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  • Linda Graves

Homage to Fairfield- Maine and Painting

The above painting by Brian Keeler, Titled, "The Departure" was painted circa 1997. This 42" x 46" oil on linen depicts the same dock on Great Spruce Head Island in Maine painted by Fairfield Porter.

Reflections on Fairfield Porter by Brian Keeler

“Art In Its Own Terms”, Fairflield Porter, MFA Publications/ArtWorks (December 2008)

This is an amazing collection of essays that were formerly published as art reviews in the 1950s and 1960s in the magazines Art in America, ARTnews and in many other publications. Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) is an artist whose paintings I came to know and appreciate when I visited the Great Spruce Head Island off the coast of Maine (near Stonington on Deer Isle), which is still owned by his family. On that Island, staying in the large house that he had painted, and where I had seen and painted many of those same views made famous by Fairfield, I came to know his aesthetic. But until I read this book, I had not known the depth and breadth of his vision and knowledge, which is truly comprehensive.

While scanning the book at the Portland Museum of Art, it was his student Rackstraw Down’s introduction that initially pulled me in to the text, as this overview is a work of art in itself. (Downes also edited the text). Fairfield was considered by some to be the best living painter before he died, and he is certainly the only painter to make such a comprehensive map of his contemporaries. His reputation today may not be as esteemed, as his work may seem to some of us painters as lacking in finish or articulation; the paint quality in some works seems too thin and without body. Still, we love his sensitive painterly vision and honest adherence to his quest. In regards to this book, however, one is tempted to make a comparison between Porter and Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), who chronicled the lives of his Italian Renaissance contemporaries, in the first book of its kind when he published “The Lives of the Artists.” Although Porter’s work is not biography as is Vasari’s, these observations are sensitive and personal, while offering us many insights that cross over the genres of art, science, music, politics and poetry.

The work is full of comparisons that serve up unique appraisals of 19th and 20th century painters and sculptors, like this analysis of Cezanne:

“His parallel straight strokes overlap where they cluster around the contour, like too many adjectives modifying the wrong noun. Or there are gaps between strokes where Cezanne ignored a passage that he was either unsure of or planned to attend to later. ‘The contour eludes me,’ he is supposed to have said. His repetitiveness is the stutter of inarticulateness.”

Fairfield also brings to mind aspects of art history not considered much these days. For example, today the impressionist are pretty much considered masters and purveyors of the beauty of light, but Porter reminds us that they were considered amateurs, as they were not steeped in the academic tradition and they lacked knowledge of the skills of rendering form. In other words, Porter makes us aware of how much of a gap there was between artists such as Bougeruau, Ingres or Gerome, and the impressionists.

Each chapter is engaging in this extraordinary book. The text places Porter in an even better position than his contemporary art critics, such as Clement Greenburg, John Canady or Hilton Kramer, because Porter was actually a practicing painter who had an active exhibition schedule throughout his life. By virtue of being in the trenches, as it were, he knows painting from the inside out.

I enjoy the breadth of knowledge and keen insight that Porter offers, especially in matters where he makes analogies to the Renaissance and the classics, which show his understanding of a wide spectrum of history and art. There are points where we may disagree; one in particular is his take on John Singer Sargent. For example, he considers two of Sargent’s paintings, now in Boston Museums: the portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Boit Children, to be lacking. These paintings today are regarded by me and most others to be absolute tour-de-force works with consummate and painterly expressions of genius. Toward the end of his essay on Sargent, Porter pays homage by the perspicacious view of seeing the connection between Sargent and abstract expressionist painters, which I am sure is not obvious to many. Porter says. “A passage of drapery in a Sargent portrait or a scratched background in a Sargent watercolor relates to certain American abstract painting more closely than do Cezanne, Picasso or Monet. The abstractions of Franz Kline, for instance, have a quality and light that has not existed in panting since Sargent, nor did it exist in Sargent’s contemporaries resembled him most closely—Zorn or Boldini. In short, Porter appreciates paint quality, bravura and abstraction in realism and shows us these corollaries and much more.

The book would make an excellent, if not essential, addition to any painter’s library. It will appeal to the casual art lover as well, because the language is open and accessible while being very rewarding. This text is invaluable to any art history student looking for an overview of 20th century art.

A small etching by Brian Keeler illustrating the dock at Great Spruce Head Island in Maine.


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