Poet and Painter Overture
New York poets, except I suppose the color-blind, are affected most by the floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble.
Artists of any genre are of course drawn to the dominant art movement in the place where they live; in New York it is painting. Not to get mixed up in it would be a kind of blinderson repression, like the campus dry-heads who wishfully descend tum-ti-tumming from Yeats out of Graves with a big kiss for Mother England (subject of a famous Böcklin painting: just when did the last major English poet die? not that Rossetti isn't fun ...). The big thing happening at home is a nuisance, a publicity plot, a cabal; and please don't track the carpet. They don't even excoriate American painting; they pretend it isn't there.
Considering the painters' popular "I kissed thee ere I killed thee" attitude toward Paris, admiring, envious and spurning, and the fact (Willa Cather pointed it out a long time ago) that the best American writing is French rather than English oriented, it's not surprising that New York poets play their own variations on how Apollinaire, Reverdy, Jacob, Eluard, Breton took to the School of Paris. Americans are, really, mightily unFrench, and so criticism gets into it: John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Frank O'Hara, myself, have been or are among the poets regularly on the staff of ARTnews. In New York the art world is a painter's world; writers and musicians are in the boat, but they don't steer.
Harold Rosenberg's Action Painting article is as much a statement for what is best about a lot of New York poetry as it is for New York painting. "It's not that, It's not that, It's not that ..." Poets face the same challenge, and painting shows the way, or possible ways. "Writing like painting" has nothing to do with it. For instance, a long poem like Frank O'Hara's Second Avenue: it's probably true to deduce that he'd read the Cantos and Whitman (he had); also Breton, and looked at de Koonings and Duchamp's great Dada installation at the Janis Gallery. Or to put it another way: Rrose Selavy speaking out in Robert Motherwell's great Dada document anthology has more to do with poetry written by the poets I know than the Empress of Tapioca, The White Goddess: The Tondalayo of the Doubleday Bookshops.
Kenneth Koch writes about Jane Freilicher and her paintings. Barbara Guest is a collagiste and exhibits; Frank O'Hara decided to be an artist when he saw Assyrian sculpture in Boston. John Ashbery sometimes tried to emulate Léger; and so on. Of course the father of poetry is poetry, and everybody goes to concerts when there are any: but if you try to derive a strictly literary ancestry for New York poetry, the main connection gets missed.
"Statement on Poetics" in The New American Poetry, Donald allen, ed., 1959
Fairfield Porter I
FAIRFIELD PORTER (De Nagy; May), one of the few modern American painters who transforms genre into high art, keys his new show to a small and perfect painting: a bowl of light violet rhododendrons with a fewthreedaisies sparkled among the dark leaves on a corner of a white table against the palest of pink walls: it is at once solidly four-square and as elusively glamorous as dew. Greater luxuriance would be less stirring. A series of Sycamores define what "Realstraction" is not: they accede to many of the precepts that make for strength in abstract painting but surrender nothing: all-overness is not an effective shortcut but a result of disciplined observation. One in particular has the swathed and simplifying notation of form he has derived from Vuillard (and de Kooning: the washing out of upper branches, the masking in of sky to gain a distinct but equal value).
In a picture so rigorously organized, the appearance of orange triangles on the grass, a brush touch of yellow, is exhilarating, and so is the way the shake of leaves is translated into palpitating dots of paint, just enough to give all the tree a quivering excitement. In his portraits he seems always to find an intransigent straightforwardness: in the outward-looking blueness of poet Frank O'Hara's eyes, Elaine de Kooning all in red (his best portrait and a "speaking likeness"), the duo-pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale practicing, casual but concentrated, Jane Wilson elegant in pearls, a picture that is a homage to Vuillard's portrait of the Comtesse de Polignac.
His special gift is of catching the nuance of vacancy in room, or landscape, the unseen presences that human use and cultivation create.
ARTnews, May 1958
Fairfield Porter II
FAIRFIELD PORTER (De Nagy; January 2-31). In his present show Fairfield Porter confirms the fact that he is in the top rank of American realist painters. He has completely absorbed the influences of de Kooning and Vuillard. His only debt now seems to be to Alex Katz, in his heightened colors. Part of Porter's originality lies in a complete reliance on the freedom of his hand; within a descriptive area, a single stroke can have the aliveness that an abstract painter would demand or need. Also, there is his almost invisible mastery of structure, of composition. One notes in On Top of the Bluff how the redness of the foreground grass is a balancing foil to the truncated, uphill view of the house. This gift he may have acquired in part from his father, James Porter, a Chicago architect, whose houses combined an originality of plan with an exactitude of detail. The paintings this year are divided among his favorite motifs: Maine, Southampton, his family. He can return to a subject year after year, finding new aspects, trying to penetrate more deeply to the core of his feelings about it.
