SynopsisWidely 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
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 . 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. , 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.
Key Ideas / Information
ChildhoodFairfield 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 TrainingPorter 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 PeriodBetween 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, - 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 DeathIn 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.
LegacyFairfield 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.
MOST IMPORTANT ESSAYS:
Introduction to Fairfield Porter's Art TheoriesWith 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 ProfessionPorter 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 RealismIn 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" PaintingPorter was a fierce defender of 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. GreenbergPorter 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 StylePorter'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.
Willem De Kooning
Years Worked: 1935 - 1961
Quotes"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."
Porter as Artist
Porter as Critic
|See additional works by this artist|
WHERE TO SEE WORKS:
Museum of Modern Artwww.MoMA.org
Metropolitan Museum of Artwww.METmuseum.org
Written by PorterArt in Its Own Terms
Material Witness: The Selected Letters of Fairfield Porter
Written about PorterFairfield Porter: A Life in Art
The Undiscovered Country
PaintingsFairfield Porter, 1907-1975 : Watercolors
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
Putting the Spotlight on Fairfield Porter
By Michael Kimmelman
New York Times
October 9, 1992
Letter from Clement Greenberg to The New Criterion
John Ashbery and Fairfield Porter
Valparaiso Poetry Review
July 27, 2008
Conducted by Paul Cummings for Archives of American Art June 6, 1968
|A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and 1950s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraces the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism Page
|Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
ArtStory: Willem De Kooning Page
|Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the 20th century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Pollock, Still and Hofmann.
ArtStory: Clement Greenberg Page
|Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop Art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
ArtStory: Robert Rauschenberg Page
|The French artist Pierre Bonnard, although dismissed as old-fashioned by some of the avant-garde in his lifetime, was esteemed by contemporary colorists like Matisse. A member of the Nabis group in his youth, his innovative paintings play with light, decorative surfaces, and Impressionist techniques.
|Edouard Vuillard was a French Post-Impressionist painter especially known for his interiors and domestic scenes. A member of the Les Nabis group, his works are characterized by rough areas of color, pointillist daubs and dots, and decorative patterns that spread out across background fabrics and wallpaper.
|Joseph Cornell was an American artist, best known for his collage work and "shadow boxes," which were highly complex diorama-like constructions. Cornell incorporated found objects, old photos, newspaper clippings and other objects into these boxes, resulting in uniquely surreal, three-dimensional worlds. Cornell was one of the few American artists associated with Surrealism.
ArtStory: Joseph Cornell Page
|Isamu Noguchi was a Japanese-American modern artist. Best known for his organic, biomorphic sculpture works, Noguchi was also a furniture designer and landscape artist.
ArtStory: Isamu Noguchi Page
|The British writer Virginia Woolf was a twentieth-century novelist known for her lyrical, stream-of-consciousness style. Describing daily banalities and the onrush of sensory information, Woolf explores the inner emotional lives of her characters.
|Bertrand Russell was a 20th-century English philosopher, historian, mathematician and critic. He was one of the founders of analytic philosophy and a mentor to Ludwig Wittgenstein.
|Carl Gustav Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist and the founder of analytical psychology. Jung studied the human psyche through an exploration of dreams, religion, mythology and art. Jung's extensive work and interest in the human unconscious was a major influence on some of the Abstract Expressionists.
|As a distinct artistic medium, Naturalism began as far back as the Florentine School, with artists such as Botticelli and Michelangelo, and still survives to the present day. The term is meant to be self-explanatory, referring to the artist's depiction of realistic objects and settings, and their naturalistic movement. A common theme in naturalist paintings is nature's predominance over humankind.
|A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
ArtStory: Impressionism Page
|Realism is an approach to art that stresses the naturalistic representation of things, the look of objects and figures in ordinary life. It emerged as a distinct movement in the mid-19th century, in opposition to the idealistic, sometimes mythical subjects that were then popular, but it can be traced back to 16th century Dutch art and forward into 20th century styles such as social realism.
|Folk Art refers to any and all forms of art produced by indigenous cultures and people who are self-taught, and whose work is in no way influenced by artistic movements and academia. Most Folk Art is utilitarian or decorative in nature, and is tied directly with a particular culture's values and tribal identity.
|Donald Judd was an early and influential Minimalist artist who made large-scale geometric objects, often of industrial materials and serially arranged on the floor or wall. He helped found the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where many key works of Minimalism are installed.
ArtStory: Donald Judd Page
|Anselm Kiefer is a German painter and sculptor, and was a pioneer of the late-20th-century movement Neo-Expressionism. Kiefer's mixed-media art typically incorporates straw, clay, lead and shellac, in addition to traditional paint and canvas. The themes of his work often focus on the atrocities of the Holocaust, as well as the occult, cosmos, and mythology.
|The American painter Nell Blaine is best known for her lyrical realism, blending figuration with abstraction's structural vocabulary and energy. A prominent artist in 1940s New York, she studied with Hans Hofmann and was a founding member of the Jane Street Gallery.
|Joan Mitchell was a leading second-generation Abstract Expressionist who painted large works of gestural marks and overlapping, roiled color areas. She was famous for her acerbic personality, and her later work often earns comparison with the late painterly style of Impressionist Claude Monet.
ArtStory: Joan Mitchell Page
|James Schuyler was a New York School poet and art critic who wrote regularly on the Abstract Expressionists.
|John Ashbery is an American poet and art critic. Heavily influenced by French Surrealism and the writings of W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas, Ashbery's avant-garde poetry was labeled by John Bernard Myers in the 1950s as part of the "New York School."
|Frank O'Hara was a central figure of the New York School of Poetry. He was also an art critic and curator, and worked at the Museum of Modern Art.
|Peter Schjeldahl is an American art critic, teacher and postmodern poet. He joined the writing staff of The New Yorker is 1998 and is currently the magazine's head art critic.
|Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid 1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
ArtStory: Conceptual Art Page
|Neo-Expressionism began as a movement in German art in the early 1960s with the emergence of Georg Baselitz. It gained momentum in the 1970s, with the addition of painters such as Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz and Eugen Schönebeck. Drawing inspiration from German Expressionism, many of its practitioners focussed on the country's troubled modern history. In the 1980s, it inspired many successful painters across the world, including Julian Schnabel.
ArtStory: Neo-Expressionism Page
|Photorealism is a post-AbEx style of painting that was developed by such artists as Chuck Close, Audrey Flack and Richard Estes. Photorealists apply painting techniques to literally mimic the effects of photography and thus blur the line that have typically divided the two mediums.