Wednesday, March 1st, 2006

Fairfield Porter: Paintings and Works on Paper

Betty Cuningham Gallery
541 West 25 Street
New York NY 10001
212 242 2772

March 8 – April 15, 2006

Fairfield Porter Amherst Campus No 1 1969 oil on canvas, 62-1/4 x 46 inches Collection of Parrish Art Museum, Southampton Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery
Fairfield Porter, Amherst Campus No 1 1969 oil on canvas, 62-1/4 x 46 inches Collection of Parrish Art Museum, Southampton Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery

As a painter, critic and an American, Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) was keenly aware of the brief history of painting in the United States. Convinced that Americans knew little of the medium’s larger history, Porter set out to teach himself how to paint. Looking for inspiration in the European paintings of Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, as well as those of his friend Dutch-born Willem de Kooning, Porter sought to create a representational art that allowed oil paint to have its own material independence. He maintained that independence by holding to his ardent belief that, regardless of a painting’s imagery, the medium should have a life of its own.

A selection of Porter’s landscapes, interiors, and portraits is currently on display at the Betty Cuningham Gallery. Organized in conjunction with the South Hampton Parrish Art Museum and Hirschl & Adler Modern, the representatives of the artist’s estate, the exhibition showcases Porter’s highly individualist vision. There is a large amount of work on display: Porter’s paintings take up the main gallery and office. Additionally, there are drawings on view in the gallery’s back room.

Strictly speaking, Porter cannot be considered a realist. Though the pictures in the exhibition contain people and objects — his wife Anne, friends John Ashbery and James Schuyler, and locations in and around his homes in Maine and Southampton — the emphasis in these paintings is on their crafting. The way in which Porter made a painting was just as important, if not more, than what he painted.

The accompanying catalog includes a telling quote from Porter. “I have always had a feeling about shapes,” he wrote, “not that they resembled other ones, but that they had character.” Porter conveyed subject matter using sensations of light and color, as the Impressionists did with their retinal painting. His work exemplifies that before the mind identifies objects, these objects appear as undifferentiated shapes. Unlike the Impressionists, however, whose atmospheric light dissolved the physicality of paint, he was concerned with how light could be solidified into an internal structure of its own.

He transformed observed phenomenon into extraordinary flattened spaces and fractured areas of color and light. View Toward the Studio (1967) is a small vertical canvas dedicated to the specificity of winter light. Porter knew that snow is never purely white, but that it reflects the colors of its surrounding environs. In Porter’s painting, the snow takes on the dim warmth of a nearby building, vibrating with patchy shadows of ultramarine. The sky is rendered flatly, and pushes forward in fragments to the surface of the picture. Slivers of turquoise, used to define the backdrop of the image, advance as the trees in the middle ground recede.

Porter was keenly attuned to the notion that a motif’s character relates less to its recognizability or personality than to the qualities inherent in its form. While the true realist desires verisimilitude in an object’s depiction, Porter believed the object itself was no longer of primary concern. Objects became shapes; light fractured into forms; brushstrokes physically defined surfaces. He was, in many ways, an abstractionist masquerading as realist.

“Paint is as real as nature,” Porter once wrote, “and the means of painting can contain its ends.” The larger landscapes in the exhibition are more involved with interlocking passages of paint, wherein shapes register as flat fields of undulating color. A relatively high chroma painting, Amherst Campus No. 1 (1969), captures a heightened autumn light through abbreviated swaths of lime green, orange, pink and brown. When working on wood panels, Porter’s paint handling became even more emphatically physical. In Snow on South Maine Street (1974), a thin zig-zag of muddied snow is also an unabashed record of the sweeping path of the artist’s brush. Slab-like areas of light grey depict roofs poking through an array of thin branches. Rendered with a translucency not unlike watercolor, these billowing branches create a spindly, all-over effect. The eye becomes lost in successive layers of grey, brown and purple.

Fairfield Porter’s achievement is an unassuming, but significant, part of the history of Modernist art in this country. Porter’s belief that a painting’s life is independent of the must have undoubtedly influenced Alex Katz, of whose painting Porter once said in an essay, “the whole takes precedence and the detail may only be an area of color, in short, abstract.” It is not a stretch then to wonder about the debt contemporary representational painters such as Brian Alfred and others owe to Porter’s concept of character through shape and form. One can detect Porter’s influence in a range of contemporary representational painters’ practice of rendering subject through formal means.