Fairfield Porter: Raw - The Creative Process of an American Master

April 11 - June 13, 2010



Audio guide text from the exhibition:


10. Player Instructions

Before we begin our tour, please take a moment to learn how to operate this audio player. As you move through the exhibition, look for the audio tour symbols, accompanied by a number. Enter the number using the keypad on your player to hear the message. You can pause a message at any time by pressing the large button in the middle, marked with a red square. To resume the message, press the button in the center marked with the green Play symbol. You can adjust the volume using the buttons marked with a speaker and a plus or minus sign.


11. Introduction

Fairfield Porter was the most important American realist painter from 1949 until his death in 1975. Not coincidentally, these were the years when Porter lived in Southampton, and in 1979 his estate recognized the bond between the artist and the Museum by donating some 250 works to the Parrish collection. Porter was both a gifted painter and an accomplished writer who produced some of the most lucid art criticism and commentary of the time, notably his reviews for the magazine Art News. He insisted that he painted what he saw rather than what he might assume to be there. Porter painted what he was familiar with -- his family and friends and the places he lived and visited, including Southampton, Manhattan, and a family-owned island off the coast of Maine where he had summered since childhood.

Fairfield Porter: Raw makes clear that, while Porter was a figurative painter, it was the materiality of paint and the process of painting, rather than content or even a "finished" product, which mattered most to him. "I was beginning to be interested in what you can do with paint, what is the quality of paint, what is its nature," he told Paul Cummings in an interview for the Archives of American Art. "What matters is the painting." Art historian William Agree wrote, "Porter refused to make any concessions to either sentiment or traditional canons of finish or painterly quality... He believed that a painting exists in time and changes in time." Porter himself told Paul Cummings, "I think that Ingres's remark that 'I leave it to time to finish my paintings' is true in a very wide and profound way."

As Klaus Ottmann observes in his catalogue essay An Unfinished Quality: Fairfield Porter's Creative Process, a casual, spontaneous, artless, even unfinished look informed much of the artist's work. Porter's biographer Justin Spring described the artist's house and studio as "always in a state of lively disorder." Painter and critic Rackstraw Downes recalls that "as a painter, he was studiously casual," while painter Jane Freilicher, like Downes a close friend of Porter's, once said, "An 'unfinished' qualitywas part of his paintings. The same sort of casualness you find in the household you find in his paintings." Many of the works in the exhibition have that unfinished quality, some intentionally, some because they were unfinished at the time of his death. It is the goal of this exhibition to illuminate Porter's creative process by presenting both finished and unfinished works.


12. Painting Materials

Our tour begins on the right hand wall of the gallery as you face the rear of the building. The first work is Painting Materials, from 1949, the year the artist moved to Southampton. Like other Porter pictures of this time, Painting Materials is in the low-key realist tradition not only of Velasquez but of Chardin and Courbet, all of whom Porter admired. The haphazard arrangement of the elements reflects his interest in portraying "the way things are," rather than in imposing order on the scene. According to Porter biographer Justin Spring, "De Kooning's influence is evident in the gradual loosening up of Porter's brushwork, whose strong and open quality fills out the entire surface." Another Porter hallmark is the radical tilt of the viewing angle. According to exhibition curator Klaus Ottmann, the tilted perspective may have been influenced by Velazquez, especially his painting The Surrender of Breda, the popular name of which was The Lances. According to Ottmann, "The disorderly pile of paint brushes projecting into all directions...has a certain resemblance to the cluster of vertical lances that gave Velazquez's painting its popular name." Finally, the painting is emblematic of Porter's intense interest in the materials with which he worked.

Before moving into the next room, note the Self Portrait in the Studio from ca 1950 on the opposite wall. As exhibition curator Klaus Ottmann has observed, this is a dark painting, with hardly any color, in which Porter's eyes are not visible. Here the nearly empty studio is a place of mystery...into which this exhibition is trying to let a little light. Now let's move into the next gallery.


13. Anne in a Striped Dress

The portrait of the artist's wife Anne Channing Porter, Anne in a Striped Dress, is in some ways a summation of the portraits done in Porter's studio. Inside and outside come into play as we look past the subject at the view of the neighboring Doscher House outside the window. Inside, the wall is filled with images taken from magazines. These rectangles engage in a dialogue with the windows of the house. Their rectangularity is offset by the cloak draped on the chair and the tangled branches of the tree outside. As art historian William C. Agee has pointed out, "The large window and the background it frames become another wall, which acts as if it, too, were a painting within a painting... .Just how he pulls together this diverse painterly array into a resonant, harmonious whole is at the heart of his accomplishment." Interestingly, Anne's dress and the red Shaker cloak on the stool were family heirlooms passed down from Anne's mother. The images on the wall include a reproduction of a Velasquez and a Life Magazine cover of Adlai Stevenson, both of whom Porter admired.


