Fairfield Porter’s appreciation for and passionate interest in art began at a very young age and, after graduating from Harvard University and further studio classes at the Art Students League in New York, he spent a year visiting the great museums of Europe, primarily in Italy. Following a number of peripatetic years in the 1930s, he and his wife, the former Anne Channing, moved to New York City in 1942. They eventually settled with their young family in the town of Southampton on the coast of Long Island. Porter was an intellectual, with concern for critical thinking about art in addition to its creation. While he spent his early years painting in addition to writing, reflecting, and learning about art, he did not earn recognition for his own pictures until the 1950s.
Porter’s works, which can appear to possess a casual and unfinished nature, are in fact the products of extensive networks of critical ideas and thoughts about art. He painted landscapes, interiors, and portraits with energetic and vivid strokes to capture the physicality and dynamism championed by the Abstract Expressionists, all while preserving the realistic qualities of his chosen subjects. Commenting on the connection he found between realism and abstraction, the artist wrote, “as the wholeness of life eludes control, so the wholeness of art eludes the control of the artist. The realist thinks he knows ahead of time what reality is, and the abstract artist what art is, but it is in its formality that realist art exists, and the best abstract art communicates an overwhelming sense of reality” (Fairfield Porter, Art in its Own Terms, Boston, Massachusetts, 1979, p. 259). Color and light, rather than contours and shadow, served as vehicles for creating a painting’s substance. According to Anne Porter, “His first, his very first conscious memory was of seeing a golden-yellow bar of sunlight on the white bathroom wall. That’s how the main theme of his life announced itself, when he was still almost a baby. The other theme of his life was craft, a deep pleasure in making objects, in carpentry, framing, and painting itself, and in admiring the craft of others. ‘No ideas, except in things,’ was one of his favorite quotations, almost his motto” (Kresge Art Museum Bulletin, “Selections” X, October 2002).
Porter found artistic inspiration in the intimate and representational art of The Nabis, especially Éduoard Vuillard, but also in the expressive and colorful works of abstract artists such as Willem de Kooning whom he met in the 1930s. In his compositions, Porter effectively synthesized the two seemingly unlike traditions to create his own unique aesthetic. Most often he chose recognizable and immediate surroundings as his subject matter. As Porter’s son Laurence writes, he “persevered with unfashionable representational painting, defying the influential collector-painter-critic Clement Greenberg, who decreed: ‘You can’t do that anymore.’ ‘Greenberg paints his name’ Fairfield retorted dismissively (‘Green mountain’— implying ‘a shapeless mass’). ‘But you paint your name too,’ his wife Anne replied: ‘Fair fields.’
“For Fairfield Porter, light is the subject. …With his portable wooden easel and its matching varnished paint box, both of which could be folded up and carried like a backpack, he would return to the same spot every day at the same hour when the sun was out, to capture a particular quality of the light. …At other times, he’d walk around with a sketchpad and charcoal or pencil, locating promising subjects and noting the colors for each area with a personal code. …As he filled in the color fields of his canvases, the subject seemed gradually to come into focus—but what looked like sharper resolution was really subtler nuance. …As the Impressionists knew, there are no truly black shadows, and every shadow is a different color because of the effects of ambient light. …This is a ‘painterly’ style, which concentrates more on how we see (only 10% of our visual field is actually in sharp focus at any time) than on what we are seeing. The ‘ideas’ that ‘things’ gave Fairfield Porter were light and color. Because of the passionate authenticity of his vision, several critics and art historians have called him the greatest 20th-century American artist” (Kresge Art Museum Bulletin, “Selections” X, October 2002).