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Fairfield Porter's art and life

By William Corbett

FEBRUARY 28, 2000: 

Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art by Justin Spring (Yale University Press), 384 pages, $35.

The poet John Ashbery has called Fairfield Porter "perhaps the major American artist of this century." Does Porter surpass Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, or Jasper Johns? Who can say? I do know that few American painters have given me greater pleasure and that no American painter ever wrote so well about art. (Zoland Books of Cambridge keeps Porter's Art in Its Own Terms in print.) It is easy to love Porter's painterly Vuillard-filtered-through-de-Kooning work, and Justin Spring's biography will be welcomed by all those who do.

This is the second biography of Porter, who died suddenly of a heart attack in 1975 at 68, and it's fuller in detail and scale than John T. Spike's Fairfield Porter: An American Classic. Spike stayed on the outskirts of Porter's private life. Spring plunges in, detailing Porter's complex relationship with the poet James Schuyler. At this point I must confess my "interest" in this book. I am editing Schuyler's letters, and when Spring asked for access, I gave it to him. When we met and talked, Spring did not know the direction his biography would take. Now I find myself disagreeing with him on one matter of interpretation and on another matter that I take to be fact.

Porter, a Harvard graduate, came from a wealthy Chicago family that was intellectually vital but emotionally restrained to the point of cold abruptness. He knew early on that he wanted to be an artist, but during the 1930s and 1940s most of his energy was taken up with leftist politics and raising a family with his wife, the poet Anne Channing Porter. Their first child suffered from mild autism, then as now for parents a daunting and draining condition. Porter did what he could to care for his son, and it is probable that the demands on his time and energy contributed to his late blooming as a painter.

He did not begin to become the painter we know today until late in his 30s, by which time he had five children and lived on Long Island during the winter and in Maine on the Porter family island Great Spruce Head in the summer. But it was Manhattan, the city of the great Abstract Expressionist painters and the young New York School poets, that was his lifeline, where he kept a studio and covered shows for Art News. His need for company was sufficiently great that the Porters' Southampton house became famous for its bohemian hospitality, as did their Maine island. For all his thorniness, Porter had a gift for friendship.

Porter and Schuyler became friends in the early 1950s. According to Spring, their attraction was, at least in part, sexual. After Schuyler's nervous breakdown, in 1961, Porter brought him to Maine to recuperate, and in the words of Anne Porter, "Jimmy came for a weekend and stayed 11 years." During this time Porter and Schuyler were, it seems, lovers. I do not doubt Spring's evidence, but I read it differently, at least in terms of Porter's development as a painter. Where Spring feels that Schuyler was a mooch (he may have been) whose presence created debilitating conflict in the Porter household (it must have at times), I see the Porter-Schuyler-Anne balancing act as crucial to Porter the artist.

My evidence is the man's paintings; he painted his best work after 1960. I do not think he consciously structured his life to sustain his art. It is more that in life we sometimes do what we need to do, no matter how bizarre or impossible the arrangement may appear on the surface. I think that when Schuyler joined the family, Porter's complicated sexual life fell into place, and this, plus his intellectual and aesthetic empathy with James and Anne, liberated him to fulfill his destiny as a painter.

My other, and greater, quarrel with Spring turns on this sentence of his: "Both [Porter and Schuyler] find virtue or transcendence in acts of passive observation." The word passive is wrong, and I believe the work of both men contradicts it. They are active observers who bring the world they see alive. When Schuyler looks out the window in his poem "February," it is not the act of looking he celebrates but the world seen. This is not observation but enactment. When Porter leaves the breakfast table as is and paints it for three days, his is an act of observation only at the outset. The finished painting may be, as Spring writes, an "elegiac" image that "accepts inability and loss," but the painting does not observe these qualities, it embodies them.

Much more will be written about these fascinating artists (Anne Porter is a lucid, sharp-eyed poet with a strong religious sensibility), and the ground Spring has broken will be worked over, sifted, and rearranged. His book is a start and, I must add, a beautifully produced one, valuable for its many photographs as well as for the delving he has done.

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