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Fairfield Porter: Familiar Spaces
October 11, 2002–January 5, 2003

Fairfield Porter

Wheat, 1960
oil paint on canvas 33 1/2 x 33 5/8 inches
Collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

Despite his ambiguity toward family life, Fairfield Porter (1907–75) painted his five children, wife, and friends in places he loved, with intimate, yet sometimes isolating grace. The paintings in this exhibition document the familial ambiance and specificity of time, people, and place, in a painting style compared to artists as diverse as Édouard Vuillard and Willem de Kooning, Porter's favorite artist. (1) With their abstracted and simplified figures and objects, Porter's paintings combined American painting ambitions and directions in the mid-20th century. Abstract expressionist painters such as de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and others eclipsed Porter in the gallery scene, as mainstream American painting turned more to abstraction and those margins moved to the center. Yet Porter's oeuvre and his devotion to abstracted yet recognizable figural and landscape painting are reflected in a parallel and historically significant group of American painters that includes Alex Katz, Jane Freilicher, and Larry Rivers.

Porter has been named an "intimist" for his admiration for the work of French postimpressionists Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, whose paintings of the private and personal domestic arena reflected the French middle class and their interest in pushing the impressionist painters' abstraction even further. Porter saw the work in 1938 at the Art Institute of Chicago, noting, "What I like in Vuillard is that what he's doing seems to be ordinary, but the extraordinary is everywhere." (2) Porter's paintings in this exhibition share the domestic intimacy, though not the middle-class legacy of Bonnard and Vuillard's paintings. Porter was reared in a wealthy family and while as an adult he had some money shortages, he did not have to work for a living. He was an accomplished writer and his commissioned artist's monographs and art reviews for The Nation and ARTnews brought in a little money over the years when his paintings didn't sell. But he and his family lived in Southampton, Long Island, and summered on Great Spruce Head Island, his family's Maine island. While Porter's admiration for Vuillard and his personal background are established art historical territory, it may be useful to remember that he shared the postimpressionists' visual ideologies for subject matter, light treatment, and the abstract expressionists' painterly manipulation of form and surface.

July illustrates Porter's deep appreciation for land and place, as does the painting Wheat. Wheat suggests how a painting that at first glance seems to comprise only a few muted colors can seem simultaneously light-filled yet disquieting. The unpeopled slice of house, trees, and outbuildings mediates the anticipatory tension between the sky's slate blue density and the wheat field's placidity. In July the figures, while abstract, are intricately related to the landscape in which they are seated. The brilliant white of the lawn chairs anchors them to the ground, and the giant trees anchor the painting to place, just as Porter himself was inextricably anchored to friends, family, and place through obligation and desire. Great Spruce Head Island (which his father bought in 1912), where this is painted, and Southampton, Long Island, his other home, were places for which Porter felt deep attachment.

Like many of Porter's figures, the four in July are isolated from the painter and from the viewer. Rather than interacting, they seem disconnected from one another. Large swaths of paint separate them, and their gestures do not link them. The back of the foreground chair forms a visual barrier to the scene of what initially seems intimate. Porter's preparatory drawing Study for July is much more lively, making the painting seem slightly sober only by comparison. In the study Porter arranged the chairs and figures in an interactive gesture which he abandoned in the painting. Porter's disengagement is surely deliberate, as he concentrated on the act of painting rather than on the emotional appeal family and friends might engender. He noted that "neurotic or psychological values [were] irrelevant." (3) Porter further revealed his disinterest in emotive or expressive qualities in a discussion of Alex Katz's work:

What I admire in Alex Katz's paintings is that they remind me of a first experience in nature, the first experience of seeing. And that interests me more than-expressionism doesn't interest me very much, expressionism is a problem. But visualness interests me very much. And it must be that "first timeness"-the world starts in the picture. That's what I'm interested in. (4)

Girl Reading Outdoors
suggests a similar equanimity to that which we see in July and other paintings. While the girl's presence in the yard is easily understood - the chair and books feel natural in the environment - her reserve suggests itself in her tight posture. She huddles over, head down, seemingly absorbed in her task. One of her feet is turned inward in a protective stance, suggesting her casual indifference to Porter and the viewer. She engages neither the painter nor her beautifully rendered surroundings, yet she is perfectly integrated into the landscape. In Girl in a Landscape, the girl holds her hands behind her back and her body successfully links the foreground to the vast middle ground's stretch of light-saturated blue water. As in Porter's other paintings, the girl and the landscape are painted with patches of light and color which fuse into a coherent image. In Portrait of a Girl, the girl's hands are folded stiffly in her lap, as are daughter Elizabeth's in The Mirror. Conversely, Girl and Geranium is a more emotionally accessible painting, suggesting a young girl's awkwardness through her stiff arms and quirky stance. Here Porter has implied, through her gesture and her engaging look (she is one of the only figures who connects to the viewer through her focused gaze), her girlish vulnerability within this familiar domestic setting. In what looks like a cozy and light-filled breakfast nook, someone's purse casually rests on the table as if its owner recently dashed through. Porter has captured the essence of this specific place.

Although slight and always subtle, corporeal gesture is suggestive in Porter's figure paintings. Despite their intimate subject matter - family, daughters, wife, friends - Porter's paintings often suggest the dissociation that exists within families. Daughters Katie and Elizabeth rarely ever smile (never in these works) and seem like discrete, unattached beings, as if Porter granted them the independence children crave, albeit an independence that may be inappropriate for their tender ages. Isolation seems particularly acute in the visually complex painting The Mirror. Daughter Elizabeth stares dispassionately into the distance, detached from either the viewer - her gaze is past us - or her father who is reflected in the mirror. He holds a paintbrush but his canvas is out of the double portrait's range. Porter's reliance on Velázquez's seminal painting Las Meninas (1656) is acknowledged by both historians and Porter himself.

By repeating objects, people, and landscape, Porter knit strands of familiarity into his body of work. While we recognize family and friends in the paintings, Porter usually did not name them in the titles, deliberately creating the emotional aloofness we may feel. By refusing to name, Porter maintained some form of critical distance, guiding us to the painterly surface. Yet friends and simple objects become iconic when viewed from the distance of time. For instance, Porter's studio couch in The Mirror also surfaces in Portrait of Elaine de Kooning (1957), Portrait of Frank O'Hara (1957), and other paintings, provoking a variety of possible responses.(5) Perhaps the couch was tied to the studio through the sheer inertia of replacing it, through frugality, and through its interesting visual and physical presence in the paintings. Porter's lushly articulated familial and familiar subjects superbly punctuate the stylistic, iconographic, and even, in spite of himself, emotional arc of Porter's paintings.


Dana Self
Curator


Notes:
Much of this essay was influenced by my reading of Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art, Justin Spring's well-researched and acclaimed biography.

1. Justin Spring, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 239.
2. John Ashberry and Kenworth Moffett, Fairfield Porter: Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction (Boston, MA: Museum of Fine Arts), p. 57.
3. Spring, p. 273.
4. Ashberry and Moffett, p. 57.
5. Spring, p. 234.