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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Robert Altman Week

Monday
Jan172011

In Which The Films of Lynne Ramsay Stare Back At Us

The Ramsey Trap

by HELEN SCHUMACHER

The films of Lynne Ramsay move slowly and quietly. Her characters tend to be inwardly focused and she eschews narration in favor of presenting motivations in a more abstruse manner, if at all. Despite her subtlety as a filmmaker, the dramatic effect of her films is still brutal. In her first work, a short called Small Deaths that went on to win the Prix du Jury at Cannes, Ramsay sets up three scenarios that capture the minor moments of growing up. Each young protagonist experiences a slight shift in perception that makes them view the world in a different, more cynical way.

Small Deaths was Ramsay’s graduation piece for her studies at England’s National Film and Television School, which she won a scholarship for based on the strength of her undergraduate work in still photography. At the school she studied cinematography and met a group of collaborators (cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler, editor Lucia Zucchetti, and production designer Jane Morton). After Small Deaths, Ramsay went on to make two more shorts: Kill The Day about the day in the life of a junkie, and Gasman.

In Gasman, two children follow their father on a Christmas outing to the local dance hall, accompanied by two other children with whom he has an ambiguous relationship. It’s a convolution of festive dancing and drinking and familial jealousy and dismissal. Ramsay’s background in photography and cinematography is evident in her poetic composition. The trio of short films introduced audiences to the stronger themes of her work: the Scottish working class, their societal norms and family dynamics, and how these play into the sensitivity and naivety of an individual.

This would serve as the center of her first full-length, Ratcatcher. In Ratcatcher, which Ramsay also wrote, her camera follows the domestic life of saucer-eared James, played by a young amateur named William Eadie, and his struggling family. James is haunted with guilt from his role in the death of a neighborhood boy who drowned after their roughhousing in a nearby canal. Set in a 1970s Glasgow ghetto, the film’s mise en scène is the Winter of Discontent, where residents of a housing project are nearly barricaded inside their apartments as the bags of rubbish accumulate outside their doors for weeks on end. As the film progresses, James attempts to find warmth and purpose in his friendships and familial role, but eventually we see him realize the futility of his hopes.

With its grim atmosphere grounded in industrial decline, Ratcatcher is easily described as social realism, or as it is known regionally, a kitchen sink drama. Reviews of the film often mention its similarities to the work of the genre’s Ken Loach, in particular Kes, his 1969 film about a young boy who devotes himself to the raising and training of kestrel chick, only to have it killed by his vindictive brother. What makes Ramsay’s work more than just an update of the the ‘50s and ‘60s genre is that she’s not an Angry Young Man and neither are her central characters.

Ramsay possesses an incredibly intuitive understanding of the power of the gaze and how to manipulate it. Maybe it’s because, as a female, she is so endlessly subjected to it and, as a filmmaker, she has been able to then become bearer of the look, to take control of its power to name and define. (Or maybe it is because her own childhood was similar to James' that she was able to so exquisitely add depth to the characters.)

In interviews, she has discussed her desire to get her audience to look beyond the image. She frames the details in order to make the audience wonder what’s going on outside the screen. With her subtle camerawork, she directs her audience to not look at the characters onscreen, but to meet their eyes. By subverting the gaze and twisting its power away from the viewer, she gives her working-poor characters a chance to be more than just a cliche. After all, the most basic class distinction is that between the powerful and powerless.

Through this manipulation we come to terms with the actions of the title character of her last movie, 2002's Morvern Callar. Morven, having discovered her boyfriend dead on their scullery floor on Christmas morning and then having kept his death a secret, stumbles through the next month of her life in a reflective catatonia, one where the details have become visceral. Ramsay’s camera follows Callar to her job at a grocery store, to the countryside where she buries the hacked-up pieces of her boyfriend’s body, and to a hedonistic Spain with her best friend Lanna — after having funded the trip with what was meant to be the boyfriend’s funeral money. She even sells his novel (left completed on their home PC, along with a list of possible publishers) under her own name.

Maybe this sounds more like the work of a sociopath. In an interview with the Guardian, Ramsay explains, "Morvern’s boyfriend commits quite a selfish act as the tortured artist looking for posthumous fame, and she takes complete survival from that. You can question her morally if you want, but what he does is only a romantic notion whereas what she does is more about survival."

