Fairfield Porter: A Realist in the Age of Abstraction

The Realist artist Fairfield Porter painted subdued and traditional works at a time when abstract art was pushed to the forefront, making him a paradoxically subversive artist.

Mar 9, 2021By Truman Chambers, BFA Two-Dimensional Studies
fairfield porter
Clothesline by Fairfield Porter, 1958; with Girl and Geranium by Fairfield Porter, 1963


Fairfield Porter was a painter and art critic who was working in New York at the time Abstract Expressionism emerged, making the city the new center of the art world. Despite this, Porter himself worked in an unconventionally traditional manner. He was a Realist painter, working from observation, painting scenes of domesticity. Though Porter associated socially with the Abstract Expressionists, he and they were massively divided in terms of painting output. 


Abstract Expressionism: Fairfield Porter And His Contemporaries

girl and geranium fairfield porter
Girl and Geranium by Fairfield Porter, 1963, via Sotheby’s


Fairfield Porter’s paintings were contradictory to the time and place he worked.


Unlike many of Porter’s contemporaries who pursued the radical new style of Abstract Expressionism, Porter stuck stubbornly to a mode of painting that was considered outdated.


Not only were Fairfield Porter’s paintings representational, but they also tended to Realism and were made from observation. Certainly, other artists in New York at the time were painting representationally in some sense; Willem de Kooning, for instance, insisted that all his painting was figurative. Likewise, many Franz Kline paintings are based on simple, geometric forms, like chairs or bridges. These artists were not considered Abstract Expressionists without reason, however; their work was more about transforming the figure, pulling and stretching it into a scarcely recognizable form. Summing up his philosophy on figuration in the context of Abstract Expressionism, de Kooning once said “The figure is nothing unless you twist it around like a strange miracle.” These paintings had little to do with Porter’s rather traditional focus on the development of believable space and truthfulness to the subject.


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Flowers by the Sea [Detail] by Fairfield Porter, 1965, via MoMA, New York

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Even among the postwar painters in Europe, who tended much more towards recognizable figuration and representation than the New York School, it is difficult to find anything similar to Fairfield Porter. Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Leon Kossoff, Lucian Freud, and Alberto Giacometti all painted representationally, and were, to some degree, interested in the illusion of space, or even painting realistically from observation in the case of someone like Euan Uglow. However, for many of these painters, the representations were basically just a formal convention, serving the artist to approach another subject matter altogether. In Bacon, reflecting on the process of painting as a sort of alchemy – in Auerbach or Kossoff, the material reality of their medium in contrast with the representations – in Uglow, the intricacy and peculiarities of sight and perspective.


Fairfield Porter explained the goal of his painting quite plainly: “When I paint, I think that what would satisfy me is to express what Bonnard said Renoir told him: make everything more beautiful. This partly means that a painting should contain a mystery, but not for mystery’s sake: a mystery that is essential to reality.” Compared to the ambitions of other mid-century painters, Porter’s pursuit is quaintly modest and that is the strength of his work.


Unassuming Beauty

schwenk fairfield porter
Schwenk by Fairfield Porter, 1959, via MoMA, New York


Fairfield Porter is one of the purest examples of a painter’s painter. The real interest in his painting is in how he deals with the very fundamental issues of representation in painting, the reaction of one color set against another. There is no bombast in his work, unlike what is found in so much other post-war painting, often defined by an unmanaged emotional character. Porter is defined, rather, by the completely understated tone of his painting. The works carry no pretension or delusion of grandeur. They are matter-of-fact in dealing with the realities of the world before the artists and its translation into colorful mud on a piece of fabric. 


Fairfield Porter’s paintings live in the stage of development; they are burgeoning investigations of the subject, willing at any time to change, with unwavering willingness to see what is truly there. It is pure problem-solving. His work demonstrates admirable confidence to simply mix colors and place them next to each other and to trust that it works: that the fundamental issue of representational painting still works even as it is abandoned in favor of abstraction.


Painting About Painting

clothesline fairfield porter
Clothesline by Fairfield Porter, 1958, via The Met Museum, New York


Of course, much art during this time was about its medium in a sense. That quality was regarded as definitional of the avant-garde, in fact. This alone is not what sets Fairfield Porter apart. The difference with Porter is what it actually means in practice for his paintings to ‘be about their medium,’ versus what it means for his contemporaries: the Abstract Expressionists.


For the Abstract Expressionists, painting about painting was accomplished by making marks that seemed to refer to nothing but themselves; the paint was not a stand-in for anything, it was merely paint. By destroying specific representation in this way, it was thought that a higher, more universal visual language could be created, something which was beyond the political and social and just was.


