Fairfield Porter’s elegant paintings were the subject of a 1983 retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston that at once permanently elevated his reputation and ensconced him into a period of modernist figuration that curators have been neglecting, in one form or another, for decades. Fairfield Porter: Raw at the Middlebury College Museum of Art afforded an unusual opportunity to see his work assembled in a serious way. (And still affords it, provided you can get to Vermont by Sunday.)
Subtitled The Creative Process of an American Master, the exhibition took a matter-of-fact approach to the Porter holdings of the Parrish Museum in Southampton, New York, where it originated. The Parrish owns a bequest of Porters, given to the museum by the artist’s wife after his death, that includes several seminal pieces and others that the artist abandoned in mid-construction. A wide variety of serendipitous passages cropped up frequently in his work. This is no surprise, as he had one of the greatest flairs for handling oil paint of any 20th century artist, his shortcomings as a draughtsman notwithstanding. Of note is that he elected to preserve some of them in their unresolved state and move on to other canvases.
This was not a lack of determination, but an awareness of the danger of an unchecked work ethic in art. Porter trained for a while at the Art Students League under Thomas Hart Benton, whose pedagogy was as stiff and rote as his oeuvre, and Porter finally concluded that no one in the whole League could paint. A Vuillard exhibition in 1938 revealed to him that it was permissible, natural, in fact, to allow paint to display its own character in the process of rendering a scene. Like Vuillard, Porter was an assiduous artist, but he distrusted control. Benton had shown him what control without sensitivity will get you.
This mixture of finished and unfinished works at Middlebury College, immature ones and mature, convey a sense of Porter’s halting but formidable artistic progress all out of proportion to a typical one-room exhibition. In that regard, I doubt that a larger show could have done better. The earliest painting is a frosty landscape from 1938 that shows him trying to work through his admiration for John Marin. The last paintings include two triumphs from 1967, Anne in a Striped Dress and Jane and Elizabeth, and the iconic 1972 self-portrait that adorns the recent compilation of his writings, Art in Its Own Terms. They also include a 1974 study of a Velásquez, which is revealing. Porter, nearing seventy, still felt that he had more to learn.
It is hard to account for the range of quality in the drawings. Some of them, such as a view of a city street from 1972 penned into a spiral-bound sketchbook, are sublime. Others, such as the 1974 portraits of James Deeley, wander into a scribbled muddle, making one wonder whether Porter’s we’ll-get-there-when-we-get-there attitude was too lackadaisical for its own good. This question lingers throughout. What if Porter had brought John, Richard, and Laurence (ca. 1950) to a conclusion, as lovely as the dripped paint and ghostly table settings look as they are? Would we admire the gorgeous leaf cart and landscape behind Katie Porter (1971-73) any less if she had a face?
The smaller landscape studies from the 1960s and early 1970s tend to settle this concern. City Street (1970), at 19 inches wide, is a masterpiece of abstracted form. A bold design of brown, gray, and powder blue, it shows Porter at his best, spreading wet colors into an atmospheric cityscape. Its economy is extraordinary.
The catalog and labeling focus on the technical aspects of Porter’s practice. This is at times delightful. The Jane of Jane and Elizabeth is none other than the painter Jane Freilicher, and someone has commemorated the sitting in a little snapshot, displayed alongside it. In it you can see Porter standing in front of his canvas, still at an early stage, while Freilicher sits and smiles and her daughter runs about.
The catalog goes into some detail about Porter’s studies under Jacques Maroger, inventor of Maroger’s Medium, which he believed to replicate the paint qualities of the Old Masters and of which Porter employed a variation. The catalog does not mention that it’s an unctuous syrup with dubious archival qualities and no certain connection to any master, nor that qualified materials scientists like Ralph Mayer have advised against it. I forgive this, as it’s nevertheless fascinating to peer into Porter’s working life.
But it’s only becoming harder to bear the want of a serious effort to contemplate Porter and his milieu. On bad days, I tell people that as far as I’m concerned, New York museums can all go to hell until one of them gives a solo show to Jane Freilicher. But since the Whitney took in a curtailed version of the 1983 MFA retrospective, even Porter has been all but ignored at the museum level. This is inexcusable, because the scene included a slew of good painters who dealt with modernist abstraction by painting figuratively, as well as a cadre of inspired poets like John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. I hope that the worthy efforts of the Parrish Museum and the Middlebury College Museum of Art plant the seeds for larger, overdue exhibitions.