Out on the Eastern end of Long Island, the Hamptons have been summer home to a lot of New York artists. But a few painters have spent their entire careers amid the green potato fields, gentle harbors and quiet villages along the South Fork. Fairfield Porter (1907-1975), who moved to Southampton with his wife, the poet Ann Charming, and raised a large family there, was the best of them. A retrospective exhibition, "Fairfield Porter: An American Painter," runs through Sept. 12 at Southampton's Parrish Art Museum. (The show travels to Amherst, Mass.; South Bend, Ind.; Buffalo; Waterville, Maine, and Miami.) An excursion to see the 65 evocative paintings is a day trip to bountiful.
Porter, a son of a wealthy architect, was taken to Europe as a child and exposed to the paintings of such masters as Titian and Veronese. After graduating from Harvard in 1928, he began his art education in earnest, at the Art Students League in New York. There were two turning points in Porter's artistic life: in 1936 when he met Willem de Kooning and in 1938 when he saw an exhibition of Vuillard and Bonnard in Chicago. For the rest of his career, Porter tried to combine the power of the contemporary Dutch artist's pure paint with the dappled domesticity of the French painters' scenes.
The typical Porter painting is made up of flat patches of color, loose at the edges, that coalesce into still lifes, figures, interiors and landscapes composed with the casual precision of a great photographer's snapshot. (His brother, as it happens, was the great photographer, Eliot Porter.) What saves his paintings from mere prettiness is Porter's sense -he was also a respected art critic and poet--of the Henry Jamesian significant moment. He usually gets a picture that is both intriguing as a narrative and satisfying as an abstraction. "The artistic impulse is what makes one look at things for themselves, not as useful," Porter wrote in 1971. In "Jane and Elizabeth (1967), for example, Porter captures the effortless affection between an artist-friend (Jane Freilicher) and his own daughter as well as the easy light of a Hamptons summer day. In "Island Farmhouse" 969) he melds simplified pictorial incidents into a warm fleeting moment that seems, paradoxically, like it could last forever.
Porter is the nonpareil painter of proper Protestant pleasure. When he's on, you can practically taste the iced tea waiting on the porch, hear the kids squealing under the big tree and remember the out-of-print novel you left open on the night table. Because Porter experienced some tragedy (his oldest child was institutionalized) and because he was personally abrupt, some critics see a hint of cloud behind the pictures' silver linings. But there's not really enough foreboding to send Cheevers down your spine. The real shortcomings in Porter are that he sometimes forces the paper-doll flatness and gets a little cute with the placement of detail. Then, his pictures veer toward the sentimental attractiveness of a New Yorker cover.
As a Hamptons artist who nevertheless worked within the gravitational pull of the New York scene, Porter is often credited with helping to hold the fort of figuration against the abstractionist assault of the 1950s and '60s. But at about the same time out on the West Coast, David Park, Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff painted representational pictures that are arguably fuller in form, more adventuresome in brush stroke and less wistfully anecdotal than Porter's. Still, as a respite from the grimy hectoring of much contemporary art, this show reaffirms the quiet joys of civilized painting.