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Andrew Forge and Fairfield Porter: Works on Paper

Betty Cuningham Gallery: December 13, 2008 – January 31, 2009   

The pairing of Andrew Forge (1923-2002) and Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) makes sense for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is their devotion to perception and their desire to grasp the tangible and intangible aspects of reality. Both men wrote brilliantly and beautifully about art, and covered a lot of territory ranging from the Impressionists to their own contemporaries. In addition to writing about Bonnard and Monet—who were important to his art—Forge wrote clearly and incisively about Robert Rauschenberg and Al Held. Born in England, Forge’s encounter with postwar American painting led him to abandon observational figurative painting in the 1960s, around the time he was having a ten-year retrospective of his work, and to subsequently move to America in 1973. By all accounts, a scintillating and charismatic teacher, he capped his long academic career as dean at Yale, which he left in 1994.

Andrew Forge,
Andrew Forge, "UNTITLED," 1993. Watercolor on paper, 23 1/8 x 15 1/2 inches, 58.74 x 39.37 cm.

Porter died shortly after Forge moved to New York. He was educated at Harvard, but, as a painter, was largely self-taught. He wrote for many years for Art News; his reviews and articles, which Justin Spring described as “all elbows,” were edited by Rackstraw Downes and published in 1979 as Art in Its Own Terms, which has been in steady demand ever since and been kept in print by various non-academic presses. Porter also wrote poetry, almost exclusively sestinas, a rigorously demanding form, and did a handful of translations from the French. (David Kermani and I edited his collected poems, which were published in 1985). His friends characterized him as ornery, and his coruscating criticism supports that view.

Except for two drawings, one titled “Male Nude in Boots” (1954), all of Porter’s drawings are from around 1960. The rather stiffly drawn nude is of historical importance for two reasons. Porter never painted a nude and, in this drawing, which tellingly combines a neo-classical line with a vigorously filled-in cock, he depicts Frank O’Hara during the same session in which Larry River’s painted his celebrated “O’Hara Nude with Boots” (1954). In contrast to Rivers, who would confess to anything, Porter appeared to be a prim and proper family man, but was certainly far more complicated than that. A central and, in some ways, paternal figure in a circle that included the New York School of poets, Porter did portraits of John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. In fact, Schuyler came to visit Porter and ended up living with him and his family in Southampton, Long Island, from 1961 to 1973. 

The domestic world and the nearby landscape of Southampton and Great Spruce Island, Maine, which his family owned, were Porter’s subjects. He found what was special and particular about the familiar, with loving attention paid to light and shape. Echoing that concern, Schuyler’s poem, “April and Its Forsythia,” begins: “It’s snowing on the unpedimented lions. On ventilator hoods/white triangles. It evens up wrinkled tar roofs.” If George Butterick wrote that “James Schuyler’s is a poetry of perception, the recognition of shapes out of the indiscriminate sensory field,” his remark is equally applicable to Porter’s paintings and drawings.

Fairfield Porter,
Fairfield Porter, "THREE BOATS," 1961. Pencil on paper, 10 3/4 x 13 5/8 inches, 27.31 x 34.61 cm.

Their response to the “indiscriminate sensory field” is where Forge and Porter connect and go their separate ways. Bonnard was important to both artists, and while Forge took something from Monet and Seurat, Porter learned from Vuillard, the interlocking shapes that make-up his domestic interiors. In contrast to their peers, they came to their mature style without being influenced by cubism, geometric abstraction, surrealism, or expressionism. In the masterful pencil drawing “Three Boats” (1961), Porter draws shapes of different sizes to depict a fir tree in the foreground, the edge of a nearby house, and a watery expanse on which three boats sit, with a shoreline visible in the distance. He has taken the neo-classical line and stood it on its head, made it quick and improvisational.

Every contour is definitive, outlining a form as well as locating it in space. Although the drawing is around ten by thirteen inches, he is able to register the movement of the eye, looking across the water to the shoreline as well as down at the boats from the little grassy promontory on which the artist is sitting. Porter is especially sensitive to space and placement, and in his best drawings, he seems to have been able to put everything down without hesitation, using a line that is both flatfooted and precise. He begins with the palpable world to get at the elusiveness of light. In a number of the drawings, he makes a note inside the shape indicating whether it’s “blue” or “yellow.”

Forge responded to the sensory field by making dots and occasionally bars of color. He seemed to literally feel his way, snail-like, across the paper. The dots become painstaking accumulations, fields of precisely placed color next to color, evoking a commingling of light, shadow, form, and space. Things seem to be emerging, but remain unnamable. Although rigorous and consistent, falling somewhere between Byzantine mosaics and Pointillism, Forge’s works on paper never become predictable. There are sudden, unexplained gaps (white spaces) in which a single dot of color may have been placed. Blue bands of varying densities snake a path through a field of slanted yellow strokes. In other works, made up of horizontal bands, the structure feels as sturdy as log cabin and, paradoxically enough, as delicate as knives of light on water. The interplay between structure and chaos, between solidity and evanescence, delighted Forge. He understood that murkiness was a condition that we never fully escape, but, instead of embracing the illusion of clarity, he examined and celebrated the fleeting and shadowy, recognizing that loss and pleasure are inseparable.

Both Forge and Porter preferred the sensuality of light to that of the flesh (this makes me curious about Forge’s figurative drawings and paintings done before the 1960s). Standing apart from their contemporaries, and harkening back to Impressionism and, before that, the Classical tradition, they achieve a tension between plenitude and austerity, arriving at a fullness that is structured yet fugitive, firm yet delicate. Their independence from mainstream concerns should not be ignored or taken lightly. Sometimes, the most radical individuals are those who never proclaim it.


John Yau


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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