Fustiness in the Fine Arts Department

Fairfield Porter '28 was a realist painter in the midst of the abstract expressionist movement. He had an emotionally complex life. Although he...

Fairfield Porter '28 was a realist painter in the midst of the abstract expressionist movement. He had an emotionally complex life. Although he married, stayed married, and had five children, he was bisexual; indeed, one of his lovers, poet James Schuyler, lived with Porter and his wife for more than 10 years. Porter died in 1975; in a Newsweek article in 1983, his friend the poet John Ashbery '49 called him "perhaps the major American artist of this century." A traveling exhibition of his paintings will open at the Equitable Gallery in New York City on March 16 and run through May 27. As Justin Spring reveals in the pleasing, illustrated biography Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art (Yale University Press, $35), Porter was not an overachiever at Harvard.

HIS DRY OBSERVATIONS on fusty academicians continued in a letter [to his mother] of December 10, 1925, after he attended an evening with the aged and reactionary Denman Ross, a professor, art collector, and legendary opponent of modern painting: "A few days ago Dr. Denman Ross who is [a] high muck-a-muck in the Painting World...invited students concentrating in fine arts to his house.... He is the man whose theory of color design rules the teaching of painting at Harvard; the theory which in brief advocates painting a picture with colors which make a pleasant combination. But it is more complicated than that...he is about 80 by his appearance, and he says that he is just beginning to develop this theory, which has been going on for no mean while...then a tutor asked him to give us his opinion on modern art, and he said, 'I'm afraid they won't like my opinion,' but he gave it of course. We were continually urged to ask questions and, of course, dead silence reigned when he ceased talking. Finally the same courageous tutor thanked him for us and we silently walked out...."

Met with bemused indifference by the fine arts faculty, Porter relied upon the literary set to shape his tastes. The decision to let a writer or editor guide his artistic opinions followed naturally enough from the Porter belief that literature, being closer to intellect, was somehow more important, less trivial than visual pleasure. The paradigm of literature also explains why Porter's letters home to his mother are at once so detailed and entertaining: they are a parallel form of creation, a reassurance to his family that, despite his uncertainties about his artistic project, he remains worthy and intelligent. If he couldn't get anywhere as an artist or art historian, he could at least provide his mother with an entertaining account of his failure. Comic buffoonery was a lifelong strategy for Porter, a calculated way of deflecting skeptical assessments of his talent. It informs nearly all of his early correspondence and, according to his wife, was an important aspect of his adult character....

None of Porter's intellectual development was reflected in his grades. His academic insouciance during his sophomore year resulted in two C's in art history and a B for freehand drawing. Still, the tone of his letters implies sophistication rather than cynicism, and engagement rather than indifference. Aware even as a sophomore that no one in his department had a deep interest in contemporary art (and beginning to sense that painting was what he intended to pursue), he had clearly decided to enjoy whatever education was available to him but not take the judgments of his professors too seriously.

 

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