Finding Fairfield Porter at the Met

Gallery 914

“The Kittiwake and the John Walton”, 1962


The painter who looks for a subject, or doubts his role, has fallen behind in the race. —Fairfield Porter

Because I was doubting my role and looking for a subject in the last days of summer—I visited the Met. And by subject I mean literal subject, metaphorical subject and any other painterly idea of composition, color, how to lay down the paint, what size brush to use, anything. Recent experience in the studio had got me thinking I didn’t know how to paint at all. Also I didn’t even know there was a race.

First I thought to Pencil Review the altarpiece of Cristóbal de Villalpando —I was terribly bored and/or disturbed, not sure which, by the predictable baroque gesturing and creepy Christianity—anyway, here’s my effort:



Then rushing through the galleries, just looking for anything— rejecting everything—with only a passing nod to the irises and Mt. Ste. Victoire and just as I was going to accept that painting has no effect on me whatsoever—Kittiwake.  You know the kind of mood that doesn’t even want to be helped—like that. Anyway, the limpid pink—grudgingly, and there was nowhere else to go by that point. I stopped.

I remember reading about a study—Jesus, the interminable studies— that said there was a good effect on prisoners if they painted the walls pink…


“The Cove, 1964

The Cove. The flesh of the man and his shorts are painted in the same desaturated colors and values of the stones he walks on—his shirt is the same range as the blues of the sky and the lake—oh, very slightly warmer. For this reason he takes a moment to appear. He walks directly toward the white bridge which in the actual experience of the painting is a glowing white— he can’t reach the bridge on the vector he’s taking. Other elements of the painting— the vertical line that separates the light rocks from the dark sands and the sandbar— also point to the bridge, but I don’t feel the bridge has a huge metaphorical meaning and the man is just an awkward suburban guy, nothing special. I didn’t love the painting (and I was in no loving mood), I simply got interested in it.

Here it is completely desaturated:




“Union Square, Looking up Park Avenue”, 1975

Starting to leave, the cab caught my eye. The time Porter spent on it seemed about right for the amount of attention I would give a cab—that is, to note that it is one (unless I needed one). I think this is important because painting from life and looking at painting from life can become a dull laborious job when every i gets a dot. The windows of the tall buildings are detailed, probably using a ruler, but somehow they don’t become rote as many cityscapes do. The contrast between them and the sketched cars makes the traffic move. Also the softness of the columned bank… (now Babies R Us)




“Clothesline”, 1958

And so I went back around looking at every painting and enjoying the way Porter lets his attention flow, particularly liking Clothesline. I wonder if it was just a start—that is to say, he might have meant to give it more time but never did. It was a gift to the Met from Mrs. Porter three years after his death, therefore might have been still in the studio. It suggests to me a way of working that is in harmony from the beginning, that any part of it might be revisited if it draws his interest again.


“Sunrise on South Main St”, 1973

Sunrise is a painting that didn’t work as well—the houses on the right crossed by the tree got forced and prosaic and you get kinda stuck there. Painters aren’t machines, always turning out the same high or low quality product, after all.



“Lizzie at the Table” 1958

I can see that most of the time he spent working on this painting it was a still life, the baby wouldn’t sit very long, the flowers won’t stay fresh forever, the books and the plates, however long you like. How long would the morning sunlight be hitting that window? A great picture of time and painters that work from life are always constructing a moment in time– and what a strange relationship we are in now with the snapshot…


Porter is always being called a Realist. That is a term that I have begun to question the meaning of. I looked up Baroque(*) when I got home from the Met—also a very confusing term. Villalpando is an example of dynamic, idealist Baroque. Carravagio, Rembrandt and Velasquez are called Realist Baroque. There is even a Baroque considered to be photorealist— can there really be a pre-camera photorealism? Realism in the baroque sense is acompared to Idealism or Classicism.

When Fairfield Porter is called a “Realist”, the comparison is to “Abstractionist”.


For my source on Baroque: Essential Humanities