Callar grew up in foster homes and is a low-paid supermarket employee. With this new source of income lifting her of the burden of survival, she is for the first time able to indulge in curious exploration. The suicide has given her a new life and she is discovering the sights, sounds, and textures of Scotland and Spain. Ramsay obscures the motivations of her protagonist in favor of drawing the viewer into Callar’s world. While the film’s perceived lack of plot or dialogue might seem alienating to audiences, instead viewers find themselves deeply invested in the characters. Ramsay's nuanced style is aided by a compelling performance by Samantha Morton, who grew up in the foster system like Morvern.

Adrienne Rich writes that for women the act of seeing with fresh eyes is an act of survival. But this "reclaiming of vision” is also applicable to the survival skills of other alienated segments of society. Ramsay’s films help us to (again, as Rich calls it) “see difference differently” and therefore understand a wider scope of humanity. Her work is heavy with compassion, but not sentimentality.

It’s too bad that Ramsay was removed from the task of adapting and directing Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Ramsay was assigned to the script while the novel was still being written. It seemed a job well-suited for her ability to approach harsh realities through a lens of innocence, not to mention that her own background in photography could have played to the young narrator’s amateur interest in the medium. But, after the book became a best seller (and after she had spent two years working on it), the project was given to Peter Jackson, who unfortunately relied on the special effects that have made him a crowd-pleaser to portray the other-world setting and heavenly gaze of the murdered teen, inevitably turning the movie into a corny mess.

While it’s been nearly 10 years since Ramsay’s last feature-length film was released, this year should see her return with We Need To Talk About Kevin, another picture that looks at family and remorse. The movie stars Tilda Swinton as a mother coming to terms with the violent actions of her son Kevin (played by Ezra Miller), a teenager who, in an all-too-familiar scenario, shoots up a high school. Kevin’s actions certainly lack the moral ambiguity of a typical Ramsay character, however the focus on the indeterminate influence of parents on a person’s conscience seems like perfect fodder for her dark, lyrical work.

Helen Schumacher is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She last wrote in these pages about Homicide: Life on the Street. She tumbls here and here.

"Half Ton Load" - Icarus Himself (mp3)

"Digging Holes" - Icarus Himself (mp3)

"Cadaver Love Song" - Icarus Himself (mp3)


Friday
Jan142011

In Which Bonnard and Vuillard Create Unfamiliar Masterpieces

Vuillard & Bonnard

by HILTON KRAMER

The career of Edouard Vuillard evokes for us today a world almost as remote from the tensions and pressures of contemporary life as the world of Fragonard. It is a world in which the cultivated bourgeoisie is still secure in its privileges and taste — a world in which art, money, comfort, talent, and new ideas exist in an untroubled harmony, a world insulated from catastrophe.

the library

It is not, to be sure, a world devoid of conflict. Far from it. Even if there were not ample evidence in Vuillard's own work of a certain (albeit muffled) malaise, his close association with the first Paris productions of Ibsen would be enough to remind us of what the real life of the middle class was in this period of surface placidity. But it is a world to which Proust and Gide are better guides than either Marx or Freud. It is, above all, a world in which art remains supremely confident of its value and destiny.

the stevedores

In this world Vuillard himself cuts an attractive figure — a man lucky in his friendships, loyal in his family attachments, secure in his talent, and altogether benign in his personal and social relations. Those who knew him invariably wrote about him with affection and respect. No artist of the modern era stands a greater distance from the legendary suffering of the peintre maudit.

Yet there was, after all, something not quite right — something definitely wrong, in fact, in what happened to his art. His masterpieces came early and, for the most part, remained small. Their power is undiminished, and their complexity, perhaps, is now more apparent than ever — the sheer compression of Vuillard's paintings of the nineties has the effect of a new revelation to eyes that have become habituated to pictures than are nothing more than vast expanses of uninflected color.

two seamstresses in the workroom, 1893

Vuillard's paintings are, in every respect but one, a virtual catalogue of what we no longer expect painting to be. Small though they are, they are nonetheless abundant in visual incident. They are at once exquisite and toughminded in their minuscule accretions of observation — observation acutely transmuted into its chromatic constituents. They also boast an extraordinary charm — an almost literary charm, rich in the atmosphere of familiar life observed firsthand, rich in the humor of common experience, yet everywhere touched with a gravity that is never solemn. They are indeed a remarkable combination of pictorial probity and autobiographical evocation.

The one respect in which Vuillard's small paintings of the nineties are linked to what painting — abstract painting, anyway — has now become is in their radical reduction of every form to a "flat" field of color that articulates a continuous decorative surface. In Vuillard's painting of this period - indeed, in the best of his painting of any period — we are still made to feel the tension that inheres in this synthesis of affectionate observation and a strong decorative impulse.