The Edge in the Afternoon and The Edge in the Morning demonstrate the variety he finds in a single subject. In The Morning the flat day runs up into the misted sky; in The Afternoon rock shapes and cloud shapes tie earth and atmosphere into a solid movement of different speeds. The Southampton paintings seem to me his finest to date: the incredible delicacy of the green in Winter Wheat, drawing toward the sky; the violet-hued On the Porch, in which the rigorous stance of the little girl is echoed by the fluted pillar.
There remains to speak of an intimist masterpiece, Through the House, in which feeling brings to cohesion window frames, barely discriminable islands, the pomegranate bottom of a lantern. Porter, in the lyric solidity of his work, embodies the virtues of man: love of family, of carved fields, of the beauty of everyday. They have, after all, kindled our finest art for some centuries.
ARTnews, January 1962
An Aspect of Fairfield Porter's Paintings
Realism is a corruption of reality. Abstraction is a part of idealism. It is in that sense that it is ugly.
Wallace Stevens, Adagia
A critic who found nothing to like (in fact, the contrary) in an exhibition of Fairfield Porter's paintings summed up his feelings about them in the epithet "bourgeois." Or perhaps he had the taste to say middle-class, though it's doubtful: middle-class is pretty strong, but bourgeois still takes the cake, for some, as a pejorative or rather a curse.
If art in America can be identified with a class, it is hard to see what other kind than middle-class he had expected to find. The esthetic needs of the very rich appear to be satisfied by beads, pelts and used furniture (its joints cracking like cap pistols in the hot interiors for which it was not made). Those who are forced to live in racial or economic ghettos, urban or rural, have not much interest in art or in making it, folk or fine. American painting in the '30s proved that an art that describes, rather than arises from, a working class is scarcely therefore working-class art. Nor does it appear than any great degree of expressivity can be artificially induced in American aboriginal art.
The revolution in the fine arts created an esthetic situation of total liberty: "Viva la liberta!" which, if not the libertine evil da Ponte's libretto implies, can beespecially enforced libertya chilling proposition: a row of bricks laid end-to-end across the floor "Ah! I see."
A natural response is a clubbing together of artists into schools and movements, war-heads and splinter groups. Another is a moving up of the historical horizon until it is almost near enough to lean on. Not yesterday, but the day before yesterday. Is any young artist influenced by de Kooning? Ten years ago not to be was as suspect as not to be steeped in Picasso was 30 years ago. It is an admirable situation, pullulant as a well-built compost heap: a lively art world, self-oriented and self-competing, whose works are, if roughly classified, by no means graded. There isn't time enough.
In total freedom it would seem there is no place for a tradition. The tradition is what happens, and when today gets to be yesterday, it gets the boot. Stevens foresaw it as an antipathetic reduction:
The mass appoints these marbles
of themselves to be themselves.
But a freedom which excludes is less than free. While painting which can be called traditional, in whole or part, of course continues to be painted, its right to be considered on a level higher than that of genrein the "mere" senseis often questioned. It is said to be limited by the demands of similitude; inhibited by the examples of past masters; it foregoes the role that art, now that GOD IS ALIVE and well in Argentina, tends to appropriate for itselfthat of the Prophetiae Sibyllarum: The King is dead. Long live the regalia!
Worst, it is "illusionistic," a way of painting associated with a presumed class-wish to perpetuate its values and its possessions, which were much the same.
Fairfield Porter's work places him, for the present writer, at the head of those whose paintings are of a tradition older, say, than Max Jacob's first complaint that his conversation was being plagiarized, and it may be worthwhile to consider his work in the light of these ideas.
There has been, of course, no significant or active tradition in American painting. Nothing connects Porter to Copley. If any resemblance between their work could be adduced, it would be a matter of ambience, and that more of North American light than one of society. The history of nineteenth-century American art is a congeries of ill-trodden paths ending in cul-de-sacs, where a Thomas Sully greets you with a smirk. There is no connection at all in the sense that Bonnard connects to Chardin and Watteau by an inheritance of good painting: a cuisinage d'atelier.
The fact that Porter is the author of a monograph on Thomas Eakins has misled some writers. It was a commissioned work, based on secondary sources (and superior to them, thanks to his painter's eye and accomplishment as a writer). A task undertaken not because of a previous interest in Eakins, but because it was an interesting task and he needed the money.
Porter grew up in Hubbard Woods, a suburb of Chicago, the Chicago of Lorado Taft, an interesting sculptor, though scarcely a seminal one. At Harvard (Class of 1928), Arthur Pope's lectures on art history turned him onor to put it in his tutor's words. "There can be only one awakening."
