Editor's note: The following essay, authored in connection with an exhibition on view at the Parrish Art Museum April 11 - June 13, 2010, was reprinted in Resource Library on May 14, 2010 with permission of the Parrish Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay and related texts, please contact the Parrish Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


"An Unfinished Quality": Fairfield Porter's Creative Process

By Klaus Ottmann


In 1949 Fairfield Porter established his home and studio on the East End of Long Island, when he moved with his wife and children from New York City into a rambling, nineteenth-century sea captain's house on two acres at 49 South Main Street in the Village of Southampton. Porter lived and worked there until his death in 1975, except for regular visits to the Porter family summer house on Great Spruce Head, an island in Penobscot Bay, Maine, and frequent stays in New York City.

Porter always made it very clear that he did not feel any special connection to Southampton. Unlike most of the artists who settled in the region before and after, Porter did not particularly seek the acclaimed light and the color of the sky of Long Island's East End. He simply wanted to have a place that was close to the city, with a beach and enough space for his family and a studio:

We moved here because I wanted to be in connection with New York, as a painter. It seemed a place that, if we wouldn't afford to keep on going to Maine, would be a place where in the summer one could swim in the ocean. [1]

Porter drove to the city almost weekly. He kept a small pied-à-terre on East 11th Street, and when he was not painting, he visited museums and gallery exhibitions, frequented the nearby Cedar Tavern at University Place, the favorite hangout of prominent Abstract Expressionist painters and attended lectures and meetings at the Eighth Street Club, which was founded by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Ad Reinhardt, Jack Tworkov, and Milton Resnick, among others, in 1949 and had quickly become a focal point for the New York art scene in the early 1950s. He also began writing criticism for ARTnews.

That year, the magazine inaugurated a groundbreaking series of articles. Many written by fellow artists, the articles followed the creation of one work of art from the beginning to its completion. The series included painter Robert Goodnough's "Pollock paints a picture," with photographs by Hans Namuth; and poet Frank O'Hara's "Porter paints a picture," with photographs by Rudy Burckhardt. Fairfield Porter himself wrote on a number of artists, including Richard Stankiewicz, Leon Hartl, Jack Tworkov, and Larry Rivers. It was the first time that the American public was shown what goes on inside an artist's studio through words and pictures. According to the art historian Barbara Rose, Namuth's photographs of Jackson Pollock creating drip paintings in his barn studio in Springs, in the town of East Hampton, changed the discourse on art by focusing on the process rather than the finished work. [2]

Today, historical artist studios have become popular tourist attractions. Pollock's studio, with his drip marks on its floor and his studio materials preserved, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1994. And in 1997 the architect Renzo Piano reproduced the studio of the Rumanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi next to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, reconstituted down to the last detail with sculptures, photographs, and tools, satisfying the artist's wish to have his studio displayed in its entirety after his death.

For Porter, who was an artist to whom materials mattered greatly, the ARTnews series was a natural match. About Tworkov's materials he writes:

His brushes are very good quality, and he keeps them clean and soft. He uses 2-inch camel's hair brushes with 5-1/2-inch handles, for blending or for stroking -- if he wants the stroke to appear in a certain direction, or if he wants a stroke to move across in an abrupt change of hue. This can be done on a thickish, not-yet-dry impasto. [3]

There is no lack of poetic elegance in Porter's articles, even when combined with surprising depth of technical knowledge in areas far removed from his own artistic practice, as when he writes about Stankiewicz:

The materials used by Richard Stankiewicz for his sculpture come from the street, often from his own doorstep, as though the city were the sea, and he had a studio on the beach . . . .
Under the torch, crystals of cast iron break down at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Above this temperature, as in the manufacture of steel, carbides of iron form, and below this temperature iron and steel exist as a mixture, which makes the irregular surface of cast iron break. [4]

While Porter knew the science behind the art, he never lost sight of the liberties afforded by artistic license:

As an artist he can afford to be artistic. Welding handbooks say that one cannot burn cast iron, or weld it . . . . But for Stankiewicz's purposes it can be burned and welded. [5]

Frank O'Hara's article (figure 1) follows the making of Porter's first painted portrait of his then four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Katharine, posing in a large wing chair.[6] According to O'Hara, "previous attempts to paint her had either 'not worked out' or failed because of the difficulty of getting a child to pose."[7] One of Burckhardt's photographs reproduced alongside O'Hara's text shows Anne Porter reading a story to her daughter in order to keep her still.