The peculiar power of Vuillard's art is, I should say, to be found precisely in this tension, which confers on subjects an almost humdrum modesty — domestic interiors, relaxed portraits of family and friends, cafe and theater scenes, etc. — an eloquence out of all proportion to their intrinsic interest or to the actual size of the pictures themselves.

the yellow curtain, 1893

The complaint about the small size of Vuilllard's pictures — in effect, a complaint about the small size of his ambition — came early, and unfortunately, Vuillard himself shared in it. What he most wished to produce were large decorative panels for architectural settings — and, alas, he succeeded, over and over again. He was well connected, first with private patrons and then with the agencies that presided over public commissions. A good deal of Vuillard's professional life was given over to these decorative tasks in which, curiously enough, he gradually abandoned the strengths of his early "flat" style in favor of a more conventional depiction of objects and figures in space. It was left to his friend Bonnard — and even more, to Matisse — to produce the kind of aesthetically effective large-scale decorative work that one had reason to expect of Vuillard on the basis of his early painting.

If one looks for reasons for this evident decline, they will be found, I think, in Vuillard's steadfast attachment to the world that first nourished him — that world of cultivated bourgeois taste which reached a kind of crescendo in the aestheticism of the belle epoque and which was never afterward to regain its confidence or its elan. Lacking the large emotional resources that sustained Bonnard and Matisse, Vuillard's sensibility remained totally enclosed within the ethos of that world, which, in the last decades of his career, had become a world of bloodless phantoms.

The Vuillard exhibition that Mario Amaya has now organized at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto has the great virtue of concentrating on the artist's small easel paintings — which is to say, on Vuillard at his best. There are some later, larger works among the ninety paintings, but they are, with few exceptions, of distinctly secondary interest. The big decorative panels that survive could not be removed from their architectural settings, and so our view of Vuillard the painter is certainly not complete in this exhibition, but not everyone will regard this as a misfortune.

Included also are fifty-seven lithographs (Vuillard's complete output in this medium), nineteen drawings, and — a welcome surprise — twenty-three of the artist's own photographs. At least one of the latter — Vuillard's photograph of Thadee Natanson and his wife, Misia, taken at their home in the rue St. Florentine, Paris around 1898, can certainly claim an aesthetic interest equal to the marvelous paintings he was producing at the time.

The Toronto show has been selected by John Russell, who also wrote the valuable text for the catalogue and has, in addition, placed us all in his debt by including in this publication an extensive selection of commentaries on Vuillard written by his contemporaries. Mr. Russell's own essay gives us a vivid account of Vuillard's career and is especially good on the Revue Blanche milieu and on the artist's connections with the avant-garde theater in the nineties. Mr. Russell seems to be of two minds about Vuillard's decorative commissions, but in general he is a most reliable and delightful guide to the vicissitudes of the artist's life and work.

He has also ferreted out some unfamiliar masterpieces. The landscape called "The Saltings" is surely one of the greatest of Vuillard's paintings, a miracle of chromatic subtlety. But the exhbition abound in excellent pictures both familiar and unfamiliar — the wonderful domestic scenes and family portraits of the nineties especially, in which Vuillard seemed (as an artist as well as a man) most completely at home.

In the work of Pierre Bonnard we encounter pictorial world so enchanting in its delicacy of observation, so pleasurable in its careful evocation of time, place, atmosphere, and the feelings they engender, that we are sometimes in danger of overlooking one of the essential constituents of his art — its extraordinary rigor. Visual felicities abound in such profusion, gratifying the eye's appetite with such a surfeit of retinal delectation, that we hardly feel called upon to search out the source of our pleasure. There is a temptation to succumb to the paradise of sensation that is so abundant in Bonnard without ever bothering to consider what it is that makes his art at once so appealing and so strong.

the bedroom

For it is, after all, an amazingly tough-minded art that Bonnard has left us. Out of what once seemed to be the last promising remnants of the Impressionist tradition, Bonnard fashioned a pictorial style that looks more original and more daring now than it did in his lifetime. (He died in 1947 at the age of seventy-nine.) Picasso was not alone in his harsh judgment of Bonnard works. "Don't talk to me about Bonnard," Francoise Gilot reports Picasso as saying. "That's not painting, what he does." And indeed, for many tastes less distinguished than Picasso's Bonnard did not measure up to what a "big" painter was expected to be doing.

Picasso's mistaken judgment is worth pursuing, however, because it contains — not surprisingly — some real clues to Bonnard's genius. "He never goes beyond his own sensibility," Picasso declared, "He doesn't know how to choose." The result, Picasso insisted, was "a potpourri of indecision."

