An Affair of Places: A Testy Master’s Life

Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art , by Justin Spring. Yale University Press, 384 pages, $35. So detailed, indeed so

Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art , by Justin Spring. Yale University Press, 384 pages, $35.

So detailed, indeed so strenuous is Justin Spring’s account of our finest American painter of domestic life and landscape since Whistler (who, as Porter admiringly observed, “let no idea come between him and his skill”), that Fairfield Porter, who died at 68 in 1975, is revealed to be eminently qualified for the sort of magisterial status denied him, or very gingerly granted him, by the art world of his time (and even of ours). Presented by his enthusiastic biographer as a seasoned artist of transparent, Chekhovian “openness,” as well as an eloquent critic bristling with controversial judgments and a poet of humbly aspiring lyricism, Porter now seems to incarnate that tricky encomium: Ripeness is all .

Yet none of Porter’s relationships–with his accomplished, eccentric, often disapproving parents; with his four siblings, including the inspired photographer Eliot Porter; with his masters, including Arthur Pope and Bernard Berenson; with his wife, from whom Fairfield had sought (and abandoned) a separation as early as 1941, and who converted to Catholicism 20 years after her marriage and published a volume of poetry 20 years after Fairfield’s death; with his five children, one of whom suffered from severe mental disorders; with “difficult” Harvard friends like Lincoln Kirstein and the radical “Brahmin” poet John Wheelwright; with artist colleagues, including Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher; as well as with younger New York School poets, including Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and James Schuyler, (with whom he conducted a preposterous sort of affair for many years)–none of these relationships could be called felicitous, fulfilled, or even resolved; all were continuously prosecuted (surely the right word), sharply questioned, usually abandoned amidst agonized attention and a kind of testy reserve. The only contentment to be acknowledged in Fairfield Porter’s life was surely in his art, at least in the making of his art, which the contemporary critical establishment, when it considers him at all, usually classifies as “realist.” “Materialist” might be better; certainly the best identification of Porter’s work I know is Immanuel Kant’s observation that beauty makes us feel our senses are in agreement with the world.

At various times in his life Porter was convinced of his failure as a son, a father, a husband and a lover; but as an artist, “failure” signified no more than “success,” for pictures were, in the sacerdotal sense, a vocation, and everything in his existence was to become a function of their making, including the thought of their making. “What I like in painting,” he once said, “is to rationalize what I like in painting.”

Like Wallace Stevens, whom he resembles in many respects, life for Fairfield Porter was problematically an affair of places rather than of people: his Winetka, Ill., childhood in the big house on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, a traditional but innovative structure built by his father whose “interest in art and architecture,” Porter later wrote, were “the chief influences on me as a child”; his travels and studies in Italy as a young man; his family estate, the several-hundred-acre island, Great Spruce Head in Penobscot Bay off the Maine Coast, on which Fairfield’s father had built a vast pile of a house that the painter and his family and friends somewhat disputatiously inhabited for many summers, for “Furl” (Fairfield’s dissatisfaction with himself extended to his name) participated not at all in the responsibilities of the society in which his siblings, elsewhere on the island, engaged; and finally the decrepit and quietly grand house on Main Street in Southampton, where Porter lived with his family–and Schuyler, for much of that time–from 1949 until his death. These American sites and structures were to be the source and surround of all Porter’s imagery, indoors and out, and not even Edward Hopper (who is never mentioned, astonishingly, in this generally very referential text–though come to think of it, neither is the other pertinent American master, the Southampton painter William Merritt Chase) has disclosed the ambient intimacy of Atlantic domesticity so richly, so deeply as Fairfield Porter in Maine and on Long Island. Everything he could learn from Vuillard and Bonnard (the European masters he prized over all others, even over Tiepolo and Cézanne) he developed–he ripened –into a native and personal style of great warmth and immediacy. These rooms and walls, these lawns and trees, these beaches and bays, this air and light are really, even in the portraits and family-pieces, Porter’s authentic subjects, the material of his inspiration and the plenum of his imaginative greatness. (Thirty of his paintings, and 10 works on paper, are currently on display at the Equitable Tower’s AXA gallery.)

It was not until the late 50’s, and initially in The Nation , that Porter began regularly to write the criticism that was edited in 1979 by the painter Rackstraw Downes and that is still in print. My own sense of this vital prose is that it stands with the writings of Edwin Denby and Henry McBride and Stark Young as the finest American criticism (dance, art, theater) of the last century; Porter’s opinion was that he was stronger as a critic than as a painter. Certainly this encompassing biography makes such disjunctions irrelevant–it demonstrates, rather, how pertinently and outrageously Porter functioned as a critic with a developed theory of criticism (he was, after all, a younger cousin of T.S. Eliot) and as a painter with a developed theory of art; we discover that the values of the critic and the painter are the values of the same man. The case is unique in our culture, and of great and permanent importance.

I should like to register a personal note of thanks to Justin Spring for his cool sympathies. I knew Porter for some years, and failed to make the most of such acquaintance; I now know what I missed, and why. Not at all incidentally, the figure of Anne Channing Porter stands clear–aureoled, one might almost say, with the humor, the patience and the confidence that I scarcely suspected on visits to that ramshackle hive in Southampton. It is one of the many merits of this powerful monograph that her splendid character is restored to the record–that record which is of such interest, exasperation and value with regard to her husband.

An Affair of Places: A Testy Master’s Life