Fairfield Porter's City Views Featured in ‘Across the Avenues’ at Parrish Art Museum - 27 East

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Fairfield Porter’s City Views Featured in ‘Across the Avenues’ at Parrish Art Museum

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Fairfield Porter,

Fairfield Porter, "Cityscape with Yellow Taxi," 1945. Oil on canvas, 32 ¼" x 24 ¼." Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, N.Y. Gift of the Estate of Fairfield Porter.

Fairfield Porter,

Fairfield Porter, "Broadway," 1972. Lithograph, 29 ¾" x 21 ¾." Parrish Art Museum Water Mill, N.Y. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Daniel J. Mason.

Fairfield Porter,

Fairfield Porter, "Cityscape," ca. 1945. Oil on canvas, 25" x 30." Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, N.Y. Gift of Robert Fizdale, in Memory of Arthur Gold.

Frankie Kadir Vaughan on Feb 13, 2024

Artist Fairfield Porter is known for his contributions to the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York, and his warmly lit, colorful portraits and landscapes of Maine and the East End, where he and wife Anne Channing Porter had a home.

This week, Porter’s abstracted depictions of New York City go on view in a new show opening at the Parrish Art Museum. Titled “Across the Avenues,” the exhibition will “primarily focus on his New York scenes,” explained Kaitlin Halloran, the museum’s assistant curator and publications coordinator. On view in the show will be 26 of Porter’s works, dating from the 1940s to the early 1970s. The 23 paintings and three lithographic prints in the show were selected from a total of 240 pieces in the museum’s permanent collection – including drawings, prints, paintings and archival materials — which were gifted to the Parrish by the artist’s wife.

Fairfield Porter was born in 1907, in a suburb north of Chicago. The youngest of five children, he was raised by a poet mother and an architect father. Art and literature were highly valued by his parents, and Porter studied at Harvard University and graduated in 1928; he went on to study at the Art Students League in New York, which is known for its Abstract Expressionist alumni, including Louise Nevelson, Helen Frankenthaler, Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Rauschenberg, Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock, among many others. In 1932, Porter married Anne Channing. A poet from Boston, she had studied at Bryn Mawr College and later attended Radcliffe College, the women’s liberal arts college which merged with Harvard University in 1999.

Despite gaining attention and recognition for his work later in his artistic career, Porter stayed true to his education and style of painting. While his peers in the art world portrayed abstracted views of their realities — and became further abstracted throughout their careers —Porter, on the other hand, maintained a unique and iconic style which remained a bit more realistic than others.

“It’s really interesting — you know, he’s coming up and into his own during that time and what is really great is you can see in the work how he remains true to his representational style,” Halloran explained. “This was during the time where Abstract Expressionism was becoming the main movement within the art world, as he was coming up.

“He goes in the other direction,” she added, “and stays a little bit more representational than going full abstraction.”

Porter grew up visiting Great Spruce Head Island in Maine, where his family had a summer home, and many of his early portraits and sketches were drawn from his memories and visits there with his children. Then, in 1949, Fairfield and Anne Porter packed their paints and canvases and headed east to their new home at 49 South Main Street in Southampton. The couple was looking to get out of New York City at the time, and had contemplated selling their home on 52nd Street in Manhattan. Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner had moved to Springs in East Hampton just three years prior, and the Hamptons had not yet become known as an artist’s colony.

In a letter to Claire White, dated April 1972, Porter wrote, “We moved here because I wanted to be in connection with New York as a painter. It seemed a place that, if we couldn’t afford to keep on going to Maine, would be a place where in the summer one could swim in the ocean. If you try to make something of our living in Southampton rather than in another place, you won’t find much real material.”

Porter was true to his word, and remained a painter in Southampton, yet still connected to New York until his death in 1975. Many of his works in this new exhibition at the Parrish are depictions of New York’s skyline, busy midtown traffic, or sunsets, and were created while he was residing in Southampton. Coincidentally, after moving from New York to Southampton full time, Porter’s career began to take off. The years 1951 and 1952 were pivotal for him. Porter was given recognition as an art critic and the following year, was represented by Tibor de Nagy, an art gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Porter opened his first solo exhibition at Tibor de Nagy in fall 1952, and went on to have 14 more gallery shows there during the remainder of his life.

Many artists, who were friends of Porter, posed for him in his Southampton home and art studio. They include Jane Wilson and Frank O’Hara in 1957. Porter’s children and wife were commonly painted subjects, too. As an artist, Porter refused to take part in the ways abstraction was progressing, and continued to paint in muted colors — greens, reds, yellows and blues. This is apparent in the more than two dozen works on view in “Across the Avenues.” In “City Street,” an unfinished oil on Masonite, circa 1943, Porter offers a depiction of the Manhattan skyline from an eastern perspective — most likely north Brooklyn or south Queens; there are eight brown-stone like buildings, colored burnt orange and crimson red. Porter also references his New York neighborhood in his “Second Avenue and 52nd Street,” ca. 1943, which is also an oil on Masonite painting. The cityscape is suggestive of what the Upper East Side may have looked like in those years, during golden hour in the early fall and winter months. A woman walking down the street wears a black hat and long coat, cars travel uptown and the sky is a murky blue with a slightly pink hue.

“Where the exhibition starts is where he was really becoming an artist full time, if you will, aside from being a prolific art critic,” said Halloran. “You see his style evolution.”

“Going through even his landscapes from both out here and in Maine and, specifically, with the New York scenes, Porter has this great sense of nostalgia, bringing you right to that place,” Halloran said. “I think this will be a really great installation of his work; and it spans a good amount of his career.

Though this show highlights his city-themed paintings, Porter’s relationship to the East End was visible within his work. And because of his ties to the region, his relationship with the Parrish Art Museum was special.

“Aside from a lot of the works being donated to the museum over the years, he had done workshops at the Parrish Museum while we were on Jobs Lane,” said Halloran. “His connection, specifically to the museum, was consistent throughout his time out here.”

“Across the Avenues: Fairfield Porter in New York,” opens Sunday, February 18, at the Parrish Art Museum and remains on view through June 16. The Parrish Art Museum is at 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill. For more information, visit parrishart.org.

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