"Painting," according to Picasso, "isn't a question of sensibility; it's a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice." Bonnard is condemned as "just another neo-Impressionist, a decadent; the end of an old idea, not the beginning of a new one." And then, in summing up his aversion to everything Bonnard represents. Picasso isolates very precisely the special strength and originality to be found in this artist.

"Another thing I hold against Bonnard," the quotation in Life With Picasso continues, "is the way he fills up the whole picture surface, to form a continuous field, with a kind of imperceptible quivering, touch by touch, centimeter by centimeter, but with a total absence of contrast. There's never a juxtaposition of black and white, of square and circle, sharp point and curve. It's an extremely orchestrated surface developed like an organic whole, but you never once get the big clash of the cymbals which that kind of strong contrast provides."

beside the sea, underneath the trees

All in all, not a bad account of what makes Bonnard's art, in addition to being so pleasurable to the eye, such a rich source of pictorial ideas. Picasso was wrong, of course, about the artist not knowing how to choose. Bonnard was flawless in his control of the selection as well as the accretion of detail in his work. He was a master at placing not only those beguiling touches of color Picasso so abominated by also the forms that contain them — forms that were completely his own, a pictorial invention of a high order, derived with great subtlety from the very wish to create a picture surface that would form "a continuous field." And this "extremely orchestrated surface developed like an organic whole" turned out to be the very opposite of "the end of an old idea." It turned out, indeed, to be "the beginning of a new one," as the enormous quantity of color-field painting is there to attest.

That this accomplishment was not merely a matter of slavishly looking to nature for "information and good advice " is evident enough in the paintings, I should think, but if we needed any further evidence of Bonnard's inventive genius — of his exceptional gift for turning every observation into an arresting pictorial idea — we now have it in the superlative exhibition of his drawings organized by the American Federation of Arts and currently on view at the Finch College Museum of Art.

This is a wonderful show, and all the more welcome because Bonnard's drawings are so rarely exhibited. Here we have 114 works from the collection of Mrs. Kyra Gerard and Alfred Ayrton. They cover the entire range of his career from 1893 to 1946. They are all very modest in size, and yet extremely rich in the way they race the vicissitudes of Bonnard's pictorial development. Many of the tiny pencil drawings, particularly of landscape subjects, are, in effect, large pictorial statements in miniature. It is breathtaking to see how many tones, how many kinds of marks and touches, how many nuances of light and space Bonnard was able again and again to create in a few square inches of the paper surface with his inspired pencil. Here, too, only without recourse to color, we find the artist creating those incredibly sensuous "continuous fields" of pictorial invention out of an affectionate observation of familiar landscapes and interiors.

the french windowThe method employed in most of these drawings is extremely informal, relaxed, and low-keyed. Nothing is highly polished, nothing "finished" in the grand manner. They are filled with squiggles and scrawls of an artist who is more interested in setting down an immediate impression than in working up an elaborate account of what he sees. And yet they are in the end very elaborate indeed — elaborate in the completeness with which so many subtle details are depicted and organized without being literally rendered. These are, after all, the drawings of a great colorist determined to make us feel the visual effect of color in all its delicate nuances through another medium. They certainly give the lie to any notion of "indecision" in Bonnard. They are, if anything, extremely single-minded, ruthlessly omitting everything that does not contribute something essential to the idea — the pictorial idea — they are intended to serve.

And yet, with no loss of that rigor that was an essential part of Bonnard's seriousness, with what good humor these drawings were done! There is a good deal of comedy in them, and much affection — as indeed there are in the paintings. If there is no "big clash of the cymbals," there is something more appealing and more durable — the chamber music of the French aesthetic sensibility at its finest. In Bonnard, as in much of the greatest French art, the hedonist lives on easy terms with the analytical intelligence. It is a synthesis of mind and emotion no other art has yet equaled — or displaced.

1971-72

bonnard's house

"Thriller Escapade" - Mini Mansions (mp3)

"The Room Outside" - Mini Mansions (mp3)

"Majik Marker" - Mini Mansions (mp3)

Thursday
Jan132011

In Which Fairfield Porter Looked So Young For His Age

Insolent Love

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Use your ego as much as possible for creative efforts because though love is mostly ego, much more than it is sex, right now you are frustrated egotistically in the love direction, so you have to find some substitute. It will not make you any happier, for sublimation is not possible, but it will count in the future.