14. Three Portraits

Three paintings in this gallery raise the issue of what constitutes a finished painting. Consider the portrait of Porter's sons John, Richard, and Laurence and the adjacent work Untitled (Man Seated Near Lamp). Both date from the early fifties and are striking for the absence of facial features and the blurring of many details. The portrait of the boys is unsigned and unframed; the man in the chair is signed but not framed. Now look at the portrait of Katie Porter on the opposite wall. This work was painted some twenty years after the first two yet here, too, the facial details are missing and the feet and hands have hardly been articulated. Yet this work is signed on the lower left and framed, which suggest Porter considered it a finished work. As you will see from two small portraits of Porter and his wife in the rear gallery, he was more than capable of painting faces. It's clear the absence of features in the three paintings in this gallery was quite deliberate, whether finished or not.

As Klaus Ottmann has pointed out, Porter wasn't that interested in finishing works. He was more interested in the process of painting than in achieving a conventionally finished look. As these works attest, some of his finished things look incomplete, while some of his uncompleted works seem finished. Porter felt works of art are never finished; they grow and change over time with the participation of the viewer.


15. James Deely

Note on the right wall of the gallery the four drawings of James Deely. The decision to leave two of the drawings unframed and unmatted was deliberate on the part of the curator. Looking at the unframed drawings you see them as the artist did, with smudges and imperfections on the edges. These are all sketches for a portrait so, in that sense, they are not complete works even though they are signed. Note the difference between the three ballpoint pen sketches, which have a clarity of line lacking in the charcoal sketch, which almost looks like a different person. Though not included in this exhibition, there are four versions of the finished portrait, which was commissioned by James Deely, a Connecticut banker. The Parrish owns two of these, which show the subject seated on his porch, but one is less finished than the other. In a 1990 letter to Joan Ludman, author of the Porter catalogue raisonne, Anne Porter wrote of the commission, "I think Fairfield painted two, Mr. Deely not liking the first one."

In 1955 the poet Frank O'Hara wrote Porter Paints a Picture for ARTNews. This was one of a series on artists at work, and Porter himself wrote pieces on a number of artists, including Jack Tworkov and Larry Rivers. Porter Paints a Picture follows the process that culminated in a portrait of his daughter Katherine, then four-and-a-half years old. Porter did two pencil sketches for the picture. In the first he captured her likeness; in the second he sketched the general plan of the composition, with little concern for facial or other features. Two oil sketches followed. According to O'Hara, in each sketch "Porter learned something about a different part of what would be the final picture," whether his daughter's expression, the pattern of the chair fabric, or the overall composition. The actual ARTNews article can be seen in the rear gallery.

In the case across the room is Rome at Night, a watercolor from ca. 1931. Look at the notations in Porter's hand that would be hidden by a matte and frame. It is believed Porter painted this when he traveled to Italy with his mother in 1931. Though you can't see it here, on the reverse side of the paper is another watercolor depicting two boats and a dock, a point of land surrounded by water, and several small buildings. Let's move into the next gallery.


16. Cityscapes

On the right are three city-scapes. The oldest, First Avenue, dates from 1947, when the Porters lived on East 52nd Street in Manhattan, and is painted on masonite. He produced many New York streetscapes during this time. This has something of the look of Rome at Night, with its sketchy, almost cartoon like quality. You are very aware of the paint, the brushwork, which stands out on the smooth surface of masonite. More than twenty years later he painted Near City Hall, which is a clearly uncompleted oil sketch on canvas. There are black outlines suggestive of automobiles, arches that might be the underside of the Brooklyn Bridge. The various stages of resolution recall Michelangelo's unfinished slaves in that Porter's vision has only partly emerged from the canvas. From around the same time comes City Street which, like the much older First Avenue, is on masonite. This is the most abstract of the three, mostly planes of color with just a few suggestions of perspective. But if you look closely, it seems to be the same view as Near City Hall. City Street looks more resolved but it, too, is unfinished. It's obvious that in Near City Hall Porter was looking at the location with a more fully articulated version of the street scene in mind, but that vision was never realized.


17. Board paintings

Porter did a large number of paintings on boards. He painted on anything -- corrugated cardboard, masonite, asbestos flexboard, even aluminum. It's as if he needed to express himself no matter what happened to be available to work on. One of the five pieces on the opposite wall, Untitled from the 1930s, is painted on aluminum. The material has its own properties -- some of the paint is scraped off so that the metal shows through in spots. Compare the paint on aluminum with that on the masonite boards. You really see the brush strokes on the masonite, a smooth surface their neither absorbs not resists the paint. One panel, Elm Tree, is canvas on masonite; here you can see the texture of the canvas showing through the paint. This huge elm in Porter's back yard appears in many of his works. This version is sketchy, spontaneous, almost abstract; it's difficult to tell what is positioned on the right side of the tree. Now let's move into the rear gallery.


