“At this particular moment, when we as a nation have been cut off from one another and pushed to the brink of numbness, poetry and painting have the ability to reach our feelings and emotions as nothing else can.” So says the opening wall text of “Housebound: Fairfield Porter and his Circle of Poets and Painters,” an exhibition on now through January 31, 2021, at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York. The show seems to be something of a makeshift event, thrown together on a dime to fill the void left by loan exhibitions canceled or postponed by the coronavirus intervention. If this is in fact the case, then it delivers a fantastic lesson from which other museums could learn during this stretch of institutional uncertainty: play to your strengths.
Fairfield Porter is the Parrish’s greatest strength. Their collection of the mid-century painter’s work is unrivaled, thanks to a large bequest from his widow, Anne Channing Porter, four years after his 1975 death. To the Parrish she gave basically all the art left in the estate—some 250 individual pieces. Of course, the museum can’t show everything all the time. Typically the Parrish devotes a gallery to rotating Porters, with certain masterworks on more or less permanent display. But special exhibitions such as the one currently on view give us an opportunity to see this “American classic” in fresh light.
Much of this light is cast by the “circle” mentioned in the exhibition’s subtitle. Interspersed among the Porters are works by a number of the many friends who stayed with him and his family in their Southampton home (on 49 South Main Street, just down the road from the Parrish) or at the Porter compound on Great Spruce Head Island, in Maine’s Penobscot Bay. Painters represented include Jane Freilicher, Alex Katz, Robert Dash, and Larry Rivers; we’re thus able to compare Porter’s efforts with works depicting many of the same places and subjects made by his contemporaries, some of whom worked in a manner similar to his own modernist, painterly realism. This was a small group, and one fairly dwarfed by the giants of “heroic abstraction” in the artistic mainstream of Porter’s lifetime, so it’s a welcome opportunity to see Porter in the quieter context of these like-minded colleagues, allowing for subtle contrasts of sensibility between artists to emerge.
Among the successes of Fairfield’s friends are a marvelous little Long Island landscape from Jane Freilicher, Grey Day (1963), and a small oil sketch of a red house in the countryside from the same year by Alex Katz. Katz’s more recognizable “mature” style is found in the 1970 color lithograph of the poet Kenneth Koch, bespectacled and slightly quizzical, but cool as a cucumber. A lithograph by Larry Rivers combines lines of poetry with a picture of John Ashbery at the typewriter. Ashbery shows up three times in others’ works in this exhibition, but none of the poet-artist’s own collages have been included. Two paintings by Robert Dash, a younger friend of Porter’s and another longtime resident of the East End, are painted à la Porter: the soft, atmospheric pastels; the gestural but matter-of-fact paint handling. They’re exceedingly pleasant pictures, but mostly demonstrate that one can successfully mimic Porter’s style without approaching the same depth of feeling that seems to pervade nearly all his work.
Evidence of just this depth may be found in any number of the Porters on display. These span virtually his whole artistic career, beginning with a very early Hopper-esque watercolor from 1927, from Porter’s time as an undergraduate at Harvard College, and concluding with a double interior portrait, Couple with Pears and Chrysanthemums, from 1975, the year he died. The twenty-five paintings by Porter thus constitute a kind of mini retrospective, one that specifically targets household scenes of family and friends in Southampton and Maine. It’s an apt focus for this contemporary era of enforced domesticity, but Porter’s cohort seems relatively at ease with all the free time spent sitting around. Most everyone’s got a book to read, or is writing in a journal, or pecking away at a typewriter. Even those few left empty-handed give the sense that doing nothing has never been so productive.
Of course, as is almost guaranteed in any serious exhibition of Porter’s art, visual and painterly delights abound. One of the earlier mature works on display is a slightly haunting painting of Porter’s three sons at the dinner table. Made in 1950, around when Porter finally began to devote the majority of his time to painting, the work demonstrates Porter’s growing sensibility for nuanced color and for smart composition pulled from the unkempt disorder of life seen as it is. Porter’s intention to revitalize the spirit of Vuillard (his hero) for the age of de Kooning (his friend) is perhaps nowhere more clear than in the intimate portraits from this period, with their modernist sweeps of pigment that hide as much as they describe. Vuillard comes to mind again in a squarish picture of the Porters’ backyard in Southampton during fall, in which muted greens, browns, grays, and ochres predominate, save for a shock of orange foliage on a tree that peeks out from behind a house in the background.
As we move into the 1960s, Porter’s color becomes brighter and crisper—exquisitely attuned to the subtleties of atmosphere that practically define the project of observational painting. Not for nothing did John Ashbery describe the landmark 1983 retrospective of Porter’s work as a “mammoth blast of oxygen”: Porter once said himself that he preferred to paint not space, but air. A portrait of Anne from 1965 hangs beside one of Jane Frielicher and her daughter made two years later; both convey a visceral sense of being there, despite obvious awkwardnesses in the drawing that infuse the works, like many of his portraits, with an icy dash of psychological tension.
Many of Porter’s friends were painters, but more were poets. The exhibition “includes” poems by Anne, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Porter himself. These, however, are not printed on label cards next to the paintings, as one might expect; rather, they’re accessible from “SQR codes,” which you’re supposed to photograph with your smartphone. Doing so summons a website on which one may find and read the poem. I’ve noticed that restaurants in New York and beyond are using the same technology in lieu of physical menus. I suppose this is one of those ways that institutions are signaling their allegiance to the cause of somehow “stopping the spread.” The problem, of course, is that while it’s no fun to be staring at your phone during dinner with good company, it’s far worse to be doing so while trying to look at an exhibition of paintings. Especially an exhibition of paintings as sensitive and perceptive as these. The exhibition claims to be a balm in a time that has “pushed [us] to the brink of numbness,” but what could be more numbing than the burning blue light of an LCD touchscreen? One lesser-known fact about Porter is that he was a passionate and outspoken opponent of technology—he understood it as the real-world application of totalitarian ideology, and believed it to be utterly inimical to the experience of art. It’s hard to imagine he would’ve warmed to the iPhone.