— Fairfield Porter, letter to Larry Rivers

This past summer, the Michael Rosenfeld gallery exhibited a few of Fairfield Porter's paintings of places surrounding his family's summer home in Great Spruce Head, Maine. It was a little underwhelming. For I have always thought that beneath Porter's ostensibly placid paintings lurks something more, evidence of his greatness in the form, if you know the right places to look. Although literature is often easy to enjoy without knowledge of its author, visual art is a different story, and Porter lived passionately in an interesting time and place.

The Roofs of Cambridge, 1927

He was born to a great American family in 1907. Despite the fact that half of Harvard was related to him by blood, Porter ignored his studies during his years there. He resented the introductory art class that allowed him to move on in the field, complaining to his mother that the course "was all theory about colors and so forth and we do silly little painting exercises like making circles of gray, red and blue, etc, varying in value and intensity. And I had to buy $16 worth of apparatus for even that."

with his mother in 1910

That he was failed by our country's educational system doesn't make Porter an iconoclast. Most genuises do terribly in American schools, no matter their background. Nevertheless, he continued his art history education, and near the end of his time at the school decided to become a painter.

Later he reflected on that decision, saying, "When I decided to study art, art was considered of peripheral importance; the artist or poet was thought to be outside of the mainstream of life. I remember a neighbor whom I respected very much, who was disturbed by my decision, and told me so. This man was a businessman, and at the same time an inventor and a poet. He told me that his first reaction to anyone's wanting to be an artist was the thought that this meant deciding in favor of triviality. Then he thought of the Vatican Torso, the piece of antique sculpture which Michelangelo said was his master. Triviality meant to him decorative objects."

After school, Porter immediately went to Greenwich Village. He met many influential figures in the art world, but soon grew tired of so many poseurs. Coming from a distinguished, upper-class family, he had no need to limit himself to pretending that's all he was. Fairfield was also shy. The woman who was to become his wife described first meeting her future husband:

I liked him. He was very simple and direct. Very unaffected. Most Harvard boys talked about how many beers they could hold; Fairfield and I talked about Dostoyevsky. I remember he had a penknife and he was using it on the table, working at it, trying to make the table fall apart. I remember I got on the other end to see if I could do the same. Not to be destructive, just to see if it was possible to make the picnic table fall apart.

Anne Channing also came to be disgusted by higher education, in her case, life at Bryn Mawr. She transferred to Radcliffe and finished her studies there near her parents' Wareham home.

Meanwhile, Fairfield explored the edges of his sexuality on an extended trip through Europe. He always considered himself bisexual, and many of his later friends would be homosexual poets. His first emotional love relationship with a man was with the athletic, fit Oxford student Arthur Giardelli. Much later, he wrote Giardelli reflecting on their time together in Florence:

I think of you very often. You meant a great deal to me, and it means much to me that you remember and write. I don't think that I will write more now. I would like to, but I have lost the sense of who and what you are, and any letter in such a case is like a message in a bottle. You get it but who are you now and did I ever know who you were? Does one ever know another person?

And the doubt must be greater when there is such an inarticulate intimacy as we had; we were shy with each other. I think our importance to each other came from something each of us had to give in the way of support that the other needed and had not really found before. For instance I, as an American, had no interest whatsoever in the social concerns you could not avoid as a poor boy, a scholarship student at Oxford, where as you told me your grandparents' humble origin would have made a curiosity of you if your friends knew it. And what you gave me was something equal and opposite; if you had been an American I would have been afraid of you and considered you beyond me because of your good looks and ordinary athletic abilities. I hadn't such a friend as you at home; but suddenly I had one in Florence, the unattainable became simple. For this I am always grateful. These things count, I hope you know, and I hope what I say will not seem strange to you. I loved you, and I think you loved me.

For Porter to write of this experience endured in his youth again in 1957, says that a part of him never really changed. And, indeed, Porter's combination of callousness and concern for others lasted throughout his life. He hated small talk, and received much from his intellectual equals, including the woman who would become his lifetime companion.

During his travels through Europe, Porter continued to write to Anne. He fell in love with her through her letters, and perhaps his experience with Giardelli helped in allowing him to truly empathize with another for the first time; especially one outside his social class. He was also coming into his own. A young painter named Frank Rogers recalled a chance remark of Porter's made on the high speed train: "Don't you sometimes feel that you're just wonderful? I do. Sometimes I'm so wonderful I want to tell everyone; they ought to know it. It isn't right that they don't."

