An Anteroom Show Gives Short Shrift to Porter
Porter’s work isn’t compatible with an ethos that places a premium on urinals and drippers, soup cans, dildoes and elephant shit.
What is it about the painter Fairfield Porter that irritates people-pisses them off, in fact? This question may seem a non sequitur, and a forced one at that. Porter’s art is, after all, widely admired. Since his death in 1975 at the age of 68, Porter’s stature as an artist has surely if slowly flourished. His work is highly-one could almost say reverently-regarded by other painters and isn’t lacking in ardent and eloquent critical champions. A major biography was published recently, as was the catalogue raisonné, and the paintings can be found in private collections and museums across the nation. Clearly, Porter doesn’t irritate everyone.
Yet his standing as a significant American artist-one whose oeuvre, on the whole, holds up better than that of his friend Willem de Kooning-doesn’t sit well with a lot of folks, particularly (though not exclusively) those in the art scene. Porter has occasioned a fair share of grumbling and sniping. I recall, as an example, hearing a local media personality-one whose erudition in the arts is remarkably far-ranging-describe Porter as “the Grandma Moses of realism.” A few years back, a nameless scribe at The New Yorker sniffily dismissed him as a painter who never left his backyard. It’s significant, similarly, that the only Manhattan venues to have presented Porter’s work in any depth have been those outside the major-museum loop-galleries commercial, college and off-the-beaten-track. And when the work is displayed inside the loop, it’s as an addendum rather than the vital contribution to our cultural life that it is.
To get an all-too-telling indication of this phenomenon, one need only visit the Robert Miller Gallery in Chelsea, where a small but splendid selection of Porter’s paintings and drawings is on view. Or, to be precise, where it has been obliged to play second fiddle to the painter Julio Galan’s cut-rate meditations on abstraction, sainthood and desire. That Porter has been relegated to Miller’s front galleries-galleries that will, one feels, never shake their holding-area ambiance-while Mr. Galan has been lavished with more space than his dreary pictures merit, constitutes a comedy indistinguishable from insult. Why does Porter receive such short shrift?
The answer-or a big chunk of the answer, anyway-goes back to the crack about his being a “backyard painter.” Forgetting for a moment that Porter made superb backyard paintings-one of the canvases at Miller is titled, appropriately enough, Backyard at Southampton (1960)-the appellation implies an art that is cozy, mild and, if not oblivious, then willfully blinkered. That is to say, an art which offers none of the transgressive amenities that are purportedly the hallmark of significant art. And it’s true: Porter’s work isn’t compatible with an ethos that places a premium on urinals and drippers, soup cans, dildoes and elephant shit. He is, in this view, less a painter of domesticity than a domesticated painter. He never left his backyard! What more is there to say?
There is a lot more to say and even more to look at-and this is where Porter irritates. His art, in its wiry sophistication, simply can’t be ignored or denied. Porter’s just too good to be pooh-poohed as a reactionary or a crank or a hanger-on. No wonder he gets under the skin of all the right people: His paintings reveal all too sharply how rickety-and how pretentious and trivial-the avant-gardist line on art history is. Porter posited tradition not as an endless succession of scripted dead ends. He posited it as a boundless, living conduit and proved it-stoically, stubbornly and gloriously-to be the case. There will, one hopes, be a fuller accounting of Porter’s art someday soon. In the meantime, the Miller show will have to do. Fairfield Porter is at the Robert Miller Gallery, 524 West 26th Street, until June 30.
Brooding, Half-Glimpsed Visions of Nature
The paintings of Claire Seidl, currently the subject of an exhibition at Rosenberg + Kaufman Fine Art, are so redolent of the natural world that it’s easy to forget they’re abstract. They evoke the rushing of waterfalls, an oncoming bank of ominous clouds or the lazy drift of a shimmering stream, but do so by inference, not example; nothing is spelled out for us. Ms. Seidl pictures nature as an imponderable, mutable presence, one as pitiless as it is powerful. Although she works her surfaces like an umpteenth-generation Abstract Expressionist-layering and scrubbing and scraping-the paintings are strangely acultural. Their stylings are subsumed-and impressively so-by the artist’s brooding, half-glimpsed visions.
Which isn’t to say that these stylings are unimportant or that they don’t, at times, falter. Ms. Seidl has yet to put a distinctive stamp on the massively intractable forms that are new to her art, and she’s prone to pushing her paintings too hard. Having said that, my favorite picture, The Explanation (1999), is pushed too hard just right, and one sees in all the canvases a painter delving ever deeper into her art, pondering its mysteries and being a little dumbfounded by them, as well. Let’s hope Ms. Seidl continues losing herself in her art, but doesn’t get so lost that she’s prevented from sending back reports of its knotty and allusive environs. Claire Seidl: New Paintings is at Rosenberg + Kaufman Fine Art, 115 Wooster Street, until June 30.