The article discusses and reproduces a number of preliminary drawings and oil sketches as well six different stages of the painting:

For the first oil sketch he used sized canvas but did not spread it with medium first, as is often done, because it makes colors blend more than he wanted them to. He preferred a thinner paint quality than wet-in-wet permits. Instead, he merely mixed his tube colors with medium and applied them direct, drawing with the brush, a No. 16 sable. . . . Having noted the actual colors in the first sketch, Porter now felt free to explore the color distinctions as they related to the composition becoming more definite in his eyes. In concentrating on details of the chair's patterned upholstery, the form expanded ... In preparing for the final painting, he increased the detail of his perception rather than his perception of details ... He does not paint a version of reality: there is something there which he can get "right" in art, with perseverance, insight and luck. "Art is the perception of differences rather than likenesses . . ." [8]

O'Hara observes that Porter "doesn't try to find what he does best, but to do what he finds best in painting." [9]

He also remarks on how Porter's paintings have "a look of spontaneity and effortless felicity"[10] and quotes Porter as saying, "[they] should always have a look of beginning, of freshness."[11] O'Hara attributes this freshness to his use of medium, which "enables one to work wet, erase easily, to blend colors 'in' and to use the underlayers of paint as a presence which is not completely canceled by painting over." [12]

In the mid-1940s, Porter had studied technique and material with Jacques Maroger at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Maroger, an art restorer and former technical director of the Louvre Laboratory in Paris, developed his own formula for a paint medium based on his extensive studies of the Old Masters. Porter became an early champion of the Maroger medium. Its base ingredient is white lead. When mixed under heat with linseed oil and mastic, a natural resin, it forms a gel-like medium that allows the brush to move fluidly across the canvas. Porter used a variant of the original Maroger medium, the Venetian Maroger, which contains beeswax instead of mastic: "It seemed to be so easy, natural that I stayed with it only for that reason; because it made things simple . . . . You just move the paint."[13] In his ARTnews article O'Hara gives a detailed description of Porter's recipe and preparation of his medium:

In preparing the formula, he melts beeswax over a low heat, adding one to three teaspoons of ammonia per pound of beeswax (excess ammonia volatilizes); the recipe calls for one part of this prepared beeswax, one part lead carbonate (white lead), and ten parts raw linseed oil, which must be stirred to keep the lead and beeswax from settling, and must not exceed 250 degrees centigrade ­ it is both poisonous and inflammable and may foam up below this temperature, when it should be removed for a time. In about an hour the mixture runs the color of Italian coffee. After it cools it may be stored in jars; by this time it is the color of American coffee, though transparent when combined with pigments or spread on canvas."

Porter kept meticulous records of the paint mixtures that he used during various periods. The Archives of American Art hold several of these "paint recipes." [14]

Painting Materials (ca. 1949; plate 5), a still-life depiction of his brushes, jars, and a can of paint thinner as seen from above, almost like an urban landscape, exemplifies the casual disarray that is a distinctive feature of Porter's artistic practice. The tilted perspective may have been influenced by the works of the Spanish seventeenth-century painter Diego Velázquez, especially his The Surrender of Breda (1635, Museo del Prado, Madrid; figure 2), a painting Porter knew well and even copied in a late oil study on canvas, Velázquez Study (1974; plate 27). The disorderly pile of paint brushes projecting into all directions in Painting Materials has a certain resemblance to the cluster of vertical lances that gave Velázquez's painting its popular name, The Lances.

For his study, Porter chose to copy a small section on the right side of the Velázquez's painting in which the heads of three men are positioned to the right of a riderless charger. Two of them are looking straight at the viewer. The study was most likely done by Porter as a practice in portraiture. Quotations of various Velázquez paintings are found in several of Porter's paintings, most notably The Mirror (1966) and Anne in a Striped Dress (1967, plate 18).

Fairfield Porter's interest in Velázquez was stirred by a meeting with the eminent art historian Bernard Berenson while traveling through Italy in 1932. In his later years he came to regard Velázquez above all other painters of the past because, as he told Paul Cummings who interviewed Porter for the Archives of American Art in 1968, "[Velázquez] leaves things alone . . . . It isn't that he copies nature, but he doesn't impose himself upon it. He is open to it rather than wanting to twist it . . . and he also knows when it's unimportant to pay attention." [15]

The Surrender of Breda is one of Velázquez's most celebrated paintings, renowned for its mastery of history, landscape, and portraiture and admired for its atmosphere, light, and aerial perspective. Its complex composition and versatile technique imparts an unconventional sense of restlessness and confusion. This "tour de force of technique . . . and narrative imagination"[16] would have been particularly appealing to Porter, whose house and studio have been described by his biographer, Justin Spring, as having been "always in a state of lively disorder:" "This disarray is worthy of consideration, for Porter not only featured it in his paintings, but let it seep into his aesthetics." [17]

