"Any artist has a style which determines and is the particularity of his communication."
FAIRFIELD PORTER SYNOPSIS
Fairfield Porter was one of the foremost practitioners of representational painting in the American art world of the mid-twentieth century. For several decades he created portraits, domestic scenes, and landscapes of the places he lived in, all depicting a relaxed and comfortable world that seemed to mirror his own affluent, well-connected existence. However, his art was often more nuanced than it appears at first glance. The influence of Frenchpainters and is obvious, yet Porter was also fully conversant in contemporary movements such as , and his loose, energetic painting style owed much to his understanding of gestural abstraction. Porter was also a prolific critic whose work was published in several influential art journals; in his writing, as in his friendships and mentorships, he often championed other artists who sustained a commitment to realism and figuration.
FAIRFIELD PORTER KEY IDEAS
MOST IMPORTANT ART
Untitled (First Avenue) (1945)
Due to the financial hardships of World War II, Porter and his family rarely traveled outside New York City between 1941 and 1946, forgoing visits to their home on Maine's Great Spruce Head Island. During these years Porter was obliged to adjust his work patterns to city life. This untitled work from 1945 depicts Manhattan's First Avenue, presumably the corner just a half-block from the family home on East 52nd Street. The drab grays and browns of this painting, which are quite different from his vibrant use of color in later works, indicate Porter's somber mood, brought about by family strife and ongoing confinement to the city.
Oil on canvas - The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY
FAIRFIELD PORTER BIOGRAPHY
Fairfield Porter was born in Winnetka, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He was the fourth of five children of James and Ruth (nee Furness) Porter. The Porter family fortune, based in Chicago real estate, was several generations old; both sides of his family also had deep roots in New England.
Porter acquired a love for art and literature at an early age. His mother, who belonged to the progressive Unitarian church, had sophisticated views on child-rearing and childhood education. From his mother, Porter learned to adopt a critical eye when viewing pictures and artworks.
Porter's father, James, held 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. 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.
Education and Training
Porter entered Harvard University in 1924 with the intention of studying philosophy. He attended lectures delivered by the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, whom he would later credit as a major influence in his own development as an artist and writer. He also developed a strong interest in art history, studying under Arthur Pope, a well-known archeologist and historian of ancient Persian art. Porter wrote poetry during this time and also began to take an interest in leftist politics.
In the summer of 1927, Porter took a walking and bicycle tour of France, which eventually took him to Berlin and finally to Moscow. While in Russia he attended a lecture given by Leon Trotsky, an experience that would inform Porter's developing political views, especially during the years of the Great Depression.
After graduating from Harvard in 1928, Porter moved to New York and studied for two years at the Art Students League, where one of his teachers was. Benton's commitment to figurative painting had a lasting effect on Porter, as did his studies of the French painters and .
In 1931 Porter returned to Europe; on this trip, he concentrated on visiting museums and galleries. This travel, in addition to his studies at Harvard, afforded Porter a close and deep knowledge of nearly every movement and style in Western art, from ancient Greek sculpture to Old Master paintings to.
Upon his return to the United 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 these years that Porter 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 1930s, then in New York again in the early 1940s. They had five children: John, Laurence, Richard, Katherine, and Elizabeth. The Porters struggled financially during the wartime years in New York, but they led a rich social life, becoming close friends with writer Edwin Denby and artists Rudy Burckhardt andand . Porter was one of the first people to purchase Willem de Kooning's art. In 1940 he wrote a piece on the artist for the Partisan Review; although it was not published, it is now believed to be the first review of his work ever written.
In 1949, the Porters moved to the seaside town of Southampton on New York's Long Island. Their new seasonal home would become the inspiration for many of Porter's landscape paintings over the next twenty-five years. Porter and his family divided their time between winters in Southampton and summers on Great Spruce Head Island in Maine (they also had a home in midtown Manhattan for several years). Porter and his wife experienced frequent personal difficulties, due to Porter's bisexuality, and an extramarital affair that Anne had in the early 1940s, yet the marriage endured.
Meanwhile, Porter was slowly establishing himself in the New York art world. As a bohemian and political leftist, Porter meshed easily with theof intellectuals and Abstract Expressionist artists, but his representational and figurative paintings expressed something utterly different. While Porter continually expressed a deep interest in abstraction and believed that artists like and were true modern masters, he wanted to express a different reality in his own paintings, something closer to what he saw with his eyes, rather than limiting himself to formal experimentation. Porter found himself slowly as an artist, and he was already in his early forties when he had his first exhibition in New York in 1952, at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. From that point forward, the owner of the gallery, John Bernard Myers, represented Porter and gave him annual gallery exhibitions. His art was also included in six annual group exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art from 1959 through 1968.
Porter's most prolific period as an art critic was the 1950s. From 1951 to 1967 he wrote for Art News, reviewing roughly twelve gallery shows and museum exhibitions every month. In addition, Porter also became a regular contributor to the leftist periodical The Nation. In 1959 he wrote an essay on the American realist and landscape artistfor a series on American painters published by Thomas Hess.
Late Years and Death
Throughout his career, in spite of his friendships with many members of the American avant-garde, Porter felt a stronger kinship with the European, , and , from to and , in his art and his criticism. These artists, much like Porter himself, stressed a theoretical fusion of paint application and composition and believed that the human figure should be the chief concern of art. Porter frequently referred to the abstract artists of the New York School as the "idealists of New York painting," and throughout his career he 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."
In 1967 Porter took his wife and two daughters to Europe, his first trip abroad since his studies in the early 1930s. Porter wrote occasionally throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, but he did not produce nearly as much criticism as in the previous decade. 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. The first retrospective exhibition of his art was held from 1974 to 1975 and traveled to three venues: the Heckscher Museum on Long Island, the Queens Museum in Flushing, New York, and the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey.
Porter died on September 15, 1975 at age 68. A full-scale retrospective of his art was organized by the Boston Museum of Fine Art in 1983. Due to a donation by his wife Anne, the largest collection of his work and papers now resides at the Parrish Art Museum, not far from the Porters' home in Southampton, New York.
FAIRFIELD PORTER LEGACY
Porter was a lasting influence on many younger American artists who explored figurative painting in the 1970s and beyond, such as, , , , and . He was also a friend to many poets of the New York School, including and , all of whom shared his interest in making art from the experiences of everyday life.
In his criticism, he praised and promoted certain artists, thus bringing their work to a wider audience; just a few of his subjects were
FAIRFIELD PORTER QUOTES
"The right use of color can make any composition work."
"The profoundest order is revealed in what is most casual."
"If you are not 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."
Fairfield Porter Influences
Interactive chart with Fairfield Porter's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
Fairfield Porter BOOKS AND ONLINE RESOURCES
Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art
By Justin Spring
By John T. Spike
Fairfield Porter: Raw
By Klaus Ottmann
The Undiscovered Country
By Philip Guston, Fairfield Porter, John Baldessari, and Richard Hamilton
Fairfield Porter papers in the Smithsonian Archives
Porter's essays, journals, paint recipes, notebooks and correspondence
|Fairfield Porter at Tibor de Nagy Gallery|
|Fairfield Porter at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery|
Fairfield Porter: Paintings and Works on Paper
By Greg Lindquist
Trusty Fairfield Porter Is Better Than Ever
By Hilton Kramer
Putting the Spotlight on Fairfield Porter
By Michael Kimmelman
Fairfield Porter: Master Realist
By Grace Glueck
Letter from Clement Greenberg
By Clement Greenberg
Fairfield Porter: An American Classic
By Hilton Kramer
Oral History Interview with Fairfield Porter
Conducted by Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art June 6, 1968