New York

Fairfield Porter

Fairfield Porter’s exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery presents a complete exposition of the different currents in painting with which the artist has been involved over the years. Porter’s approach to painting is not to scatter his shots over a group of only tangentially related modes, but rather, within the tradition of painting from nature and life, to frame and resolve pictorial questions suggested by his various genres.

The show is dominated by three large canvases, each striking a different note. Columbus Day gives us the familiar Porter landscape with houses, with a large flickering mass of indefinite foliage at left acting as repoussoir; to the right there are several houses constructed of violet, cream, and white planes of light. The informality of the subject is neatly rejoindered by the Apollonian composition, making it clear that the picture is really about space considered as two kinds of patterns; the loose and active one of the foliage, and the clear, planar, and static design of the architectural elements and sky.

Iced Coffee tackles the candid interior combined with a landscape visible through screen walls of a summer porch. Two seated figures, a man and a girl, respectively absorbed in reading and contemplation, set the reflective mood, while the single glass of iced coffee on a table, together with a still life of flowers on the floor, oblige one to begin to consider each element in the painting as the armature and substance of Porter’s pure vision. The rhythm and beat of the sequential visual response required of the viewer is set not by the subject/layout of the scene, but by the considered disposition of loose brushy open forms and the sober accents of careful planar construction. Sparing use of idiosyncratic detail, a red banded sport sock, a grey sneaker, is made to establish an indivisible unity of emotional tone and coloristic structure.

The finest of the three large works is The Mirror. In this picture, Porter tackles a classical problem of great complexity; that of the model before a mirror in which are reflected the studio and its appurtenances, the artist, and the studio window through which one sees to the outside. The model, a little dark haired girl in an orange sweater and red stockings, soberly confronts the artist and is seen frontally. In this way she is the one centrally placed plastic entity, unquestionably volumetric, which introduces the eye to the series of reflections and transparencies which increase toward the “background.” The painter himself hovers as a Vuillardesque specter in the mirror, but his substantiality is considerable against the luminously dissolved landscape visible through the large window next to him. The order of visual experience here being treated is that of Las Meninas, but the psychological climate is Porter’s own cool and contemplative one.

The driving mechanism in each of these three large pictures is the principle of simple but fully stated contrasts; contrasts between open and planar form, between interior and exterior space, between convincing plasticity and the ambivalence of reflections and transparencies. Throughout, modulations of what must be called a masterly handling and immense sensitivity to color and light mount each of these contrasts with a rather detached richness and finesse. This sense of slight removal from all but the visual realities of the subjects is the necessary adjunct of Porter’s essentially formal interests.

The smaller works in the show, while no less fine, have perhaps a more ingratiating mein for a number of reasons having to do with the connoisseur’s delectations rather than the artist’s intentions. A series of flower still lifes have, like the large works, a clear contrast at the heart of their conception, particularly a couple which have a pot of flowers and some other objects set on a circular mirror. It is again the question of the relative realities of the thing and its reflection. In a small work, though, there is a sensible unity of handling in all parts which are so related, and thereby the optical duality is both heightened and concentrated. Still Life on a Mirror and Chrysanthemums at Night set this problem with brilliance and clarity in two distinct keys of lighting and palette. The Crowded Table takes on an almost Thibaudesque congestion of domestic objects in a small canvas, but, rather than ironically treating the unlikely identity and juxtaposition of the objects with a chill and sumptuous technique, Porter builds up a more intricate configuration of complex form and reflected light, a creamy touch of paint serving equally for each order of reality. The “metaphysical” suggestion of this layered progression toward the horizon of the table manages to wrench one’s sense of scale very dramatically.

Besides still lifes, there is as well a group of small Maine marine landscapes that takes subjects not quite chosen at random and then turns them into perfect articulations of varied atmospheric densities and clarity. Being stroked across with broad luminous bands of color, it is the contrast of relaxed confident handling and absolute certainty of visual structure which here produces Porter’s marvelous equilibrium.

If this consideration of Porter’s recent work has made him sound like a latter-day Impressionist, the exposition is faulted. The order of Porter’s vision is, for one thing, tied to a fundamental acceptance of the nature of the picture plane that Synthetic Cubism established, but this is not inconsistent with a varied and sensuous paint handling in Porter’s art, because of his ability to experience and treat space as virtual rather than symbolic. In my opinion, it is this combination of formal ideas which makes the question of his “realism” not an irrelevancy, but certainly the function of a visual bias rather than a subjective indulgence. The degree to which our sensibilities are engaged is its very validity.

–– Dennis Adrian