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Fairfield Porter: Art in Its Own Terms, Selected Criticism 1935-1975.

With the publication of John Spike's lush Fairfield Porter: An American Classic (by Harry N. Abrams) and two subsequent New York gallery retrospectives, Fairfield Porter's painting, overshadowed during his lifetime by his reputation as a critic, seems at last to have achieved critical recognition. Porter's selected criticism has recently been reprinted--not, according to the publisher, because of the recent revaluation of Porter's paintings, but because this volume, first published by Taplinger in 1979, has been in steady demand since it went out of print.

Porter's writing is a particular, as spatially aware, and as occasionally awkward as his painting. It's all elbows, really--so precise and insistent about its meanings and intentions as to seem less like prose than a chemistry equation or an algebra proof. Though Porter's determination to provide a linguistic simulacrum for painterly effects can sometimes be maddening, it can also be charming and enlightening: when he achieves a gorgeous effect in his criticism, it's with a sudden lightness that belies his ponderous and calculated locutions.

Of one artist's works, Porter says, "They have presence, though nothing stirs and there is no sound; they have the aliveness of mushrooms." How delightful--and strange--and completely Porteresque: a moment of lush, abstract surprise from a precisely summoned object. It's a beautiful appreciation, though possibly the artist in question bristled at having his work likened to fungus.

Porter's appreciative eye is not limited to the description of paintings. With a similar sleight-of-hand, he interprets a fellow critic's anecdote of seeing John Marin: "|He~ was entering the subway, wearing a raincoat, going round a corner, tipped to one side, and Rosenfeld thought, 'he looks just like his watercolors!'" From which Porter concludes that "not his face, which was Emersonian, but his gesture, expressed what Analytical Cubism also expressed: the jazziness and fragmentation of the twentieth century."

The best of Porter's criticism concerns artists whose struggles and objectives were similar to his own--his profiles of Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Maurice Prendergast in particular chronicle the challenges and failings of a life lived in pursuit of painterly effects. Sargent, he writes, "was unable to believe in his own potentialities, because there was no place for him in the Boston-English world which tolerated painting, not for the sake of art but for the sake of the graces and refinements of an upperclass life." Interestingly enough, there is no review of Edward Hopper, whose light-inspired realism seems in many ways closest to that of Porter.

His worst writing appears, predictably, in reviews written for or about friends; either they are so blandly enthusiastic they fail to interest or convince, or else they are suspiciously elliptical. A review of his friend Jane Freilicher, for example, never really gets down to the business of criticism, instead praising the artist's "deep affection for all bumbling things."

The gem of the collection is an essay, written for the artists' magazine It Is in 1958, entitled "The Short Review." It summarizes, quite beautifully, the challenge of looking at and writing about art, particularly in the short-review format. For anyone who has ever committed art criticism, the whole piece is worth memorizing, but its conclusion bears reprinting in its entirety:

Reviews should be short. Who likes to read art criticism? One likes to read it if it's worth reading, as Ben Shahn said. But this has nothing to do with the correctness of its evaluations; nor with the painting to which it refers; just as it is not what painting and sculpture refer to, but what they present, that makes them worth looking at.

Seeing art everywhere, making it even out of criticism, Porter gives us a unique vision of what art is. Perhaps it's not an all encompassing one (what could that possibly be?), but in all the available terms of Porter's own artistic vocabulary it's a rich one, a gift for which this critic is grateful.

Justin Spring is a novelist living in New York who contributes regularly to Artforum.
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Author:Spring, Justin
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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