The Nostalgic Summers of Fairfield Porter
Sometime in the 1950s, Fairfield Porter had a conversation that would go on to change his life. For much of the decade, he’d been in an on-off argument with the critic and essayist Clement Greenberg which reached a head when discussing the work of Porter’s close friend Willem de Kooning. “You can’t paint this way nowadays,” Greenberg is reported to have said. “You can’t paint figuratively today.”
The remark didn’t go down well with Porter. “I thought who the hell is he to say that?” Porter later remembered. “I thought if that’s what he says, I think I will do just exactly what he says I can’t do. I might have become an abstract painter except for that.”
Girl on a Swing (Swinging Before Supper) (1961)
Porter never became an abstract painter, and his figurative work continued for the rest of his life. His subjects were often intensely personal – his family and friends, the view from his house on Long Island, depictions of summers in Maine – and serve as a window into the upper class liberal intelligentsia of Porter’s life. Those summers in Maine were spent on his family’s island, the Southampton. The Long Island house was described as “rambling” and compared to something from a Henry James novel, while the New York artistic milieu around Porter included poets like Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and James Schuyler, and artists like the de Koonings and Alex Katz.
Porter’s portraits of this group – especially Schuyler, with whom he lived for 12 years, and Elaine de Kooning – are some of his most famous works, but it was his landscapes that perhaps best captured his artistic vision. Talking about the view from his house in Southampton, Porter articulated this idea. “I painted this view out here,” he said in the late ‘60s. “Because I looked out this window and I saw it as if for the first time in a new way. I saw it as something integral.” Porter often referenced the idea of “first timeness,” both in his own work and, in particular Katz’s, as an important factor. He wanted it to appear that “the world starts in this picture.”
Landscape with Child and Dog (1968)
Part of the reason that Porter’s landscapes continue to resonate is his focus on capturing the scene ‘as is’. Porter spoke about the importance of “reality” in his pictures, meaning a commitment to painting the subject – the view, a house, his daughter – exactly as it is, not as we think it should be. The idea of altering his location for better light was inconceivable, as was the idea of returning to finish a landscape at another opportunity, when the light would never be the same. Writing about him in the New York Review after his death, Porter’s friend John Ashbery described this approach. “The whole point was to put down what was there wherever he happened to be, not with approval but with respect.”
In the same essay, Ashbery went on to quote another painter, Louis Finkelstein, on Porter: “subject matter must be normal in the sense that it does not appear sought after, so much as simply happening.” Ashbery described this as a characterisation of Porter’s “normalness” with painting, going on to add that “we must now look at Porter’s painting, prepared to find the order that is already there, not the one that should be.” Porter himself spoke of the spontaneity of his pictures, alluding to the impact of quotidian scenes around him. “Usually it’s just the way the dishes are on the table at the end of the meal, it strikes me suddenly,” he said. “It’s the effect of something unconscious, like the dishes are in a certain arrangement at the end of the meal because people without thinking have moved things and then got up and gone away.”
Flowers by the Sea (1965)
This idea of capturing snapshots of a dinner table, or a landscape, or even a family member, only adds to the nostalgia of the images. Looking back at them now, almost five decades after Porter's death, his images still evoke the feeling of what it was like to be there on an island in Maine, or looking out over the Atlantic ocean. The atmosphere of these moments is so dutifully depicted that it creates a kind of saudade for those long New England summers.
Porter’s pictures are about moods, atmospheres and, dare I say, ‘vibes’ rather than grand ideas or sweeping statements. That said, the scenes Porter so loyally depicted are far from idealised snapshots. Even painted instantly and accurately, there is a darkness and a longing at their edges. Take, for instance, July (1971), a picture that shows three people relaxing on the lawn. From his vantage point, Porter is just outside of the action, set apart from the conversation he is painting.
Great Spruce Head (1955)
Similarly, the colours used on Island Farmhouse (1969) – which features on the cover of Rizzoli’s monograph about Porter – or Sunset, Southampton (1967) bring to mind the unattributable nostalgia of a summer’s evening as a chill enters the air.
Writing about his late friend, Ashbery described how Porter’s paintings changed under closer inspection. “The more one looks at them, the less the paintings seem celebrations of atmosphere and moments but, rather, strong, contentious, and thorny.” The “cosy” surroundings and lifestyle that Porter depicted belied a darker truth. “The cosiness is deceiving. The local colour is transparent and porous, letting the dark light of space show through. The painting has the vehemence of abstraction, though it speaks another language.”