An exhibition devoted to Fairfield Porter’s home in Southampton, N.Y., and the circle of artists and poets who gathered there showcases an atmosphere of inspiration, leisure, and beauty.
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In his poem “June 30, 1974,” the poet James Schuyler describes an early summer morning in the Hamptons. He begins: “Let me tell you/that this weekend Sunday/morning in the country/fills my soul/with tranquil joy….” He goes on to describe the region’s geographic and botanical delights—the dunes, the mountains, the bayberry, and roses. Then he details the house in which he’s staying (“this charming one,/alive with paintings,/plants and quiet”), the lively night before (“How we must have/sounded, gossiping at/the dinner table/last night.”), and his current, quiet perch at the breakfast table (“To get up/to this morning view/and eat poached eggs/and extra toast with/Tiptree Goosberry [sic] Preserve”). He guesses at the activities that might lie before him in the day ahead (“I’d like to go out/for a swim but/it’s a little cool/for that”), before deciding to stay firmly in the moment, writing, “Enough to/sit here drinking coffee,/writing, watching the clear/day ripen…”
The inspiration for this poem was a stay at the Hamptons home of his close friends, the artists Jane Freilicher and Joe Hazan, after spending the previous night with the couple and the poet John Ashbery. But Schuyler was also a longtime houseguest at another Hamptons home, that of Fairfield Porter and his wife Anne Channing Porter. In fact, the poet, who suffered periods of instability, was often in the care of the couple and became rather like a family member (though, it should be noted that Justin Spring’s 2000 biography of Porter alleged that the painter and Schuyler carried on a prolonged, secret affair). Though no other poets or artists stayed quite as long with the Porters as Schuyler, the family played host to a cadre of significant American voices throughout the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
Leaving Manhattan life behind, the Porters moved to their Hamptons home, a 19th-century sea captain’s house on South Main Street, in 1949. In a feature titled “Porter Paints a Picture,” written by Frank O’Hara for the January 1955 issue of Art News, the celebrated poet describes the Henry Jamesian quality of the “rambling white house; its many rooms invite and impose privacy to a degree.” The house, and those of the fellow artists who settled in the Hamptons during this period (as well as Porter’s summer house on Great Spruce Head Island in Maine), became the hearths around which a genial artistic community congregated and flourished. As Schuyler’s poem implies, these country residences were the warm incubators of lively conversation, contemplative leisure, and significant creative output.
“Housebound: Fairfield Porter and his Circle of Poets and Painters,” an exhibition on view at the Parrish Art Museum in Watermill, N.Y., through January 31, showcases the role of Porter’s Southampton (and, to a lesser extent, Maine) home and its environs as refuge, setting, and subject during the 1950s–70s. The show brings together some 40 works, contextualizing them with poetry by members of the New York School such as Schuyler, O’Hara, Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, Anne Channing Porter, and Porter himself. Many of the paintings on view are by Porter (the artist’s estate donated over 200 paintings to the museum upon his death in 1975); they revel in the details of the house and its property and use it as a backdrop for portraiture. Others are by Freilicher, Alex Katz, Larry Rivers, Jane Wilson—house guests and visitors.
Porter said, “Love is paying attention.” He lavished his subjects with observation, capturing them in a gestural style that, while not hyper-detailed (and at times, actually, quite abstract), always bore a quality of intense looking. A figurative painter at the height of Abstract Expressionism, Porter’s work was perhaps too relaxed, too bourgeois to take the art world by storm. Aligning himself with the tradition of the Nabi painters and Matisse instead, he painted the objects and settings of the everyday. For instance, Chair, a work in the show that dates to 1949, the year Porter moved to Southampton, provides a solitary view of the wooden furnishing in the corner of a room. He renders it in the thick, noodly brushstrokes of those French painters he so admired, giving it a sense of quiet dignity that borders on mystery.
Two canvases in the show, A Day Indoors and Night, both dating to 1962, typify Porter’s keen observational style, in which his goal was to represent subjects as they appeared. In both paintings, Porter’s vantage point seems that of someone simply wandering into the living room and seeing its familiar setting and occupants. Their ease and familiarity is different tonally than the sometimes abrupt, slightly awkward style of his portraiture. In A Day Indoors, Porter paints the room’s sunflower-yellow walls and tomato-red floor as fields of enlivened color. A fire burns in the fireplace, and though the day outside the room’s window appears overcast, the overall feeling of the picture is warmth. In the painting, several figures sit quietly reading or lost in thought, adding to a sense of leisure, if not casual boredom. In Night, the same room is lit by lamplight. Its seated figures are reading and writing but their faces are portrayed with less detail. Shadows loom in an almost Expressionist style, adding to the sense that the day is coming wearily to an end.
