New York

Fairfield Porter

Hirschl & Adler Galleries

This uneven, desperately cluttered exhibition of the work of Fairfield Porter was alternately thrilling and infuriating. Thrilling, because Porter’s work was assembled here for the first time in a long while, with some truly extraordinary paintings on view. But infuriating because so many inferior paintings and sketches were included that Porter seemed much less talented than he actually is.

Though cityscapes and depictions of the working life made a brief appearance in his early work, they quickly gave way to luminous summer landscapes and scenes of gracious country living. One need look no further than the Edouard Vuillard–esque composition of Porter’s 1948 self-portrait to understand the overwhelming claustrophobia such urban interiors produced: caught in a mirror and cornered by a file cabinet, trapped in the sooty gray-brown world of the traditional young executive, Porter seems all too ready to head for the hills.

But the country, by the look of these paintings, is hardly a sanctuary: a sense of malaise lingers. The juxtaposition of the beauty of the natural world and a hollow expression renders each subject’s despair all the more poignant. At his best, Porter manages to capture a subdued anxiety that could all too easily pass for domestic contentment: the same sort of uneasiness lurking beneath Robert Frost’s picturesque New England.

Like Tina Barney and Alex Katz after him, Porter celebrates a certain upper-class life-style even as his compositions gently undermine it. His characters live in a Chekhovian idyll, but like Chekhov’s characters they seem somehow shut off from the possibility of ever knowing or expressing their true selves, or enjoying the beauty that surrounds them. Living in a still world of radiant, empty light, they seem distanced from sensual pleasure: rarely have American children looked so solemn, so bereft of energy or joy. Compared to them, Sargent’s gloomy The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, seems to radiate happiness.

In the end, Porter’s work is surprisingly austere. There’s a decided lack of fuss in his clunky-brushed renderings of clapboard houses. More virtuosic passages exist—lush, Sargent-like impasto, say, of sun-drenched breakfast china—but they’re never quite the point. One senses, always, that Porter could paint with bravura, but simply chose not to because “it wasn’t done.” To call too much attention to one’s painting would have been to expose oneself as a sensualist and a showman. And surely that was not the Porter way. This shying away is, in the end, the true strength and beauty of the work, for it describes in paint the way a man consciously chose to live, for better or for worse.

Justin Spring