The selection of oils and watercolors by painterís painter Fairfield Porter (1907-1975), currently on view at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in midtown Manhattan, is a perfect summer show -- or is it?
The still lifes and landscapes are filled with light, masterful color combinations, and soothingly balanced compositions. All delightful, like his Anemone and Daffodil (1965), filled with rich squiggles against broader strokes of paint. Most date from late in Porterís career, when he was painting at his best.
But Porterís handful of paintings of people is what interested me most.
A triple portrait, possibly a commission, dates from 1959. At that point, Porter was still struggling for recognition, being considered by many during his lifetime as hopelessly out-of-date for being a realist while the heroic swagger of Abstract Expressionism ruled the galleries.
During the 1950s Porter, ever humble as an artist, was beginning to allow himself to paint the intimate domestic scenes that Bonnard and especially Vuillard had inspired him to consider as an appropriate vehicle for emotion. A thoughtful, mostly self-taught artist, he developed slowly. Porterís wealthy forebears had supplied him with enough money to paint, even if sales were elusive, but with his trust fund running low in the late 1950s, he had to start bringing in more money to support his wife and five kids.
Whatever its origins, Chris, Sarah, and Felicity is an ambitious painting. The large, 4 x 4 ft. canvas has three figures and a large white dog. Porterís triangular composition may have been inspired by Renaissance paintings, which he had studied in Italy and thought about for the rest of his life. Itís anchored by the white of the dog, the boyís t-shirt and his socks.
The boy, holding his intertwined arms in a defensive posture, leans against a building, away from the two younger girls, who are obedient and bored. All three -- even the dog -- look directly at the artist as if daring him to paint them. The viewer is put in the same uncomfortable position.
The two younger girls sit next to each other, hands protectively over their genitals and vertically aligned with each other, the boy, and the dog. These people are certainly "composed" and not going anywhere, yet they look exceedingly grim Ė only the dog seems at all content to be where he is.
This melancholy or coolness underlies most of Porterís people. Nature is another matter. Porter could depict pure landscapes with a peace and joy often missing in compositions with figures, yet itís the portraits and figurative works that are so arresting.
Raised by a distant father, Porter had trouble in connecting with his children and others. His confusion shows in the work. Equally profound is his belief in the infinity to be found within the everyday. I donít think itís pushing too much to find a spiritual dimension in works like Bright Day at the Beach (1973), for example.
In some paintings the joy in nature and the inscrutability of other human beings collide, giving the works a frisson that makes them haunting. Primroses (1962) shows the artistís wife, poet Anne Channing Fairfield, walking amid wild flowers. The impastoed flowers in the foreground are white and yellow -- a favorite color for Porter. While they stand out, the figure, turned away from the viewer, fades into the background. There is tension between the exuberance of the flowers in their closely observed forms and bright colors and the bland, flattened figure.
Porter was admired for his sense of social responsibility, dedication to his art, and loyalty to his many artist friends, but was often unavailable for his children, physically and emotionally. Even close friends found him oddly uncommunicative at times. Although Porter didnít connect with his kids very much, they frequently sat for him.
In paintings of his offspring when they were young, Fairfield Porter was capable of combining the sunny interior scenes of Bonnard with flat areas of color to exciting effect. The Metropolitan Museum has a great Bonnard-esque oil, Lizzie at the Table, from 1958. But as his children grew, they tended to become resentful of Porterís absences. Rather than dealing with these resentments, Porter records them in paint.
Porterís powerful portrait of his second son, Laurence in Two Lights (1963), is an excellent example of this. The palette is restrained, as is the emotion in the face of the boy, whose right fist is tensed. The painting itself is so beautiful, yet the anger and frustration in the boy in equally and openly present. The combination is strange, yet unforgettable.
More than eight feet high is Porterís July (1971), a picture of his sister Nancy and her husband with another couple at his familyís summer house on an island in Maine. The pines in the background dominate the scene, while each figure seems lost in thought, not looking at the others. Itís all very casual, except for one conspicuously empty chair in the foreground, which seems reserved for Porter himself, the outsider constantly observing and never a part of the scene. We donít have to be told that he didnít get along well with these people; heís showing us.
In contrast, a late portrait from 1972 of an art student, John MacWhinnie, is one of Porterís most sympathetic works. Here the awkwardness of the young man is juxtaposed with two serene landscapes in the background. The two seascapes of Southampton, N.Y., where Porter lived for many years, seem to exert a soothing influence on the somewhat anxious figure. Itís subtle here, but that tugging between elements that animates Porterís figure paintings is still present.
Fairfield Porterís paintings are one reason to visit Michael Rosenfeld, but another is the small show of drawings, "Marguerite Zorach and William Zorach." These two early modernists have very different interests and styles.
Williamís freely brushed watercolors of places celebrate nature with spontaneous swipes of watercolor, while Margueriteís madly patterned interior drawings were made on a visit to a home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Leisure, a scene that includes an odd, curly-haired black dog, has an extra measure of charm.
"Fairfield Porter," June 4-Aug. 13, 2010, at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y.
"Marguerite Zorach and William Zorach," June 4-Aug. 13, 2010, at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y.
N.F.†Karlins is a New York art historian and critic.