The painter and critic Rackstraw Downes, with whom Porter formed a lasting friendship, recalls that "as a painter, he was studiously casual . . . ; he painted what was in or around the house or yard, and whoever was willing to pose; and if it was to be the breakfast table, then all the dishes and cutlery and cereal boxes were to be left untouched."[18] On a torn page from The New York Review of Books, now among the Porter Papers in the Archives of American Art, Porter underlined the following quote from Morse Peckham's book Man's Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behavior, and the Arts:

There must, it seems to me, be some human activity which serves to break up orientations, to weaken and frustrate the tyrannous drive to order, to prepare the individual to observe what the orientation tells him is irrelevant, but what very well may be highly relevant. That activity, I believe, is the activity of artistic perception. [19]

Porter cited the French post-Impressionist painter Édouard Vuillard (who he referred to as an "Abstract Impressionist"[20] ) and the American Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning as his most important influences. From Vuillard he learned to paint in a manner that was "concrete in detail and abstract as a whole;"[21] from de Kooning, a working process that was open-ended and uncontrolled.

Porter's painting style may seem at times awkward, artless, abrupt, or unfinished compared to other figurative painters. As William Agee writes, "[Porter] refused to make any concessions to either sentiment or traditional canons of finish or painterly agility . . . . He believed that a painting exists in time and changes in time."[22] Porter told Paul Cummings:

I think that Ingres's remark that 'I leave it to time to finish my paintings' is true in a very wide and profound way. I think it's true in many ways. For instance, the paint mellows actually and so it becomes more harmonious. If it's an oil painting, there's a certain flow. There's something psychological, too, which kind of works back toward the painting. Sometimes things that are awkward and out of place, you find out, are not so awkward. [23]

Porter preferred to work in the spontaneous, less finished style of watercolor and oil sketches, and, like Velázquez, knew when to ignore detail. He told Cummings: "I was beginning to be interested in what you can do with paint, what is the quality of paint, what is its nature."[24] Most critics and artists looked at figurative paintings in terms of their content; for Porter, it was painting itself that mattered: "What matters is the painting. And since a reference to reality is the easiest thing you just take what's there."[25] Porter painted what was immediately around him because it was the "easiest thing to do."[26] He was interested, above all, in the process of painting. For him, painting was neither an emotional nor an intellectual activity; it was a process that made "the connection between yourself and everything ... you connect yourself to everything which includes yourself." [27]

The painter Jane Freilicher, a close friend of Porter's, once remarked: "An 'unfinished' quality . . . was part of his paintings. The same sort of casualness you find in the household you find in his paintings."[28] Many of the works in this exhibition have this unfinished quality; some intentionally, others because they remained incomplete at the time of his death. A late portrait of Porter's daughter, Katie Porter (1971-73; plate 24), depicts her sitting in a lawn chair outside, next to a wheelbarrow. Her facial features, hands, and feet lack definition; nevertheless, the painting is signed and dated by Porter. Some of Porter's unfinished paintings date back to the 1950s, such as John, Richard, and Laurence (ca. 1950; plate 7) and the untitled portrait of a man seated near a lamp (ca. 1953; plate 8), both also lacking facial features.

Porter had been copying Old Masters since the 1930s, mostly to practice and improve upon certain technical aspects of his work that he felt were weak, especially portraiture. [29]The portraits from the 1950s and 1960s that do have facial features, including the ARTnews portrait, affirm Porter's own judgment. Some, like the rendering of his son's face in Laurence at the Breakfast Table No. 3 (figure 3), are almost cartoon-like. This seems especially true if compared to his highly accomplished portrayals from the late 1960s and early 1970s, including his Self-Portrait (1972; plate 25), the portrait of his wife, Anne (1972; plate 26), and the ballpoint-pen sketches of James Sedgwick Deely (1974; plates 35­38).

Yet, occasionally, leaving out specific facial details has clearly been intentional, as in Porter's Self-Portrait in the Studio (ca. 1950; plate 6), which the artist Patrick Ireland has compared to "a shadow on a porch screen . . . maintaining . . . presence while withdrawing specifics." [30]

Other unfinished works, such as two landscape on canvas (1960s; plates 14 and 15) illustrate Porter's practice of beginning with pale washes of thin paint as he explored color in relation to composition.