In May of 1932 Porter returned to New York. He attempted to feel closer to Anne, but soon after they spent a few weeks together he told her "we aren't clicking at all." Nevertheless he proposed to her later that summer at his family's compound, in a rather annoying way. Anne recalled him asking, "Do you think if we got engaged they'd let you stay all summer?" As they pulled away from their September wedding, the car stalled.

Porter's artistic career began in earnest soon afterwards. It was the middle of the Depression, a fact that kept down their rent and buyers away from Fairfield's early paintings. Anne suffered a miscarriage, and was surprised at how little sympathy her husband showed her. Eventually the Porters found they were happier, for a time with Anne in New England, and Fairfield freer to express himself sexually and artistically in New York.

A young Trotskyite, Porter affiliated himself with various associations of artists, but when he was not in the studio, he tried to instruct himself in painting by copying the classics in the Met. Two years after their wedding, Anne had a child, John, and Fairfield was a father for the first time. Although Porter was initially attached to the child, the boy's sickness involved excessive crying, and it drove him out of the house, into various leftist political causes. Among his friends, Fairfield was a rarity — married with child while other bohemians constantly fucked around. The young family moved to the Chicago suburb of Winnetka because of their son's health situation, which would torment the family throughout his schizophrenic adolescence, and even after that.

Porter's first artistic successes came about primarily because of his mother Ruth's influence. His early work in political murals had started to give way to watercolor, however, and his development reached a turning point when he saw the work of Edouard Vuillard.

A 1938 exhibition of Bonnard and Vuillard had a tremendous effect on Fairfield. Porter later told Paul Cummings that "I looked at the Vuillards and thought...Why does one think of doing anything else when it's so natural to do this? ... When Bill was first influenced, you know, by modern art, it was Picasso he was emulating. With me it was Vuillard."

In Justin Spring's fascinating biography of Porter, he describes how the artist also felt a similar kinship with the work of Pierre Bonnard: "They say it's too nice. What do they meant by that? They mean it's too pretty. They might mean it's saccharine. They might also mean that they can't approve of the emotion it gives them." Porter's paintings began to focus on bringing out that same kind of emotion.

In 1940 the Porters returned to New York, now with two children in tow. Anne had thought herself unable to conceive again as a result of Malta Fever, but she became pregnant again. Fairfield was less than pleased by this development, finding the responsibility of the children interfered with his work. Then Porter met the beautiful, flirtatious Ilse Hamm. Hamm was a younger, more exciting version of his wife — they even looked alike. Porter never entered in serious romantic congress with Hamm, but nevertheless told his wife he loved her. (Anne was pregnant at the time with their son.) Hamm enjoyed Porter's attentions, but had no desire to sleep with him.

Fairfield's relationship with Hamm was a precursor to the many nonsexual — and sexual — intimacies he created outside of his marriage. Unexpectedly, Anne Porter and the Jewish refugee Hamm bonded as outsiders to the Porter family, and when Fairfield went to California the following summer, Anne wrote to Ilse and asked for her help with the children. Ilse Hamm later married Fairfield's friend Paul Mattick, causing Porter to slash his own portrait of Mattick with a knife. Fairfield's plan to live with Anne and Ilse "in a triangle way" had died, and then his mother Ruth did, too. 

Anne and Fairfield settled into a new life at E. 52nd Street, in a three story house. She began sleeping with another man, and Porter began pursuing the philosophy of free love. He rented an apartment in Chelsea to serve as his studio/getaway. The couple let out the upstairs rooms of their Midtown house to two black students, and the Porters began to lose some of the trappings of their previous lives, as Fairfield's interest in Communism died the true death. For a time, the house was a kind of commune.

Porter took a few lessons from the Belgian painter Georges Van Houten, but his latest inspiration was the paintings of Diego Velazquez. Of the Spanish master, Fairfield commented, "I admired what might be called understatement. Although I don't like that word, really.... He leaves things alone. He is open to it rather than wanting to twist it. I think there's more there than there is in willful manipulation.... I used to like Dostoyevsky very, very, very much. Now I prefer Tolstoy, for the same reason."

By the time Porter was 40, he and Anne were together again in spirit as well as body, for they never stopped having sex even during his affairs. A lack of recognition in the art world bothered him, but he was reassured by the attitude of his friend Willem de Kooning, who dismissed fame as the caprice of idiots and sycophants. Porter tremendously admired de Kooning and purchased many of his paintings, as well as writing the first reviews of his work that would appear in print.

At the end of the forties, the Porters moved to Southampton, buying a seven bedroom home for $25,000. The house met Fairfield's aesthetic approval and would become the scene of many famous paintings. Porter's political views and bohemian lifestyle during his youth had amounted to a rejection of his patrician background, but now he seemed to be making a move towards the bourgeois. As a nod to his former lifestyle, he rarely repaired the house or kept up the substantial grounds. As an artist, he still felt like an utter failure.

