Fairfield Porter: a purity and clarity that has illumined American painting

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Art history will almost certainly rate Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) as one of the best American painters of the past 50 years. It may even include him among the most significant, providing it stops assuming that being first with an idea is more important than being good, and that formal innovation is the primary - if not the only - route to major stature as an artist.

I stress this point because Porter was among the least ''innovative'' of artists at a time when blasting new trails and inventing new forms in painting and sculpture was considered essential to the creation of art. It was also a time when anyone utilizing the appearances of nature as crucial components of his or her work was considered reactionary and beyond the pale.

Porter's straightforward, sparingly composed, and luminously colored landscapes, figure studies, portraits, interiors, and still lifes ran dramatically counter to what most of his famous contemporaries insisted were the only valid approaches to the art of the late 1940s, '50s, and '60s. And yet he persisted, not as an enemy of Abstract Expressionism or of any of the subsequent art movements, but as an alternate voice whose work encompassed and carried forward much of what was central and best in Western figure and landscape painting.

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That he succeeded in doing so - and produced beautiful paintings to boot - is apparent the minute one enters the Fairfield Porter retrospective at the Whitney Museum here. Seldom in recent years has the American public been served such a cohesive, extraordinary, no-nonsense show as this. It stands as a tribute to the remarkable talents and persistence of the artist, to the efforts of Kenworth Moffett of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, who organized it originally for that museum, and to the art of painting which inspired it.

It's a show that appeals to both sophisticated and simple tastes, to artists and art professionals, and to the casual visitor who delights in sunlit landscapes, pleasant interiors, and studies of ordinary people doing ordinary things. There is nothing strained or self-conscious about Porter's images, nothing designed to alter the course of painting, or to provoke the viewer into approaching art in new ways.

What we do find in this exhibition are paintings so direct and uncomplicated, so obvious in theme and subject, that it would be easy to accept them as straightforward depictions of the people, places, and things Porter knew and loved. On one level, that is pretty much what they are. But on another, they are among the most carefully conceived, sensitively executed, and exquisitely served feasts of pure painting any American has offered in recent years.

Walking around this exhibition offered convincing proof that Porter was a ''master chef'' producing gourmet delights in paint at a time when too many painters were trying to remember how to boil water. This may not have been obvious two or three decades ago, but it is now, since most of the postwar formalist dogma has been cleared away, and large numbers of the vacuous canvases that cluttered our cultural landscape for so long have been assigned to the oblivion they deserve.

Porter is a survivor from a period that saw him as talented but largely irrelevant, as someone concerned about issues and ideas that belonged more to the past than the present or future. In that concern he was not alone. Any number of ''realist'' painters, from Hopper and Wyeth to Pearlstein and Welliver were snubbed and left out in the cold to fend for themselves. And yet the work of all these artists has survived and is doing well - although none looks better or appears more healthy than that of Fairfield Porter.

Small wonder, considering how sensitively and methodically he went about fashioning his art. To begin with, he distrusted the kind of willful imposition of self upon observed reality that he saw in Cezanne and most early 20th-century art. He wanted more painterly objectivity, a greater respect for the actual appearance of the subject; and he wanted a creative perspective that would permit him to take both the subject's integrity and paint's expansive possibilities into equal account.

Although he found inspiration in the works of Velazquez and Vuillard, and learned a great deal from his association with de Kooning, he remained essentially self-taught.

One doesn't, after all, learn how to conceptualize, distill, and evoke nature on canvas from a teacher; and one certainly doesn't learn to transform observed reality into exquisite patterns and color relationships from books.

And yet, that is what Porter's art is largely all about. When it came to reducing nature into a few simple shapes that yet evoke the full reality of the subject, he had very few peers. And when it came to the use of color as a primary ingredient in that act of evocation, he had only one, Milton Avery.

Without question, Porter had a way with color, just as he did with light and atmosphere. But then, like the Impressionists, he saw these elements as basically one and the same thing.

There is no smog or cloudiness in his paintings, only a light so clear it actually seems crisp and cool. This light is as intrinsic to his work as the whiteness of paper is to a drawing, and it is as much a part of his art as anything else. It sets the mood, determines the color, and establishes the degree of vitality and radiance a particular picture will project.

I recommend the entire exhibition highly but would like to draw particular attention to the coloristic surprises each picture holds, as well as to the subtle orchestrations of color and light that help define such larger works as ''Interior with a Dress Pattern,'' ''October Interior,'' ''Lizzie at the Table, '' and ''Island Farmhouse.'' And last, but not least, I'd like to point out that Fairfield Porter was also an excellent art critic.

At the Whitney Museum through Aug. 19.

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