Some of the world's greatest works of art were never finished by the artist: Michelangelo's Pietà Rondanini, Ingres's Odalisque in Grisaille, Balzac's Comédie humaine, and Mozart's Requiem, among many others. Usually, a work of art remains incomplete when its creator dies. Occasionally, works are abandoned, and more rarely, they are meant to remain in a "unfinished" state. James Ensor's painting The Oyster Eater, today considered one of his most accomplished works, was rejected from the Antwerp Salon of 1882 and dismissed by critics as unfinished because of its sketchlike bottom right-hand corner. The Renaissance sculptor Donatello carved works in which the figure appears to be stuck within the block of marble. He called this technique "non finito" -- a method also adopted by Michelangelo.

After Fairfield Porter's death on December 18, 1975, the Estate donated the remains of his Southampton studio to the nearby Parrish Art Museum. This gift included, in addition to major paintings and important works on paper, a large number of works in various states of completion, including unstretched paintings on canvas that had been stored by the artist rolled-up and many paintings on various kinds of boards, including Masonite, corrugated cardboard, and even sheets of asbestos or aluminum. The rolled-up canvases were later stretched by the museum, but were never framed.

The Fairfield Porter collection of the Parrish Art Museum not only affords unique insights into the mind and the artistic practice of this modern master, but an opportunity to experience his materialist aesthetics. As Porter once stated, "art is not ideal . . . it's material and specific and actual." [31]


1 Justin Spring, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 176.

2 " The focus on the act ­ the process of art making ­ instead on the static object changed the course of art criticism and even art history in a way Namuth himself could never have foreseen or intended." Barbara Rose, "Jackson Pollock: The Artist as Culture Hero," in Pollock Painting, ed. Barbara Rose (New York: Agrinde Publications Ltd., 1980), 9.

3 Fairfield Porter, "Tworkov paints a picture," ARTnews (May 1953), 73.

4 Fairfield Porter, "Stankiewicz makes a sculpture," ARTnews (September 1955), 35.

5 Ibid.

6 Portrait of Katherine (1954) according to the article; in the Catalogue Raisonné, the title is given as Katie in an Armchair (Joan Ludman, Fairfield Porter: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Watercolor, and Pastels [Manchester, Vt.: Hudson Hills Press, 2001], L183).

7 Frank O'Hara, "Porter paints a picture," ARTnews (January 1955), 39­40.

8 Ibid., 66.

9 Ibid., 39. In a letter to Frank O'Hara, written two months after the article was published, Porter writes: "Dear Frank: I have read of course your article about me . . . . I shall now have to paint in the way I seem to have told you I did, and I had better make something good, too." Fairfield Porter papers, 1888­2001 (bulk 1924­1975). Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

10 O'Hara, "Porter paints a picture," 41.

11 Ibid., 40.

12 Ibid., 41.

13 Ibid.

14 Fairfield Porter papers, 1888­2001 (bulk 1924­1975). Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

15 Fairfield Porter interview, 1968 June 6, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

16 Carmen Garrido, "Genius at Work: Velázquez's Materials and Technique," in Jonathan Brown and Carmen Garrido, Velázquez: The Technique of Genius (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1998), 89.

17 Spring, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art, 173.

18 Rackstraw Downes, "The Thought Behind the Painting," in Ludman, Fairfield Porter: Catalogue Raisonné, 13.

19 Christopher Ricks, "Out of Order," The New York Review of Book (May 20, 1971).

20 Fairfield Porter: Art in Its Own Terms, ed. Rackstraw Downes (Boston: MFA Publications, 2008), 111.

21 Ibid., 170.

22 William C. Agee, "Fairfield Porter: An American Painter 'Dense with Experience,'" in Ludman, Fairfield Porter: Catalogue Raisonné, 22.

23 Fairfield Porter interview, 1968 June 6, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

24 Ibid.

25 Agee, "Fairfield Porter," 28.

26 Fairfield Porter interview, 1968 June 6, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

27 Ibid.

28 Spring, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art, 173.

29 He told Paul Cummings that he even would practice portraiture from photographs because "I like it, but I'm not terribly good at it." Fairfield Porter interview, 1968 June 6, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

30 Brian O'Doherty, in The Figurative Fifties: New York Figurative Expressionism (Newport Beach, Calif.: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1988), 134.

31 Fairfield Porter interview, 1968 June 6, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

About the author

Klaus Ottmann is Robert Lehman Curator at the Parrish Art Museum


Resource Library editor's notes:

The above essay, included in the exhibition catalogue, was reprinted in Resource Library on May 14, 2010, with permission of the Parrish Art Museum, which was granted to TFAO on May 3, 2010.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Terrie Sultan and Mark Segal of the Parrish Art Museum for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above essay.

For the paper-printed presentation of the essay in the exhibition catalogue, the author requested that notes be presented as footnotes page by page instead of endnotes. In the Resource Library presentation there is one page, so all notes are presented at the bottom of the text.

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