Fairfield kept an apartment on Avenue A, and began to integrate himself into the next generation of poets and artists. His attraction to the young gay poet James Schuyler verged on romance, and Fairfield began to explore his bisexuality. The younger crowd looked up to Fairfield and admired his work, and Elaine de Kooning recommended him to Art News, where he began his second life as a critic. Fairfield's politics had influenced the faux working-class realism of his first paintings, but the attraction of the art world to Abstract Expressionism was, in part, a rejection of those communist ideas. Now the painter began creating a new critical vocabulary similarly absent from political value.


Already nearing his late 40s, Fairfield was still pursuing a doctrine of free love, but in this case his target was (for a short time) the poet John Ashbery. Encouraged by his new buddies, Fairfield began writing poetry again, penning the following about Ashbery:

Young man with the narrow waist and thin
Arms, and heavy beautiful thighs of youth,
Whose green eyes under a foxy brush of
Fair hair regard me with insolent love

Porter's friendships with Ashbery and the painter Jane Freilicher would last through his life, but it was the schizophrenic Schuyler who would become a part of Fairfield's young family.

Fairfield enjoyed having the young clique at Great Spruce Head, and his children were particularly fond of Frank O'Hara. With Fairfield's six-year old daughter Katharine, Frank composed the following poem:

They say I mope too much
but really I'm loudly dancing.
I eat paper. It's good for my bone.
I play the piano pedal. I dance,
I am never quiet, I mean silent.
Some day I'll love Frank O'Hara.
I think I'll be alone for a little while.

James Schuyler
became a particularly constructive/destructive figure in the life of the Porters, in some ways playing the identical role than Ilse Hamm had filled in the family. The proverbial honeymoon was lovely, but the impoverished poet eventually took advantage of Fairfield, manipulating his affections for financial and emotional gain. Despite other people's opinions of Schuyler, the Porters continue to welcome him as a guest in their many homes.

breakfasting with schuyler in 1942

When Fairfield had an important opening at Tibor de Nagy in March of 1959, O'Hara and Schuyler didn't even show up. Porter responded to this snub by approaching Frank later and telling him, "You're a shit," according to a letter Freilicher wrote to John Ashbery. 

Like Frank O'Hara, the Porters were eventually turned off by the 'sleazy' Schuyler's need for control, although he returned to their good graces later in his life. This partial disillusionment with the poets who had been his friends seemed to force a change in Porter's life. He stopped reviewing for Art News in favor of writing for The Nation (they paid twice as much), and began to teach. He sold a few of his de Koonings for a small fortune.

Schuyler's first mental breakdown in 1960 brought him closer together to the Porters for a time, but it would ultimately only set him on a more destructive path. After leaving his New Haven Hospital, Fairfield picked him up. They would get on tolerably well until Schuyler reviewed Fairfield's 1962 exhibition from a psychological perspective. No doubt he could not help it, seeing demons even in places of light that the paintings held. Porter responded to Schuyler's article in a letter: "There is always psychological content. The psychological content may be what it seems, or it may be the opposite. There is psychological content to a slap in the face, or a smile at a baby, but it does not follow from this that there is art." Of Porter's close relationship with his critics, Justin Spring writes that, "Had Porter been more successful during his lifetime, the question of influence might have been raised. But he was not."


Politically, Porter's growing hatred of government, borne out of the way European cultural institutions were treated during World War II, resulted in him refusing a commission from the Art in Embassies program. He was relatively hard up for cash at this point, what with his wife, four children and Schuyler to support, but as was his custom, he never let common sense get in the way of his convictions. He even declined a university appointment in Illinois because he didn't like the architecture of Carbondale.

When Anne came down with hepatitis in 1963, Porter's paintings moved indoors, capturing the play of light in the interiors of his home. These were the most successful paintings of his career, both financially and artistically, feeding off the influence of the artist Alex Katz, who he admired and had reviewed. His masterpiece The Screen Porch became one of his most famous works - in the Porter family it became known as "The Four Ugly People" - and it is a frightening painting, incredibly resonant in its emotional complexity and as revealing as a church confession, with his wife outside watching her children and Schuyler in an homage to Velazquez.

Though there was some critical blowback to what some believed was Porter's bourgeois subject matter, Porter's creative process was anything but lax. He burned so many of his paintings that he had a special incinerator built for the purpose in his backyard. This was something of a blessing to history; for it is only his best works that survive, those imbued with the quiet passion of a man who could set his art in order easier than he could his own family life.