In 1929-30, he studied with Boardman Robinson and Thomas Benton. The life-class drawings that he made thenor rather, the few that surviveare extremely able. They are also unmannered: they are little influenced by his teachers nor have they much flavor of their own. No doubt life class was approached as a discipline and no doubt that approach is the opposite he would himself take in teaching figure drawing: don't make life-class drawings, just draw.
But, "studied with Boardman Robinson and Thomas Benton": it would be more to the point to say, "studied at the Art Students League." Where else was there? The once rather highly-thought-of works of these artists have proved ephemeral, each in its own way an instance of Buckeye painting: grass-roots vs. Manhattan sophisticated. A case has been made for Jackson Pollock's interest in, and reaction against, Benton. Porter on the other hand seems rather to have withdrawn his sensibility from the encounter.
New York was not altogether an artistic desert: there was, most of all, Stieglitz, and the painters he showed. Of them the most important was John Marin. From childhood Porter had spent, and continues to spend, summers on an island in Penobscot Bay. For him, as for Marin, Maine was a state of mind, an identification. Some of Porter's watercolors of the early '30s show Marin's influence, but his enthusiasm for Marin seems to have changed to respect and left no trace. Viewed from the present, it is odd that the work of the best of these pioneer modernistsMarin, Hartley, Dove, Demuthhas such a mandarin flavor: it suffers from refinement. It grew in a frontier all right, but its roots were attenuated and anchored far away. It is not an art that begets heirs.
For a time in the '30s he was preoccupied with social and political problems. His concern would appear to have been with the content of painting (and its social usefulness) as well as with questioning it as an ethically viable commitment in a violent timea questioning more Tolstoyan than Leninist. In brief, he acquired from this period a factual and unromantic knowledge of how Stalinism, and its affiliates and its enemies, worked: ineffectuality faced by a deadly deviousness. It has left him with a distrust of idealism, as often not relevant to what people are actually like.
His point of view for the past 30 years somewhat resembles that attributed by J.P. Nettl to Rosa Luxembourg concerning art and political action: "Any too obvious purpose in arteven socialmeant automatic disqualification. Art was sui generis ... What made art timeless was not vision but quality. As a means of social change [Rosa Luxembourg] preferred direct political activity." This is not to imply that Porter was influenced by her example (he was, however, influenced by the late Walter Auerbach and by Paul Mattick), nor to force a comparison. Still, it is a quality of greatness that all may, within individual limits, participate in it by emulation, whether with intention or not.
An untitled painting, typical of these of his first mature decade, shows a young boy sick-abed: he is tucked up on a chaise-longue, viewed from the feet, not quite head-on. A mirror over a lowboy reflects a bit of the quilt in which he is nestled. To one side, an open door shows a banister, a hall and a window. A glass of milk is on a table beside the boy. The faults of the painting are easy to spot: the exaggerated perspective of the chaise-longue is a theatrical effect: it has a quality of rule-of-thumb invention, rather than that of a felt or imagined metaphor. The colors are harsh and brittle, almost unrelieved by atmospheric play. There is a feeling of too many preconceptions about how it should be composed, how it should be painted. But the image is a strong one, the stronger for its lack of sentiment: the boy and the room and the furniture are there, a coherent whole, because they have been firmly put there.
The paint is handled rather dryly. It does not, to quote a remark of Alex Katz's that Porter has quoted, "go across the canvas." It is a painting, like others of his from this period, which seems on the verge of a surrender to an earned truth: that it is the painting that makes the demands, and that these are other and more important than the facts of the motif or the will of the painter.
The most forceful quality in this particular painting is the artist's willingness to be clumsy. Some painters seem able to learn by a mimicry of un-understood technique (the more billowy works of the Impressionists are especially handy). Porter's mind is more analytical than that. He had first to prove to himself that he could do it before he could let himself forget and really do it.
This, and the other early paintings like it, combine a distrust of, or lack of reliance on, the intuitive, letting the hand have its way, with an unquestioning instinctive feeling for what specifically are his natural subjects: the people and places he knows best. It is doubtful that he would paint well a subject with which he was not well acquainted, if only by way of a prototype. He once said to a painter who was thinking about moving away from a familiar landscape to an unknown one, "Any place becomes interesting when you get to know it." He is very much an artist for whom art is not (to lift one of Ezra Pound's chewier bonnes-bouches from a current ad) "news that stays news."
During World War II he worked as a draftsman for the government. His first ambition was to be the best draftsman in the office. His second was to get out.
Also during the war he studied in night classes at the Parsons School with Jacques Maroger, whose "recreation" of a "Venetian medium" he still uses. In Fairfield Porter Paints a Picture (ARTnews, January 1955), Frank O'Hara has given more detail of this period, along with much else that is relevant and entertaining, including a recipe for the medium.
