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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fairfield Porter

Fairfield Porter under the Elms,
He was a painter. Also, a writer, a Communist, an anarchist, an atheist, a husband, a father, a bisexual, and a realist painting in an abstract expressionist world. And though he steadfastly refused to partake of nonrepresentational art, he probably knew more about it and wrote more intelligently about it than anyone of his time. He was the first to recognize and propound the talent of his friend and fellow painter, Willem De Kooning. He had five children, one of them autistic (undiagnosed), a very liberal, understanding, tolerant, poet wife, and for something like 12 years, a gay house guest/lover (below). He came from a wealthy (though dysfunctional) Illinois family, was Harvard educated, traveled broadly, and once painted Leon Trotsky. He was fond of comparing himself to Dagwood Bumstead. His name was Fairfield Porter.

James Schuyler, 1955,  Fairfield Porter,
the man who came and stayed.
Porter was nothing if not complex.  He was a package of startling contradictions all of which coexisted beneath a surprisingly calm exterior. Born in 1907, it was well into the 1950s before he received any significant recognition for his work. Though some of his early work was steeped in socialist commentary, as he mellowed with age, so did his style and content. He was a wise and witty homebody, painting his family and the environs of his large, rambling house in Southampton, New York, and the family-owned Island off the coast of Maine. Surprisingly, Porter's painting is remarkably consistent. His early work is a little more controlled than that of the last two decades of his life, but never does he depart from his beloved landscapes, interiors, still-lifes, and portraits which are usually more figure studies than traditional posed portrayals.

The House with Three Chimneys, 1972,
Fairfield Porter, the family home.
Often Porter is intimately connected with the New York School, but the connection is more social than stylistic.  As a writer, he not only "discovered" De Kooning, but was instrumental in bringing to light the work of Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, and Alex Katz as well. In turn, each of these abstractionists influenced his work. Porter's artistic roots hearken back to the French painters, Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, whom he regarded as the true fathers of Modern Art. Setting aside the domesticity of his subject matter, Porter was a colorist often with decidedly Fauvist leanings. From his Abstract Expressionist friends he borrowed daring compositional proclivities, bolstered by their loose brushwork and sensitivities to the flatness of the painting surface. The illusions of Realism were always there, but so too was the recognition that his art was always first and foremost, paint on canvas. From the late 1950s on, Porter's work gained gradually, somewhat begrudging recognition not as a result of his own evolution as an artist, but as a result of an art world growing tired of Abstract Expressionism. Today, though still largely unknown by the public, he's recognized by the art world as one of the most important American painters of the 20th century. He didn't change...we did.

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