Wednesday, July 28, 2010

At the Museum: Fairfield Porter

The recently re-installed Stairwell Gallery features contemporary American art from the Museum collection selected by members of the staff. Each staff member was given the opportunity to visit the vaults and choose a favorite work from the American collection for this show. The goal of this show is to bring a new perspective into the galleries, and remind our visitors that every exhibition at a museum is the result of whole team of folks “behind the scenes.”

One of the paintings selected, Fairfield Porter’s The Tennis Game, is a perennial favorite with visitors. Acquired from the artist in 1973, the large oil on canvas depicts a game of doubles on a tennis court surrounded by rich green foliage. The setting was the Porter family’s summer home, Great Spruce Head Island, Maine. The concrete tennis court, which had been built just before World War I, provides a pale color field upon which four figures are distributed. Porter began working on this composition during the summer of 1970, but did not resolve it to his satisfaction until two years later. One often thinks of tennis as a fast-moving game, but Porter’s figures are static; this is clearly a pause in the game. The figure farthest back is preparing to hit the ball; it hovers, suspended in mid-air, just above his racquet. The nearest figure (in blue) is not yet in the bent-knee position one would expect from a player preparing to return. This is a casual summer set between family members, and the languid feeling of the canvas reflects that. Porter subtly uses the repetition of the ovals of the racquets (and their shadows) to draw the viewer’s eye back into the canvas. He also contrasts the geometry of the net and the fence with the irregular vertical forms of the trees and the figures. This is a painting that seems simple, but is complex enough to bear up to prolonged scrutiny.

Porter’s work, often called “Figurative Expressionism,” followed directly upon that of a slightly older generation of artists, the Abstract Expressionists. They rejected representational imagery in favor of pure composition, color, line and gesture; whereas Porter and his contemporaries, such as Elaine de Kooning and Larry Rivers, opted to use the figure, the landscape, and other imagery as neutral elements of the composition. This is not a picture about personalities, interpersonal drama, or even the identity of the players, whose faces remain anonymous. This is a picture about the relationship between greens, whites, and blues; the complex interaction of the vertical and diagonal lines; and the feeling of the rest and relaxation of summering on a remote island.

In a way, The Tennis Game feels like the immediate descendant of Claude Monet’s Parisian vacationers, lounging at the beach side or playing croquet in the dappled shade. Porter, like Monet, depicts the tranquil leisure time of affluent city-dwellers. Another painting in the Museum collection, Kate Freeman Clark’s Return from the Shore, (currently hanging in the American Gallery) depicts exactly the same kind of summer leisure, albeit sixty years earlier. This subject matter - the everyday stuff of modern life, things of no great political or historical import - was very much the emphasis of the French Realists, who inspired the French and American Impressionists, to whom both the Abstract and Figurative Expressionists, such as Porter, acknowledged their debt.

Fairfield Porter’s The Tennis Game, and eighteen other works in the exhibition “Our Favorite Things,” will be on display in the Stairwell Gallery until November of this year.

Jill R. Chancey, PhD, is curator of the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art.

Fairfield Porter (1907-1975)
The Tennis Game, 1972
Oil on canvas
A Lauren Rogers Museum purchase in part with funds from Mississippi Arts Commission, 73.78

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