One-Minute Book Reviews

July 12, 2007

‘Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

This is the latest in an occasional series of posts on why I didn’t finish certain books

Title: Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art. By Justin Spring. Yale University Press, 384 pp. $48.

What it is: A biography of the great American realist Fairfield Porter (1907–1975), known partly for family scenes influenced by the work of French painters Vuillard and Bonnet. Porter was the brother of the photographer Eliot Porter and the husband of the poet Anne Porter. This biography has 27 color reproductions of his paintings and many black-and-white photographs or other illustrations.

How much I read: I read about a third of the book and skimmed much of the rest.

Why I stopped: I picked up this biography mainly because I wanted to learn more about Anne Porter, whose Living Things: Collected Poems (Steerforth, 2006) I admired and reviewed on March 28, 2007 http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/28/. But Fairfield Porter is such an intelligent book that I read more than planned. A contributor to Artforum, Justin Spring writes with a neo-classical restraint that is all the more admirable because it so rare in modern biographies of artists. He tells you exactly what you need to know and no more, even when dealing with his Porter’s bisexuality and other subjects that could have led to sensationalism. Without special pleading, he makes a quietly persuasive case that Porter was perhaps the major American artist of his century. I stopped reading only because this book deserved more time than I had to give.

Best line in what I read: Spring gives wonderfully evocative details of the places where the Porters lived or vacationed – Manhattan, Southampton, Great Spruce Head Island. Spring writes that, soon after their wedding in 1932, Anne and Fairfield Porter took rooms at the Hotel Brevoort in Greenwich Village:

“The Brevoort, despite the Depression and the many bohemian socialists lingering in its café, still had a certain grandeur. Anne Porter recalled that at breakfast the management required her young husband to wear a tie at the table and that the waiter presented an egg for her inspection before sending it to the kitchen for soft-boiling.”

I also love a line that involves Fairfield Porter’s wake. He was laid out in the dining room of the family home in Southampton. Artist Jane Freilicher said that Anne told her that a friend had asked if she wanted a Valium. “Why on earth would anyone not want to have feelings at a time like this?” Anne said she replied.

Worst line: None.

Recommended? To serious readers interested in 20th-century American art. This is not a catalog but a full-strength biography.

Published: December 1999

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

2 Comments »

  1. Hey Jan. What did the reading tell you about Ann? To me, of the two, she’s the more fascinating.

    Comment by heehler — July 12, 2007 @ 8:42 am | Reply

  2. This book only increased my admiration for Anne and helped me see why she didn’t start publishing her poetry until late in life. She had a very tough marriage, full of difficulties that included having a bisexual husband and a child who had what was probably autism or schizophrenia and died young. Poetry takes such concentrated thought, and it’s a wonder that she found time for as much of it as she has.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — July 12, 2007 @ 10:36 am | Reply


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