Fairfield Porter was one of the 20th century’s most interesting, intelligent, and enigmatic artists. Although he was of the same generation as the Abstract Expressionists, and was good friends with many of them, especially Willem de Kooning, Porter was a dedicated realist. A noted art critic who wrote for Art News and The Nation, Porter was also a conservationist, activist, and polemicist who opposed nuclear arms, pesticides, urban sprawl, and the Vietnam War. Porter’s art and art criticism combine to form one of the most coherent and independent interpretations of art and art history that any American artist has ever advanced, and he stands today as one of the twentieth century’s most prescient art observers.
Fairfield Porter was born in Winnetka, Illinois, a small suburb north of Chicago. His paternal grandmother’s family had owned a farm on land in downtown Chicago that eventually became part of the Loop area, thus providing subsequent generations of the Porter family with a comfortable financial cushion.
In 1924, Porter, like his father and maternal grandfather before him, attended Harvard College. It was there that he received his first art education, although it had little direct impact on him. Following his graduation in 1928, Porter moved to New York and began taking classes at the Art Students League. Porter was eager to study there with various teachers who were also professional artists, including Boardman Robinson and Thomas Hart Benton. Porter, however, found himself disappointed by the curriculum at the League, which emphasized life drawing to the exclusion of painting.
In the 1930s, struggling to get his professional painting career off the ground, Porter tried his hand at progressive social arts, painting murals and designing magazine covers for the Socialist party and other left-oriented organizations. He also made his first foray into art criticism, contributing an essay on mural painting to Arise in 1935. Despite Porter’s many connections to, and sympathies with, various progressive political factions in New York, he never identified himself as belonging to any one group. This was to be a recurring theme in Porter’s life, in which he circulated freely among various social and intellectual groups and movements without ever committing himself completely to any one of them.
In 1938, Porter visited an exhibition of paintings and prints by Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard at the Art Institute of Chicago. It proved an eye-opening experience which changed the course of his style of painting.
Porter understood his own work as an extension of the tactile and representational achievements of Vuillard, recording impressions at hand with a confident use of color and light. He eschewed traditional techniques of contour and form, and the inherent lack of spontaneity that followed, a style he associated with artists such as Thomas Hart Benton. Thus, his pictures have a freshness and vitality similar to the abstract painters of his generation, while they are grounded in a less theoretical, more realistic approach. Porter’s paintings are immediate, material impressions of the world as he experienced it, unconstrained by any adherence to a particular theory.
Porter the artist began to attract serious attention beginning in the early 1950s. With an introduction from his friend, Willem de Kooning, Porter began to exhibit at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York, which was known primarily as a venue for Abstract Expressionist painting. Porter’s work, largely landscape pictures of the areas of Southampton, New York, where he and his family lived, eventually gathered a following of critics and collectors who otherwise had interest in non-objective painting.
It was during this time that the roots of Porter’s career as a critic also began to grow. He took issue with contemporary art critics, including Clement Greenberg, George L. K. Morris, Wyndham Lewis, and other proponents of Abstract Expressionism, whom he saw as “manifesto critics” who imposed personal theories of art upon the work they reviewed. Porter felt about criticism as he did about his art: that it should be as free of dogmatic adherence to theory as possible, and that art should be considered on its own merits. Porter crossed swords with these writers on many occasions, and he often wrote to the publications that printed their essays to object to their points of view. However, he left the intellectual sparring out of his own essays. Porter’s criticism is thoughtful and sensitive, and exhibits his encyclopedic grasp of art history and a depth and breadth of knowledge about contemporary art that few others shared. He wrote for Art News from 1951 to 1959, and The Nation from 1959 to 1961, when he stopped writing regular columns so that he could devote himself fully to painting.
Porter did his best work during the last fifteen years of his life. His style loosened somewhat, and he incorporated more abstract forms and colors and recorded a freer and more immediate impression of his subjects, harkening back to the influence of Vuillard. In his lifelong pursuit of realistic, non-abstract subjects, Porter was far ahead of his time, particularly in painting portraits of his family and friends, a genre that didn’t gain respect from the art world until years later.