John Armstrong

Fairfield Porter: An American Artist
The Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo

At the beginning of May, I visited the Albright Knox to view a retrospective of the paintings of Fairfield Porter (1907-1975). It struck me that it may not be coincidental that both Porter and L. L. Bean (the company) hail from Maine. They are even contemporary: L. L. Bean was established in 1912. And they each exhibit an extraordinary dedication to regional identity — each chasing after a vacation culture that posits a particular gloss on American pragmatism. Porter's journalistic view of Americans at leisure celebrates an individuality that is at once rugged and urbane: a woman, a sailboat, a man, a house, the sea, the colours beige/tan. Like L. L. Bean, Porter plies a restricted palette of sensible sewing. In Porter's canvases, there is none of the painterly indistinctness — or the thinking through of indistinctness in terms particular to the technology of paint — that one might, for example, find in the French artist François Boudin’s early nineteenth-century waterfront paintings. (Boudin's painted long shots of unselfconscious bathers on the beaches of Honfleur heralded Impressionism, that quintessential art of holidaymaking.) I am certainly being anachronistic in presenting Porter as part of current mail order catalogue culture or proto-Impressionist painting, but his work constructs a not dissimilar (although, in this case, East Coast) idyllic moment.

Back to Buffalo: Porter's work was not presented in chronological order. His several stylistic explorations salt and peppered the galleries — from his less-than-metaphysical reprises of Edward Hopper through to his later, more decorative, flat colour treatments of figures set in Alex Katz-like social gatherings. The selection of paintings may simply have been too catholic. I felt very ungenerous towards Porter, to the point of being propelled out of the galleries. Perhaps it was the lackadaisical imprecision of his painted descriptions — a brushwork that was adequate, confident, but seldom revisited. My dismay at this exhibition came as a surprise; the Albright Knox has certainly demonstrated a sustained commitment to the analysis and presentation of very good painting. Recently, they exhibited the new, vital abstractionist works of Moshe Kupferman; in 1986, a small exhibition of Winslow Homer’s paintings of croquet parties were presented along with a discussion of the role of women depicted in these paintings during a brief period in late nineteenth-century American society. I expected a more careful framing of Porter's work, although one could argue that in the case of this artist it may just not have been possible.

Artword 20, Winter 1994/95