Fairfield Porter Gets Some of What Critics Owe Him

Sometimes it takes New York art museums an absurdly long time to recognize the importance of a major “local” talent. It wasn’t until 1982 that the Whitney Museum of American Art, for example, finally got around to mounting a full retrospective devoted to the paintings of Milton Avery, who died in 1965, at the age of 79, and had been a significant presence on the New York art scene since the 1930’s. Nowadays, of course, virtually all the museums recognize Avery as an American master, and vie for examples of his work. But why did it take so long for this to happen?

Today we’re witnessing a similar pattern of protracted denial in regard to the paintings of Fairfield Porter (1907-1975), whose achievements as an artist, an art critic and an influence on other artists and critics were closely bound to New York art life in the crucial years of his development. Two decades have passed since Kenworth Moffett organized a retrospective called Fairfield Porter (1907-1975): Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, of all places, an exhibition which, as I wrote at the time, “resulted-overnight, as it were-in a sweeping transformation of the artist’s reputation and status.”

The Boston show proved to be a sensation, with an attendance that exceeded all expectation. Yet no New York museum would agree to exhibit the retrospective in its entirety. As I also wrote at the time: “Even the Whitney Museum, famous for its eclectic taste and flexible standards, had to be coerced into accepting even an abridged version of the Boston show.” What I didn’t report at the time-1983-was a pronouncement made by a Whitney curator to a prominent collector of Porter’s paintings: “This is too tame for us.” And that stupid judgment pretty much summed up the official view of Porter’s work in the New York museum at the time. To compensate for Porter’s alleged “tameness,” the abridged version of the Boston show that came to the Whitney was tarted up with brightly colored walls and a crowded installation-an “aesthetic” intervention that was deeply inimical to spirit of Porter’s pictorial sensibility. In my view, anyway, it amounted to an act of museological vandalism.

The Porter show that has been organized this summer at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine is happily devoid of such handicaps. It brings together a selection of Porter’s best landscapes, still lifes, portraits and interiors from the artist’s best period, 1949-1975, and for the most part is a sheer delight. It’s not, to be sure, the retrospective we need in New York, nor is it designed to be. This show is a somewhat expanded version of the traveling exhibition that was shown in New York at the AXA Gallery a couple of years ago. It’s based on, and takes it title from, Justin Spring’s biography, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art , published three years ago by Yale University Press.

The show’s emphasis is thus frankly biographical, and includes letters, manuscripts, sketchbooks, clippings, photographs and drawings. One of the drawings contains a pencil portrait of Leon Trotsky, whom Porter encountered on a trip to the Soviet Union. Also included are some of the artist’s early and not very persuasive attempts at the kind of politically inspired “socialist” art that was fashionable in the 1930’s. Porter was then panting and writing under the influence of Marxism, for which he appears to have had no vocation whatever. We are even treated to a photo of a lost early political mural, Turn Imperialist War Into Civil War (1935), a poor pastiche of the Mexican muralists who were then all the rage in left-wing art circles. Fortunately, for those of us whose primary interest in Porter lies in the paintings of his maturity, there’s an abundance in the Portland exhibition of classic Porter paintings (even more, actually, than were included in the New York show). A number of pictures of Maine subjects have also been added to underscore this particular aspect of his career-the Maine landscape and its light inspired Porter’s most lyrical paintings.

It was first in Chicago and then in New York, however, that Porter was reborn, so to speak, as the painter we know today. It was tantamount to a conversion experience. This is how Justin Spring describes it in his biography:

“He was on the lookout for inspiration, for both the American Scene painting and the work of the Mexican muralists seemed, if not entirely dead, then at least far from current concerns.

“Miraculously, Porter found that inspiration in December 1938 at the Art Institute of Chicago at an exhibition of the Intimist painters Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. ‘I had never seen so many Vuillards before …. And I looked at the Vuillards and thought, Maybe it was just a sort of revelation of the obvious, and Why does one think of doing anything else when it’s so natural to do this? When Bill [de Kooning] was first influenced, you know, it was Picasso he was emulating. With me it was Vuillard.'”

Porter’s “conversion” wasn’t complete until 1954, when, in his capacity as a critic for Art News , he reviewed a Vuillard retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. “It seems to be ordinary what [Vuillard]’s doing,” Porter wrote, “but the extraordinary is everywhere.” And this prompted Porter himself to take the risk of devoting his own paintings to the “ordinary” subjects of his own daily experience.

In that endeavor, Porter’s early friendship with Willem de Kooning also played an important role. It was no doubt de Kooning’s influence-the influence of an American Abstract Expressionist-that served as a counterweight to Vuillard’s aestheticism. And it was on de Kooning’s recommendation that the Tibor de Nagy gallery gave Porter his first solo exhibition in 1952. More than half a century later, New York is till waiting to see a full-scale retrospective of this American master.

Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art, 1907-1975 remains on view at the Portland Museum of Art through Sept. 7, and will then travel to the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Tex. (from Oct. 5, 2003, to Jan. 4, 2004), the last stop on its national tour.