In Porter’s case, however, such lofty notions disappear. His painting is about painting in the sense that it is about the simple and mundane action of painting. The Abstract Expressionists were unsatisfied with the limitations of representational painting, and, as much as possible, cut themselves loose of it. Conversely, Fairfield Porter redoubled his commitment to representational painting until the primary content of his work became the fundamental action of painting representationally: forming space with color relationships.


Avant-Garde And Kitsch – Abstraction And Representation

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Excavation by Willem de Kooning, 1950, via The Art Institute of Chicago


Though Fairfield Porter’s paintings do seem quite comfortable, non-confrontational, and his subject matter without explicit politics, merely painting in the manner he did during the mid 20th century in America was something of a political statement.


Clement Greenberg was almost certainly the single most important art critic of the 20th century. He was an early proponent of Abstract Expressionism and the related movements of color field painting and hard-edge abstraction. In one of Greenberg’s best-known writings, an essay titled Avant-Garde and Kitsch, he describes the rising division between those two modes of art. Furthermore, he explains the difficult cultural position of representational painting, like Fairfield Porter’s, in the post-war era. 


The avant-garde, in Greenberg’s estimation, is the result of a breakdown in the lines of communication between artists and their audience. It had emerged over the 19th and 20th centuries because of large-scale social and political turmoil, which reordered and created new social bases for the consumption of art. Artists could no longer rely on clear communication with a known audience. In response, the avant-garde formed as an increasingly insular culture, and avant-garde artists began to create works more about examining the medium they were working in than attempting to reflect any social or political values. Hence, the tendency towards abstraction.


fairfield porter still life
Still Life with Casserole by Fairfield Porter, 1955, via the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.


Conversely, kitsch, Greenberg explains, is composed of highly-commodified cultural products, made to placate the new subjects of industrialization and urbanization:


“Prior to this [Urbanization and Industrialization] the only market for formal culture, as distinguished from folk culture, had been among those who, in addition to being able to read and write, could command the leisure and comfort that always goes hand in hand with cultivation of some sort. This until then had been inextricably associated with literacy. But with the introduction of universal literacy, the ability to read and write became almost a minor skill like driving a car, and it no longer served to distinguish an individual’s cultural inclinations, since it was no longer the exclusive concomitant of refined tastes.” (Clement Greenberg, Avant-Garde and Kitsch)


So, these new subjects, the proletariat, now required a formal culture but lacked the leisurely lifestyle that would make them amiable to difficult, ambitious art. Instead, kitsch: an “ersatz culture” of works made for easy consumption to placate the masses. kitsch art tended towards Realism and representation, this type of work being much easier to digest because, as Greenberg states, “there is no discontinuity between art and life, no need to accept a convention.”


A Painter Out Of Place

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Interior in Sunlight by Fairfield Porter, 1965, via Brooklyn Museum


Of course, Fairfield Porter’s own work was not subject to the commodification which is emblematic of kitsch in Greenberg’s assessment. Still, his choice to work representationally placed him somewhat on the fringes of the avant-garde, which tended increasingly towards abstraction. This dichotomy of avant-garde and kitsch in the mid 20th century tracked closely to the formal distinction between abstraction and representation, leaving Porter and his work in an undefined space, neither one nor the other.


Regarding Porter’s anomalous nature, the contemporary artist Rackstraw Downes wrote:


“In the critical disputes of his time, his was one of the sharp minds, and this is where independence became an issue. It was not that Porter liked contention: he loved art, and felt it was deeply important that critics, who mediate between art and its public, should represent it truthfully. Mainly he was at odds with a criticism which, ignoring the evidence that actually surrounded it, purported to deduce art’s future from its immediate past; and so control it, as Porter put it, by imitating ‘the technique of a totalitarian party on the way to power.” (Rackstraw Downes, Fairfield Porter: The Painter as Critic)


In this climate of Greenberg’s critical thought and Abstract Expressionism, Fairfield Porter emerged as a contrast. As the New York art world tried to position itself as the new vanguard of culture, birthing Abstract Expressionism and asserting it as the new height of modernism, here was Porter. He was stubbornly looking back at painters like the French Intimists, Vuillard and Bonnard, and their teachers, the Impressionists. If for no other reason, than to shatter the critical and artistic consensus that such painting could no longer be done, Porter pursued it: not merely representation, but Realism, full with the same sentimentality of pre-war French painting.


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By Truman ChambersBFA Two-Dimensional StudiesA painter and contributing writer from Toledo, Ohio. Truman graduated from Bowling Green State University with a BFA in Two-Dimensional Studies.