Trusty Fairfield Porter Is Better Than Ever

The passage of time, which can bury a once flashy reputation with a cruel finality, can also allow certain reputations to prosper beyond anything that was thought possible in the artist’s lifetime. The latter has certainly been the happy fate of the late Fairfield Porter (1907-1975). In the course of his long career, Porter did not lack for admirers in high places, yet the museums shunned him, the public was hardly aware of his existence as a painter (though some may have read his art criticism), and even the critics who responded favorably to his work hardly knew where it belonged in an art world increasingly riven by factional disputes and hard-line aesthetic and commercial strategies.

Yet now, a quarter-century after his death, Porter is coming to be recognized as one of the major figures of his American generation-as a painter, as a writer of art, and as an influence on other artists and writers. The process of rehabilitation is by no means complete, for his work has not yet been accorded a full-scale retrospective in a major New York museum. Which is itself a scandal when you consider some of the minor talents that have been the beneficiaries of such retrospectives in recent years.

Yet several current developments may hasten the day that a proper retrospective is undertaken. One is the publication of the first biography devoted to the artist- Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art by Justin Spring (Yale University Press, $35). And to mark the publication of this Life , the AXA Gallery in the Equitable Tower has mounted a small but excellent exhibition of his paintings that also contains some interesting documentation of Porter’s career, and the nearby New York office of the Archives of American Art has supplemented this show with a survey of additional biographical and visual documentation. Clearly, the materials for a proper retrospective are readily available even if the will to produce such an exhibition in the city that was central to Porter’s career is not yet in evidence.

The reasons for this are not obscure. About the paintings of Fairfield Porter people used to say things like: “An awfully good painter, but do you really think he was important?” Or: “Lovely paintings, aren’t they? But what can it mean to paint like that in the second half of the 20th century?” Or: “Isn’t that kind of thing sort of passé?” I knew what they meant, of course, and so did Porter. They meant that he wasn’t avant-garde. And they were right about that.

It was an issue that worried Porter himself. When he was given his first solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1952, we learn from Mr. Spring’s biography, Porter was concerned that his pictures “would look academic.” Some of his friends were similarly worried. One of them, Edith Schloss, recalls to Mr. Spring, “I think most of us, including Bill de Kooning, loyal friends, tried to believe in this show but it was not easy. It was not that it was figurative when most work in those years was abstract, but that much of it was still awkward…. There was something blunt and brooding about these paintings, but most of all, something too rare in those times, they were very honest.”

Some years later, as Ms. Schloss also recalls, “when it was clear [Porter] could perceive a scene and put it down and paint it allinonefluent whole-Bill and I were remembering that first show. We agreed it had been much better than we had secretly thought at the time…. It was we who had not seen this.”

Meanwhile, Porter had begun writing art reviews for Art News magazine, and said of himself in this period that “I am much prouder of my reviews than of my paintings.” He even went so far as to declare that “In fact I think I could be the best art critic not writing in English”-a claim that many readers came to agree with when he subsequently wrote a weekly art column for The Nation . A collection of his writings on art- Art in Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism 1935-1975 , edited by Rackstraw Downes-was published in 1979, and remains in print today. Then too, in 1955, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse accepted three of Porter’s poems for publication. This is another aspect of his career that is still insufficiently known, though a volume of Collected Poems was also posthumously published and is still available.

In the exhibition that Mr. Spring has organized as guest curator at the AXA Gallery, we are left without doubt, however, that painting was the major achievement of Porter’s career, whatever his excellence as a critic and poet may have been. From the portraits of family and friends in the 1950′s-among them, Elaine de Kooning, Jane Wilson, James Schuyler and John Ashbery-to the large-scale indoor and outdoor figure compositions of the 1960′s and 70′s, Porter is again revealed as one of the master artists of his time. If only for this latter group of pictures- The Screen Porch (1964), Morning Landscape (1965), The Mirror (1966), Interior with a Dress Pattern (1969), Self-Portrait (1968) and The Tennis Game (1972)-this would be an exhibition that is not to be missed. With their echoes of Velázquez, especially the Velázquez of Las Meninas , and of Bonnard and Vuillard, combined with a very American fluency and frankness in their handling of the painterly medium, these really are among the masterpieces of late 20th-century American art.

My own experience with his work may be in some respects representative. On the occasion of the only full-scale retrospective Porter’s work has been given-the exhibition called Fairfield Porter (1907-1975): Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction , which Kenworth Moffett organized at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bostonin1983-I wrote that “For myself, though as a critic I had praised Porter’s work on a number of occasions during thelast20yearsand though I knew it well, I found I was not really prepared for what I found in this exhibition…. For a critic it is a very odd experience to praise an artist’s work over a long period of time and then discover, as I did in Boston, that I had actually underrated it.”

It is also worth recalling of that Boston retrospective that the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York had to be coerced into taking even a badly abridged version of the show, and then gave it an installation that was completely inappropriate to its spirit. Earlier in the 1980′s, one of the curators at the Whitney, when invited to see a private collection of Porter’s paintings, bluntly informed his host that Porter was far “too tame” for the Whitney. That, too, was a representative judgment of the time.

Never mind. While we still await a proper retrospective in New York, the exhibition at the AXA Gallery, 787 Seventh Avenue at 51st Street, remains on view through May 27. And the Selections from the Fairfield Porter Papers exhibition remains on view at the archives of American Art offices, 1285 Sixth Avenue at 52nd Street, through June 1.