Fairfield Porter - Biography and Legacy
American Painter, Printmaker, and Writer
Southampton, New York
Biography of Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter was born in Winnetka, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He was the fourth of five children of James and Ruth (née Furness) Porter. The Porter family fortune, based in Chicago real estate, was several generations old; both sides of his family also had deep roots in New England.
Porter acquired a love for art and literature at an early age. His mother, who belonged to the progressive Unitarian church, had sophisticated views on child-rearing and childhood education. From his mother, Porter learned to adopt a critical eye when viewing pictures and artworks.
Porter's father, James, held a degree in architecture from Columbia University and had designed the family homes in Winnetka, Illinois, as well as the Porter vacation home on Great Spruce Head Island off the coast of Maine. However, James was unable to make his living as an architect, and was instead obliged to assist his mother in managing the family real estate business during difficult economic times.
Education and Training
Porter entered Harvard University in 1924 with the intention of studying philosophy. He attended lectures delivered by the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, whom he would later credit as a major influence in his own development as an artist and writer. He also developed a strong interest in art history, studying under Arthur Pope, a well-known archeologist and historian of ancient Persian art. Porter wrote poetry during this time and also began to take an interest in leftist politics.
In the summer of 1927, Porter took a walking and bicycle tour of France, which eventually took him to Berlin and finally to Moscow. While in Russia he attended a lecture given by Leon Trotsky, an experience that would inform Porter's developing political views, especially during the years of the Great Depression.
After graduating from Harvard in 1928, Porter moved to New York and studied for two years at the Art Students League, where one of his teachers was Thomas Hart Benton. Benton's commitment to figurative painting had a lasting effect on Porter, as did his studies of the French Post-Impressionist painters Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard.
In 1931 Porter returned to Europe; on this trip, he concentrated on visiting museums and galleries. This travel, in addition to his studies at Harvard, afforded Porter a close and deep knowledge of nearly every movement and style in Western art, from ancient Greek sculpture to Old Master paintings to Pablo Picasso.
Upon his return to the United States, Porter set out to become more politically active and to create socially relevant art. He made artwork on behalf of the communist John Reed Club, taught drawing classes for the Socialist arts group Rebel Arts, and began work as an editor for a short-lived American Socialist tabloid called Arise!. It was during these years that Porter became interested in art criticism.
In 1932 Porter married Boston poet Anne Channing and the two settled in New York. They briefly lived in Porter's hometown of Winnetka in the late 1930s, then in New York again in the early 1940s. They had five children: John, Laurence, Richard, Katherine, and Elizabeth. The Porters struggled financially during the wartime years in New York, but they led a rich social life, becoming close friends with writer Edwin Denby and artists Rudy Burckhardt and Willem and Elaine de Kooning. Porter was one of the first people to purchase Willem de Kooning's art. In 1940 he wrote a piece on the artist for the Partisan Review; although it was not published, it is now believed to be the first review of his work ever written.
In 1949, the Porters moved to the seaside town of Southampton on New York's Long Island. Their new seasonal home would become the inspiration for many of Porter's landscape paintings over the next twenty-five years. Porter and his family divided their time between winters in Southampton and summers on Great Spruce Head Island in Maine (they also had a home in midtown Manhattan for several years). Porter and his wife experienced frequent personal difficulties, due to Porter's bisexuality, and an extramarital affair that Anne had in the early 1940s, yet the marriage endured.
Meanwhile, Porter was slowly establishing himself in the New York art world. As a bohemian and political leftist, Porter meshed easily with the New York School of intellectuals and Abstract Expressionist artists, but his representational and figurative paintings expressed something utterly different. While Porter continually expressed a deep interest in abstraction and believed that artists like Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns were true modern masters, he wanted to express a different reality in his own paintings, something closer to what he saw with his eyes, rather than limiting himself to formal experimentation. Porter found himself slowly as an artist, and he was already in his early forties when he had his first exhibition in New York in 1952, at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. From that point forward, the owner of the gallery, John Bernard Myers, represented Porter and gave him annual gallery exhibitions. His art was also included in six annual group exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art from 1959 through 1968.
Porter's most prolific period as an art critic was the 1950s. From 1951 to 1967 he wrote for Art News, reviewing roughly twelve gallery shows and museum exhibitions every month. In addition, Porter also became a regular contributor to the leftist periodical The Nation. In 1959 he wrote an essay on the American realist and landscape artist Thomas Eakins for a series on American painters published by Thomas Hess.
Late Years and Death
Throughout his career, in spite of his friendships with many members of the American avant-garde, Porter felt a stronger kinship with the European Realists, Naturalists, and Impressionists, from Rembrandt to Edgar Degas and Édouard Vuillard, in his art and his criticism. These artists, much like Porter himself, stressed a theoretical fusion of paint application and composition and believed that the human figure should be the chief concern of art. Porter frequently referred to the abstract artists of the New York School as the "idealists of New York painting," and throughout his career he expressed mixed feelings regarding Abstract Expressionism. "[They] isolate art from the details of actuality," wrote Porter. "They wish to see profoundly and are against illusion. Or perhaps they simply wish to seem to see profoundly."
In 1967 Porter took his wife and two daughters to Europe, his first trip abroad since his studies in the early 1930s. Porter wrote occasionally throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, but he did not produce nearly as much criticism as in the previous decade. He continued to paint through his final years; in fact, many of his most famous landscapes were painted in the last five years of his life. The first retrospective exhibition of his art was held from 1974 to 1975 and traveled to three venues: the Heckscher Museum on Long Island, the Queens Museum in Flushing, New York, and the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey.
Porter died on September 15, 1975 at age 68. A full-scale retrospective of his art was organized by the Boston Museum of Fine Art in 1983. Due to a donation by his wife Anne, the largest collection of his work and papers now resides at the Parrish Art Museum, not far from the Porters' home in Southampton, New York.
The Legacy of Fairfield Porter
Porter was a lasting influence on many younger American artists who explored figurative painting in the 1970s and beyond, such as Alex Katz, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Larry Rivers, and Neil Welliver. He was also a friend to many poets of the New York School, including Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler, all of whom shared his interest in making art from the experiences of everyday life.
In his criticism, he praised and promoted certain artists, thus bringing their work to a wider audience; just a few of his subjects were Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Joan Mitchell, Jack Tworkov, and Richard Stankiewicz. Lastly, he had an aesthetic ally in his own brother Eliot Porter, a well-known photographer who specialized in images of the natural world and continued that work until his own death in 1990.