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Fairfield Porter at Betty Cuningham Gallery

Fairfield Porter, Installation shot. All images courtesy of Betty Cuningham

By JONATHAN GOODMAN, May 2019

The excellent painter and art critic Fairfield Porter worked figuratively among the best abstract expressionists active at the time. His art, at once lyric and persuasively realist, is composed both of landscapes and portraits. In this small show there are a group of a small oil paintings, done while the artist was teaching at Amherst College in 1969-70. There is also a large oil, a rendering of Porter’s son, as well as a number of small ink and pencil drawings depicting nature. Porter is slightly underrecognized, both as a writer and an artist. His paintings, of the highest order, are matched by the accomplishments of his criticism. A figurative painter at a time when the best artists working were making abstract works, Porter nonetheless stands out as a major personage. His brushwork is highly expressive and, when isolated, can be seen nearly as nonobjective, although in service to a larger, realist compositional perception. Many of his efforts communicate the lushness of the landscape where he lived in eastern Long Island, although this show’s oils result from the artist’s stay in western Massachusetts. But whatever the geographical circumstances of his output, Porter looked to a view that would incorporate his preference for a luxuriantly brushy style, as well as a strong sense of compositional order.

Jerry, 1955, 1975. Oil on Canvas, 62 x 37 in. (157.48 x 93.98 cm). Signed Lower Left

Jerry (1955), the large study of Porter’s son, is an important work demonstrating fatherly affection. The young man, with his right arm propping his head, directs a serious gaze toward his viewers. He is dressed in a white button down shirt with a yellow-and-red plaid tie; his khaki pants are a light brown. He also wears dark green embroidered socks. Jerry sits at a dining table covered with a mat, a blue-patterned tea cup and saucer, and a white napkin on a plate. Behind the figure, on the right, is an open wooden stand filled with crumpled linen. The realist orientation of the painting seems to come from earlier French modernism; perhaps Vuillard is not far away in regard to influence. At the same time, the handsome young man looks very much American, being the son of an artist aristocrat educated at Harvard. This painting possesses our country’s directness, as well as evidencing European precedents. Porter’s taste in culture is high, albeit not so elevated as to lose touch with the domesticity portrayed in the work. But, now nearly 75 years old, the painting belongs to an era very different from our own.

Spruce and Birch, 1964. Oil on canvas, 22 x 24 in. (55.88 x 60.96 cm). Signed lower center

Spruce and Birch (1954) functions as an example of Porter’s remarkable skill in capturing grass and woods. The trees, mostly gray with some touches of brown, may be evergreens; they stand in the back of the painting. In the front half of the painting, we see a small meadow of luminous green. The contrast in color is actually complementary; the painting is a song based on nature, its lyricism the result of poetic insight and technical ability. It is rare to find so sympathetic a study of woodlands--likely not far from the artist’s home. The small works painted while the artist was teaching at Amherst include the effort Untitled (Amherst College Building in Snow) (1969-70), which presents what is probably two red-brick wings of a single building; the roofs of both are a darker gray, with two chimneys rising from the left wing. A few bare trees stand in front of the building, with an off-white, light-gray expanse of snow in the foreground. Porter’s lyricism exists here as an amalgam of architecture and a limited presence of nature. Both this work and Spruce and Birch make an effort to convey the silent presence of a landscape; in the Amherst study, we see a building as well, but one framed by sky, trees, and snow. The atmosphere of nature’s independence from man in both, though, is palpable.

UNTITLED (LANDSCAPE), ca. 1960. Ink on paper, 21 x 17 3/4 in. (53.34 x 45.09 cm). Signed lower right: Artist

Porter’s untitled ink landscape drawing, made roughly around 1960, consists of a grassy meadow defined by two slightly undulating lines; above, it looks like a thin horizontal cloud is taking over, while to the right is the well-defined form of an evergreen tree. The detail of the drawing is sharp; the piece’s expressiveness is both controlled and free. Porter is a master here of the casual touch; his feeling for landscape stands out as inspired. As time goes on, he looks more and more like the equal of the abstract expressionists working during the same period. By sticking to a figurative style, Porter reminds us of painting tradition; his art comes from a time when studies of nature still had the integrity of a vision untouched by overdevelopment and the consequent over-awareness of working with imagery in nature. So the paintings and drawings in this show remain free of recent time’s excessively calculated relations to the landscape. This makes his art unusually accomplished, not only in a technical sense, but also in a unknowingly guileless fashion that distances him from our own time--a period when trees and meadows cannot survive without being managed by people. WM

Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 

 

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