By the end of the 1960s the Porters had their fill of Schuyler and Fairfield asked him to leave the house. (The poet demurred.) His wife felt increasingly uncomfortable around the poet's depression, and made plans to replace him with a golden retriever, Bruno. Walking the dog was recommended for the aging Fairfield's health, but he tripped over Bruno's leash in 1967 and broke his arm, which temporarily limited his ability to paint. At the same time, Fairfield was reaching a mental wall. Spring attributes his lack of new work to his success - he now had money enough to live without worry, and his reputation had to a certain extent "plateaued."

napping with Bruno

Schuyler's behavior became increasingly more erratic. While staying in Fairfield's Southampton home with the poet Ron Padgett, he threatened to kill the Padgett's young son. Friends committed him to the state mental institution, but it wasn't long before he had to be escorted back there, with John Ashbery keeping him company in the back of a patrol car. Ironically, Schuyler wrote some of his finest poetry during this period, but he also wrote savage letters to Fairfield and Anne, criticizing them in the harshest possible terms and then asking them for $5,000 for his married lover's "business."

As he transitioned into old age, Porter's interests became more eccentric. His wife had become a Catholic many years earlier, baptized on the Upper East Side, but, as a subscriber to Fate, Porter's new tastes verged more on the mystic and spiritual. He viewed the rise of technology with some concern, as most seniors do, and he became interested in the paranormal. Still his command of his interests remained fully within his intellectual control. Rather than blame himself for the troubled life of his first born, he blamed science!

The Harbor - Great Spruce Head 1974

And yet when it came to the visual arts, he found much to admire in his contemporaries, harboring a special appreciation for the work of David Hockney. He wrote to a confined, drugged-out Schuyler that "I have painted several sunrises, with the sun in the picture, from the rocks below the house, except one from the porch. It works, more or less. I was trying to emulate the David Hockney painting I saw a few years ago, that amazed me." During a walk with Bruno in September of 1975, Porter suffered a massive coronary and died immediately. He had looked so young for his age of 68 that it came as something of a shock to his friends and family. Schuyler didn't attend the funeral, just as he had not after O'Hara's death in car accident.

A Sudden Change of Wind, 1975

Fairfield's dual role as an artist and critic was something of a rarity. He was as talented a writer as he was an artist, and his collection of art cricitism, Art On Its Own Terms, has become a classic in its own right. His textured renderings of light approach and even exceed the grasp of his Abstract Expressionist peers. His many admirers and friends, many of whom became more famous than he could have imagined at the time of his death, have helped burnish his reputation as an artist.

Even after Schuyler had done many, many unpardonable things to him, the Porters did much for the troubled poet. This is an impressive testament to their good nature; Anne Porter even earmarked money for Schuyler's medical care after Fairfield had passed, as did Kenward Elmslie and many others. In a way, the fashion in which the group treated Schuyler was an attempt to erase guilt that generation felt at living as they did.

Fathers improve with age, and Fairfield's later children for the most part fared better than his early ones. So it was with his painting. He got better at life over time, and this is no small thing to say about a person, let alone an artist whose talent ran against the grain of the non-representational work of the time in which he lived.

Yet calling Fairfield Porter a realist is off the mark. His work does the opposite of abandoning the spiritual, it embraces the mystical, in the everyday expressions and places of his life. He had no other. So many of the finest painters of Porter's generation were immigrants from Europe who became impressive Americans. Despite not having to strive, he strove, working towards a recognition he would achieve only in death.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about Sofia Coppola's Somewhere.

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ashbery and schuyler at Great Spruce Head, 1966

"Down by the Water" - The Decemberists (mp3)

"All Arise" - The Decemberists (mp3)

"This Is Why We Fight" - The Decemberists (mp3)

Back row, from left: Lisa De Kooning, Frank Perry, Eleanor Perry, John Bernard Myers, Anne and Fairfield Porter, Angelo Torricini, Arthur Gold, Jane Wilson, Kenward Elmslie, Paul Brach, Jerry Porter, Nancy Word, Katharine Porter, unidentified woman. Second row: Joe Hazan, Clarice Rivers, Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, Miriam Shapiro, Robert Fizdale, Jane Freilicher, Joan Ward, John Kacere, Sylvia Maizell. Sitting and kneeling in front: Stephen Rivers, Bill Berkson, Frank O'Hara, Willem de Kooning, Alvin Novak. Photo by John Jonas Gruen.