One of the best exhibitions of contemporary American painting on view now is a show called Intimate Interiors: Paintings by Jane Freilicher and Fairfield Porter at the Whitney Museum of American Art. If, upon hearing this news, you are tempted to drop whatever you are doing to grab a cab for Madison Avenue and 75th Street, be advised that this wonderful exhibition is not to be seen at that Whitney. No, dear reader-that would be too much to expect. The changes that have lately occurred in the management of the Whitney’s Madison Avenue bunker do not yet include a disposition to favor painting of this persuasion-painting that derives from Bonnard, Vuillard and Matisse rather than from, say, Duchamp or Johns or Stella or Judd. For that kind of sweeping change in the museum’s outlook on American art, you are likely to have to wait a lot longer-maybe an eternity.
Meanwhile, to avail yourself of the pleasures of Intimate Interiors , you will have to venture out to Fairfield County, Conn., where the show is installed in the suburban branch of the Whitney Museum that is housed in the headquarters of the Champion International Corporation in downtown Stamford. Does this venue suggest, perhaps, that the Whitney’s top brass still regards painting of this sort-painting that is representational and, you know, more than a little delightful to look at-as an O.K. thing for conventional suburban tastes but ineligible to compete for attention in the intellectually tougher climate of the New York art world? That would indeed seem to be the case.
Only once before, as far as I can remember, has the Whitney condescended to devote an exhibition to the paintings of Fairfield Porter. That was some 16 years ago, and the result was something of a scandal. What happened was this. In 1983, a major retrospective of Porter’s work- Fairfield Porter (1907-1975): Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction -was organized at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was a terrific show, and to the surprise of the folks at the M.F.A., it proved to be one of the most popular exhibitions of 20th-century art ever mounted in Boston. Yet attempts to interest the Whitney in bringing the show to New York, where Porter was far better known as a painter and a critic, were initially turned down. One of the museum’s curators said at the time that Porter’s work was “too tame” for the Whitney to exhibit. And that was before the arrival of David Ross.
Under pressure from some well-placed people, however, the Whitney finally agreed to accept an abridged version of the Boston show, and then added injury to insult by saddling this truncated exhibition with an atrocious installation. Not only were the paintings crowded into an inadequate space, but the walls were painted gaudy colors-in the hope, no doubt, that they would add some visual pep to a show considered too drab for the New York public. It was all unforgivably awful.
Jane Freilicher hasn’t fared much better at the Whitney. In one of the recent Whitney Biennial disasters that was staged before Mr. Ross’ unlamented departure for San Francisco, a few of her paintings could be seen, as I recall, amid the dreck that otherwise dominated the premises on those occasions. Looking at Ms. Freilicher’s paintings in that company, however, was a little like trying to listen to a Mozart quartet at some in-your-face disco blowout. It was hardly conducive to a proper appreciation of either the delicacy or the strength of her work. From such a token representation of her work in those disagreeable circumstances, moreover, no newcomer to Ms. Freilicher’s paintings could have any idea of the scale of her achievement.
Fortunately, the exhibition that Cynthia Roznoy has mounted in Intimate Interiors does much to correct the record for both of these artists. The selection of paintings is excellent, and the presentation of them in the spacious galleries of the Whitney’s Champion International branch is splendid. There are paintings there by both artists that are likely to be unfamiliar even to observers who have followed their work closely-Porter’s early Self-Portrait (1948), for example, and the three powerful early interior still-life paintings by Ms. Freilicher dating from 1953-55-as well as some of the big, better-known later pictures. While by no means a substitute for the full-scale retrospectives that these painters should be given in a New York museum, Intimate Interiors is in many respects an ideal introduction to both of their oeuvres .
Intimate Interiors has the additional merit of allowing us to see more clearly than hitherto the differences-mainly differences of temperament and taste-that separate these painters who otherwise have so much in common. There is, for one thing, an expansiveness of feeling-an element of exuberance-in Ms. Freilicher’s later paintings we do not find in Porter, who is more guarded and subdued in the emotions he brings to painting. Hers is a more outgoing response to experience, while Porter’s is at once more intellectual and more conservative, more attuned to a premodern pictorial tradition. In the command of color and light Ms. Freilicher brings to her painting, there is an abiding loyalty to Matisse-and to what Hans Hofmann made of Matisse -that gives to all of her later work a special vibrancy, while in Porter’s painting there is a parallel affinity for Vuillard that makes itself felt in the painterly nuances he is able to wrest from the shadow world of bourgeois intimacy.
Intimate Interiors is also a reminder that both Jane Freilicher and Fairfield Porter remain seriously underrated painters-underrated, that is, by the official opinion that governs the taste of so many of our curators, collectors and critics. They are underrated in the same way that Bonnard was underrated for so many years-underrated because he didn’t fit into anyone’s official account of modern painting. Now that Bonnard has been trium-phantly vindicated as one of the greatest of modern masters, can we expect those American painters who followed a similarly independent course to be given the high-level recognition they deserve? Given the cultural politics of the American museum world, I wouldn’t count on it, but a show like Intimate Interiors might do something to hasten the day. It remains on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Champion, Atlantic Street at Tresser Boulevard, in downtown Stamford, Conn., through May 19. The hours are 11 A.M. to 5 P.M., Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is free.
Follow Hilton Kramer via RSS.