One notes, though, on re-reading the article that several things about his way of painting have changed since then. He no longer makes the elaborate preparations before beginning a large painting, though he does at times paint from drawings and from oil sketches. In his present exhibition at de Nagy (to March 16), Early Morning was perforce done from a drawing: it is an early morning view seen while lying in bed, an impracticable position in which to paint. Porch in Maine began as an oil sketch, from drawings of detail and from life. The oranges and the crumpled napkin posed the longest. It was further worked on, after being brought back from Maine to his Southampton studio, but with reference only to what the picture needed. The largest painting, Iced Coffee, was begun on the canvas, a few of the elements roughly sketched out in brownish-red. The confrontation was otherwise direct.
A propos of composition, he once said, "The right use of color can make any composition work," and that in fact the color is the composition. He likes a coherent, unmuddy, close adjustment of values, such as he found in Fra Angelico and in de Kooning: an adjustment in which the colors affect one another within the picture, and give it the fullness of range (the light within the room, the light outside the window) which the eye so much more readily grasps than does a camera.
He paints air as light that shatters on surfaces in a spectrum that is, unlike a rainbow, consistent only to itself. One may know that the trunk of a sycamore scales off and discloses a creamy underbark, and that its shadow is stretched on grassblades whose myriads only a computer could tabulate, but the paint sees trunk and shadow as a continuity, a brown-violet beam which has no existence out of its context, but which is the thing truly seen.
He found, after the war, that his painting had become tight in a way he heartily disliked, a result, possibly, of the drafting board and very little time for his own work. Here the Maroger medium was a help: it was difficult to handle and, to quote Frank O'Hara. "if it is fussed with or changed too much it gets rubbery and unpleasant." This is no longer true. He had to learn to go with the medium, to let it have its way and to use it as it could or would be used. An instance of what Pasternak somewhere wrote: that life, in order to accomplish its purposes, turns our attention from itself. Thus the challenge of the mulish medium to the conscious mind helped free the hand.
The advantage of the medium is that "the paint you put on you can keep moving around for a day. It does two contradictory things: it stays wet, and it stays put." Many of Porter's newest paintings are as succulent as leaves. In Northwest Wind the paint has its own movement, as brushed, stirred and rippled as the windy grass, trees and water it describes. The paint is not, however, merely a vehicle for description. Nor is it that there is a harmony between matter and manner. It is that there are two distinct things, and if the island and water are, in any sense, an illusion, the paint is itself a palpable fact that holds an imprint of life and infuses life into the image. Anyway, what is an illusion?
Coming into New York City on the New York Central the train passes through Harlem. In the midst of the slums rise red brick housing developments, squat though tall. They are indeed prison-like, and it is almost impossible to see them for what they are: stacks of dwellings where people lead lives as varied as we know them to be. It is one thing knowing that to live in an ugly building is not to lead an ugly life, and another to believe it when faced with what look like machines to die in. Seen at another time, the buildings may look quite different: at dusk, when the lights come on, they may seem castles of hard-won privacy. Both are illusions. The buildings are esthetic flops, the people who live in them are the ones who look at them least, and about them we know little or nothing.
A painting has the advantage of fixing our attention on what is there, in the painting. Say, Farmhouse, a cluster of houses in the country. It is only what is there that is seen and shown, there are no implications, there is no interpretation. (It is the introduction of mood that drains so much nineteenth-century American painting of its vitality: wilderness equals grandeur equals awe; or farmyard equals innocence equals native high-mindednessso that the effect of a Caleb Bingham may be perversely contrary to its intent: farmlife equals ignorance equals bigotry). We are not told anything. What is seen is that out of the exteriors of things an image of life can be created: that a field is man-made and is made of dirt, that houses have the same wooden life as trees, and that their shapes complement each other: the hard and sinuous, the sloped and chunky. And the air has substance. It is the act of painting that has spread these different kinds of life on a flat surface, pulled and pushed them together until they make a fact as natural as a flaw of quartz in a rock. It is, in detail, remarkably unreal.
The painting is not a statement, nor are we invited to prefer a rural life to an urban, or a house to an apartment. What we are given is an aspect of everyday life, seen neither as a snapshot nor as an exaltation. Its art is one that values the everyday as the ultimate, the most varied and desirable knowledge. What these paintings celebrate is never treated as an archetype: they are concentrated instances. They are not a substitute for religion, they are an attitude toward life. Their value is not one connected to class.
Class is an active relation to production between at least two groups. As E. P. Thompson puts it: "Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations in which men are bornor enter involuntarily." And, "I do not see class as a `structure,' nor even as a `category,' but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships."
These paintings have no concern with production. Their values are no more timeless than anything else, but they are values which exist in any society, whether they are embodied or not. Their concern is with immediacy: "Look now. It will never be more fascinating."
ARTnews, May 1967 (Continues...)