With his talent for portraying the scenes of the everyday, it is not surprising that Porter kept such close company with the poets of the New York School. This group of mid-century poets sought to capture life as it happened, embracing an urbane, conversational tone. Though heavily influenced by the Abstract Expressionists, the writings of the New York School poets feel especially well paired with the representational work of Porter, Freilicher, and Katz. Porter’s Lunch Under the Elm Tree (1954, oil on canvas), for instance, which pictures a set-up picnic table far away in the expanse of his backyard, gels particularly well with Koch’s “Lunch” (1962), a long, celebratory description of an anticipated lunch in France finally served (“Like the bouquet of an enchantress./Oh the green whites and red yellows/And purple whites of lunch!”).
O’Hara, who compiled his enduringly famous 1964 volume Lunch Poems during his midday breaks from his MoMA desk job, had a particular knack for breezily harmonizing the routine details of life with atmospheric observation and poignant self-reflection. His work’s sense of immediate, lived experience engenders in the reader, even today, something that feels almost like friendship. O’Hara, known for his sociability, was a close friend of Porter’s, and stayed at the painter’s homes in Southampton and Maine many times. O’Hara and Porter’s eldest daughter Katharine grew especially close. O’Hara wrote “KATY, 1953,” which contains the iconic line “Some day I’ll love Frank O’Hara.” in “collaboration” with six-year-old Katharine. In the show, Katy is represented around the same age in her father’s painting Katie at the Table (circa 1953, oil on canvas). Porter portrays Katie seated behind a tablescape with various dishes and pitchers, a living thing within a still life. Doe-eyed and still yet full of vigor, Porter’s Katie seems much like O’Hara’s—”I am never quiet, I mean silent.”
It’s been suggested that Porter may be the only painter to do portraits of all the first generation New York School Poets. “Housebound” features standout portraits by Porter and by other artists in his circle. Porter’s Untitled (John Ashbery), a circa-1953 oil on canvas, pictures the poet in a jacket and tie, seated in an armchair under the glow of an Emeralite lampshade. Robert Dash’s John Ashbery (1975, oil on canvas) portrays the poet nearly 20 years later. Here, he is seated at a round, informal table buried in his reading, a gray landscape visible through a large window. Larry Rivers’ Untitled (John Ashbery), a 1984 lithograph, features the poet typing on a typewriter. The image is overlaid with the first stanza and a fragment of the second and third stanzas of Ashbury’s “Pyrography,” a poem commissioned by the U.S. Department of the Interior for the touring exhibition “America 1976: A Bicentennial Exhibition.”
Alex Katz’s Untitled (Portrait of Kenneth Koch), a circa-1970 lithograph, is a highlight of the show. As the poet’s face is portrayed in extreme close-up, the viewer sees all the nuance of his boldly formed features and the stripey glare of his glasses’ lenses. Katz’s Portrait of Frank O’Hara, a photoengraving from 2009, depicts the poet in profile, his nose and chin striking in their extreme angularity.
Porter painted Schuyler several times. A shorts-clad Schuyler sits reading in Porter’s homage to Velazquez The Screen Porch (1964) and again in the serene Iced Coffee (1966), which depicts the poet rather as one imagines him in “June 30, 1974.” He is seen reflected in The Mirror (1966), seated among a paper strewn floor in a 1955 portrait, and positioned outside near a tree in a circa 1958–60 portrait titled Jimmy Schuyler. “Housebound” features Sketch for a Portrait of Jimmy Schuyler, a circa-1962 oil on canvas. Here, Schuyler sits before a stark background. His boyish looks, bolstered by his outfit of shorts and sneakers, are undercut only by the deep penetrative stare and slight smirk he gives the viewer.
The exhibition’s landscapes showcase just how much of a refuge from city life these Hamptons sojourns afforded artists. Katz’s Untitled (Landscape), a 1963 oil on composition board, features trees in thickly laid swaths of verdant green that threaten to devour a red farmhouse. Freilicher’s Grey Day (1963, oil on linen), features an expensive view dotted with houses and a small inlet. Painted so expressively, the scene collapses into a blended swirl of abstraction at its horizon. Porter’s Backyard, Southampton (1953, oil on canvas) depicts the painter’s lawn like a field of dark green velvet. Trees and white houses rise in the distance, far enough away to give one space to think.
Douglas Crase, a poet of a younger generation who fell in with Schuyler and Ashbery in the 1970s, described the pull of New Yorkers to the Hamptons in the poem “When Spring Comes First to West 21st Street” in his 1981 collection The Revisionist: “Is it true the English/Could have called Long Island as they did, Eden?/Anyway, if the sea keeps warming up it will all be gone/And it may be our sense of this that unlocks the day,/Bringing trout lilies and marsh marigolds into mind/As the last of the concerts are letting out uptown,/And this that brings 800 to watch the egrets/In Jamaica Bay.”
By Sarah E. Fensom