18. Velazquez Study

Earlier in this tour, we referred to the Velazquez painting The Surrender of Breda. This is a painting Porter knew well and even copied, as you can see here in Velazquez Study. In this copy, Porter focuses on a small section on the right side of the Velazquez painting in which the heads of three men are positioned to the right of a riderless horse. Two of them look straight at the viewer. This study was most likely done as a practice in portraiture. Porter's interest in Velazquez was stirred by a meeting with the eminent art historian Bernard Berenson in Italy in 1932. In his later years he came to value Velazquez above all other painters of the past.

According to critic Ken Moffett: "Velázquez became his favorite painter. 'I was beginning to be interested in what you can do with paint - what is the quality of paint, what is its nature, and I admired the liquid surface of Velázquez. And what might be called his understatement, though I don't like that word. The impersonality -- I don't know what word to use. He leaves things alone. It isn't that he copies Nature; he doesn't impose himself upon it. He is open to it rather than wanting to twist it. Let the paint dictate to you. There's more there than there is in willful manipulation. I used to like Dostoevsky very, very, very much. Now I prefer Tolstoy for the same reason. He is like Velázquez for me.'" According to Moffett, Porter saw in both Vuillard and Velázquez sovereign artistic personalities who were able to balance their love of the medium and their love of visual reality in such a way as to respect the inherent individuality of both. Here is Porter's ideal, "a strong man without egoism," as he once wrote of John Button.


19. Three landscapes

In this case are three landscapes on paper from the 1950s. All feature trees, but the pastel in the center has a very different look and feel from the watercolors that flank it. Once again it's quite clear Porter was enamored of materials and of the different results each one yielded. These all have a sketchy quality, but all are signed. These recall to some extent the initial sketches of Alex Katz, those impressions Katz referred to as the "flash" that were the first steps toward a finished painting. In Porter's case, however, while he knew, admired, and even felt competitive with Katz, the finished product is much harder to define. Katz has said, "I like to finish things" while Porter, as mentioned earlier, felt his paintings were never really finished.

To the right of this case hangs Spring Fog, from 1975. This landscape is unfinished and yet, as Klaus Ottmann has pointed out, it would not look unfinished if you saw it in a gallery today. The idea of what "finished" looks like has changed.


20. Lunch Under the Elm Tree

Lunch Under the Elm Tree is an early work looking towards Lake Agawam. It is a large painting with a dramatic, magisterial feel. Children and lunch table are dwarfed by the enormous elm tree. According to New York Times critic Roberta Smith, in works like this Porter borrowed from de Kooning, in this case "a flurry of enormous brushstrokes and fluid drips that threaten a green lawn already nearly obliterated by a maverick passage of green." Smith is not the only writer to link Porter and de Kooning, a connection that might at first seem odd. Porter admired de Kooning tremendously and considered him and Vuillard his most important influences. According to exhibition curator Klaus Ottmann, "from de Kooning he absorbed a working process that was open-ended and uncontrolled."

According to critic Ken Moffett, writing in Artes Magazine: "Willem de Kooning, whom Porter had met in the 1930s, was his most important influence at this time. He was the one member of the older generation who continued to refer to the figure tradition, and he was the most accessible and available to the younger artists. The chef d'ecole of 10th Street and a charismatic personality, de Kooning seemed to Porter the prototype of the European painter still in touch with the great traditions of Europe. Even when de Kooning's work became bombastic and grotesque in the early 1950s, miles away from the "understatement" and "naturalness" that Porter loved in Vuillard and Velázquez, de Kooning still impressed him. If Porter saw Impressionism through the eyes of the Renaissance, he saw de Kooning through the eyes of Vuillard. He couldn't understand the abstract art that was developing around him in those years, although he was much conditioned by the climate and ideas that it generated. De Kooning especially influenced his ideas and helped him to be bolder. To Porter, de Kooning's pictures were an illustration of an outlook, an affirmation of "the means so as to say painting is physical and material -- a reality itself." Moreover, de Kooning made "an attitude toward work the subject matter of his art." His aggressive, full-bodied assertion of the value of painting as painting helped give Porter confidence in himself."

Here's an interesting anecdote, in Porter's own words: "I think [Tom Hess] did a lot of promoting, yes; but if he hadn't promoted those abstract artists, nobody else at the time would have. They were painters who should have been promoted. They were the best painters around. One reason I never became an abstract painter is I used to see [Clement]Greenberg regularly, and we always argued. We always disagreed... .He told me I was very conceited. I thought my opinions were as good as his or better... .He [once] said to de Kooning, who was painting the Women: You can't paint this way nowadays. I thought who the hell is he to say that? He said: you can't paint figuratively today. I thought, if that's what he said, I think I will do just exactly what he said I can't do. I mean, I might have become an abstract painter except for that."


Return to "An Unfinished Quality": Fairfield Porter's Creative Process, essay by Klaus Ottmann (5/14/10)

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2010 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.