Editor's note: The following essay is reprinted January 31, 2006 with permission of the Wichita Art Museum If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Wichita Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Fairfield and Friends: Art from the Commerce Bank Collection
January 29 - May 21, 2006
(above: Fairfield Porter (1907-1975), Girl Reading Outdoors, 1963, oil on canvas, 45 x 40 inches. Purchased in 1964 by the Commerce Bancshares Fine Art Collection)
This exhibition features paintings by American representational artists from the Commerce Bancshares collection complemented by related works from the collection of the Wichita Art Museum. The artists united here share more than a commitment to realism; in fact, their art can verge on abstraction. More than style, they share a social network based on friendship with and respect for the art of Fairfield Porter (1907-1975).
The history of 20th-century American painting is usually presented as the triumph of abstraction. Beginning with the New York Armory Show of 1913, when Americans were introduced to the work of startlingly non-traditional European artists such as Matisse and Picasso, and culminating with the rise of Abstract Expressionism in New York after the Second World War, American painters who wanted to be seen as progressive denied the appearance of the physical world on their canvases. Instead, they turned to the exploration of their subconscious or to the "reality" of paint itself. Representational art was either ignored or dismissed as regressive: so much so that in 1955 Clement Greenberg, the most influential art critic of the day, could say, "any painter not working abstractly is working in a minor mode."
There were, however, important alternatives and challenges to the authority of abstraction. Edward Hopper, considered one of America's greatest painters, maintained his particular style of melancholic realism until his death in the 1960s. And among artists of the same generation as the Abstraction Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Adolph Gottlieb, are realists who achieved critical and commercial success. Notable among the realists are Paul Cadmus, Larry Rivers, Phillip Pearlstein, Andrew Wyeth, John Koch, and Fairfield Porter. Of the mid-20th century realists, Porter was perhaps the most influential -- not because he was the best or most popular, but because (1) he was a widely published art critic and historian and (2) his personality and warm hospitality attracted around him and his family many other representational artists. Porter's home in Maine became an informal academy to many artists more interested in painting the world around them than abstracting it to an unrecognizable degree.
This exhibition is about the circle of artist-friends around Fairfield Porter. They include Alex Katz, Elaine de Kooning, Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, Nell Blaine, Neil Welliver, and Robert Dash. It would be a mistake to search for a shared style among these artists. Porter's fluid handling of paint, for example, is in sharp contrast to the flattened and reduced form of Katz, the expressiveness of de Kooning, or the naturalism of Welliver. What these artists have in common is their shared friendship and their commitment to an art that depicted and celebrated the world around them.
One should not, however, draw too sharp a distinction between the Porter circle of realists and the abstract artists. Indeed, there is as much difference between Porter and Willem de Kooning as there is between Porter and an illustrative realist. The primary goal of Porter and his colleagues was not to produce a faithful or cozy copy of reality, but to take their world as a point of departure for the art and act of painting. The art of Porter and his friends always balances a love of what was familiar to them with a love of the physical and mental processes of painting. The Abstract Expressionists privileged the latter. Porter and friends, in contrast, respected the unique beauty of individual objects, scenes, and people, while at the same time recognizing that the greatest realistic paintings were those in which the artist respected the reality of the artwork itself by allowing the qualities of the paint-and painter-full participation in the process of representation.
To Fairfield and his friends a work of art constituted
a legitimate reality of its own and didn't require an apology for its existence.
Thus, another way in which the Porter circle differed from their contemporaries
is that they didn't need an Idea to guide or defend art. The Abstract Expressionists
worked according to a theory of the requirements of modern painting (among
others, that it be flat) and the social realists defended art for its potential
to change the social order. The Porter circle thought art needn't be about
ideas or ideologies, but about simple facts . . . just as they acknowledged
that painting itself is a fact. What makes these painters good artists is
that their depictions of the simple facts of ordinary life also convey a
sense of the extraordinary.
About the exhibition
Both Commerce Bank and the Wichita Art Museum have works by Fairfield Porter in their collections. This exhibition unites the two paintings and contexuralizes them with works by friends and associates of Porter, including Nell Blaine, Alex Katz, Jane Freilcher, and Robert Dash. Fairfield and Friends: Art from the Commerce Bank Collection is on view at the Wichita Art Museum January 29 through May 21, 2006
RL editor's notes
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Ms. Ashle Stratton, Public Relations Coordinator, Wichita Art Museum, for her help in obtaining and forwarding the above text.
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