting as well as he knew its history, and tended to have strong opinions about the historical significance of making art one's profession. Porter did not agree with the Greenbergian implication that Abstract Expressionism was the only true way modern man could express himself on the canvas. This idea seemed too dismissive of other artistic styles, and of non-abstract art's ability to uncover any significant truth. In an undated essay entitled "Art Reveals the Nature of Society," Porter wrote, "To believe that reality is found at the end of a reductive process is like the assumption of the pre-Pasteur chemist von-Liebig, that all the solid elements essential to a plant's life will be found in the ashes left from the fire that consumes it."

On Non-Objectivity and Realism
In spite of his friendships with many of the Abstract Expressionists, it's clear that Porter felt a stronger kinship with the European Realists, Naturalists and Impressionists, like Rembrandt, Degas and Vuillard. These artists, much like Porter himself, stressed a theoretical fusion of paint application and composition, and that the human figure should be the chief concern in art. Porter frequently referred to those Abstract artists in the New York School as the "idealists of New York painting," and throughout his career expressed mixed feelings regarding Abstract Expressionism. "[They] isolate art from the details of actuality," wrote Porter. "They wish to see profoundly and are against illusion. Or perhaps they simply wish to seem to see profoundly."

For Porter, Realism was art's chief concern because, as he wrote in 1960 for The Nation, "Reality is stronger than thought, feeling, the means of its achievement, the artist's ego or his subjectivity." If Abstract art (or what many called Non-Objective painting) isn't attempting to depict anything real, then something is profoundly lost on the artists himself.

On "Combine" Painting
Porter was a fierce defender of Robert Rauschenberg and his "Combine" paintings. Looking beyond Rauschenberg's clear use of abstraction, Porter perceived a profound expressiveness in the artworks. With Rauschenberg's incorporation of real and often mangled elements into his paintings (radios, stuffed birds, can openers, metal scraps, light sockets, umbrellas, etc.), the artist was restoring "a connection with the material world that was broken by industrialism, and that shows a way back to wholeness."

Some critics like Clement Greenberg criticized Combine painting for breaking from a stylistic purity. Porter appreciated these works as bold and new forms of expression, with original style and concept.

Porter vs. Greenberg
Porter once joked (presumably) that he insisted on painting figurative and representational art just to spite Clement Greenberg, whose enthusiasm for Abstract Expressionism was complemented by a general distaste for Realism and figurative painting. Although the two men did not see eye to eye on most matters, Greenberg was a reluctant fan of Porter's artistic talents, even if he considered Porter's style and vision passe. In the 1968 interview conducted by Paul Cummings, Porter said, "One reason I never became an abstract painter is that I used to see Clement Greenberg regularly and we always argued, we always disagreed .. 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 the time), and he said [of] de Kooning (who was painting the women) 'You can't paint this way nowadays.' And I thought: who the hell is he to say that? He said, 'You can't paint figuratively today.' And I thought: if that's what he says I can't do, that's all I will do. I might have become an abstract painter except for that."

Writing Style
Porter's paintings, and by association his writings, have a direct and honest forcefulness. Many who knew him commented that he wrote the way he spoke: often uncomfortably challenging but always clear and precise, void of trivial information, conventions or too many adjectives. His essays were always written in the present tense to lend a sense of immediacy to the works he discussed, and were impressively packed with detailed observations, but at the same time surprisingly brief, rarely exceeding a few hundred words. While many critics like Rosenberg and Steinberg tended to extrapolate extensively about the sociology and politics of art in the Modern era, Porter was more economical in his writing.


Below are Fairfield Porter's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.

Pierre Bonnard
Edouard Vuillard
Willem De Kooning
Joseph Cornell
Isamu Noguchi
Virginia Woolf
Bertrand Russell
Carl Jung
Clement Greenberg
Folk Art
Abstract Expressionism
Fairfield Porter
Years Worked: 1935 - 1961
Willem De Kooning
Donald Judd
Anselm Kiefer
Nell Blaine
Joan Mitchell
James Schuyler
John Ashbery
Frank O'Hara
Peter Schjeldahl
Conceptual Art
Social Realism

"Any artist..has a style which determines and is the particularity of his communication."

"The right use of color can make any composition work."

"The profoundest order is revealed in what is most casual."

"If you are vain it is vain to sign your pictures and vain not to sign them. If you not vain it is not vain to sign them and not vain not to sign them" (This was Porter's response to a heated discussion at the Artists' Club, concerning whether or not it was vain for an artist to sign his pictures.)

"Subject matter must be normal in the sense that it does not appear sought after so much as simply happening to one."

"It is the economic pressure on scholarship exerted by the universities that leads to the naming of movements in the arts, and once a movement is named, it is justified by words, and the literature around it gives it critical validity."

Content written by:
  Justin Wolf

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Porter as Artist
Artwork Artwork Artwork
Artwork Artwork Artwork
Porter as Critic
Artwork Artwork Artwork
See additional works by this artist
Museum of Modern Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Whitney Museum

Written by Porter
Art in Its Own Terms

Material Witness: The Selected Letters of Fairfield Porter

Written about Porter
Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art

The Undiscovered Country

Fairfield Porter, 1907-1975 : Watercolors

Fairfield Porter papers in the Smithsonian Archives
Porter's essays, journals, paint recipes, notebooks and correspondence

Articles about Porter
Fairfield Porter: a Life in Art, 1907-1975
Learning from Exhibitions

Fairfield Porter: Art in Its Own Terms, Selected Criticism 1935-1975
Selected Criticism 1935-1975

Fairfield Porter: Master Realist
By Grace Glueck
New York Times
June 8, 1984

Indepth Art News
From AbsoluteArtNews.com

Putting the Spotlight on Fairfield Porter
By Michael Kimmelman
New York Times
October 9, 1992

Letter from Clement Greenberg to The New Criterion
July 1983

John Ashbery and Fairfield Porter
Valparaiso Poetry Review
July 27, 2008

Conducted by Paul Cummings for Archives of American Art June 6, 1968