By Marianna Levine
When the Parrish Art Museum unveils “Fairfield Porter Raw: The Creative Process of an American Master” on April 11, the public will get a rare chance to view Porter’s work in progress. Porter a 20th Century painter, who resided in Southampton from 1949 until his death in 1975, is famed for his realistic landscapes, interiors, and portraits of family and friends. It was the show’s curator Klaus Ottmann’s intention to exhibit not only the finished, framed “master works” of Porter’s, but also to enhance visitors’ appreciation and understanding of his work through the showcasing of his unfinished canvases and drawings.
“Porter’s studio was a stone’s throw away from the museum, and when he died, his widow gave the Parrish everything that was in it,” Ottmann explained. “This included rolled up canvases, boards with sketches on it, and notebooks as well. I was really taken with the unfinished works, which look quite contemporary and are more abstract. As a whole they are very fresh looking. Normally one wouldn’t show unfinished works, but I thought why not highlight the creative process by showing this work side by side with the finished paintings.”
Through exhibiting Porter’s work in all its many forms and stages, Ottmann states that the show comes close to recreating the experience of visiting an artist’s studio. This is an experience which may be familiar to people working within the arts such as curators and art historians, but not necessarily a common one for the general public. Ottmann decided he liked the idea of democratizing this type of creative encounter.
Parrish executive director Terrie Sultan completely agrees with Ottmann, as she explains “We’ve been trying to present works and do shows from a different perspective (at the Parrish). I think we live in one of the strongest, most active artistic communities in the country, and it seems appropriate that we try and reveal what creative artists go through to get to a finished work.”
Both Ottmann and Sultan would like people who view the show to see and understand that art is not magic but rather another form of work. It is an experience Sultan says she strives to create whenever contemplating what to present to the community.
And yet Sultan is quick to emphasize that this more realistic encounter with art doesn’t have to exclude the transcendent experiences one might have through a communion with a painting or drawing. However she hopes an exhibit like “Raw” will assist people in understanding that there is a real human being behind the works they see on display.
“In most museums the person gets lost in the creative process, and I think the creative process is something everybody should have access to. I feel it’s an important message to give, that there is not a huge gap between our creative community and the rest of us,” Sultan said.
Ottmann, who is showing the unfinished work unframed, and often leaning up against the museum’s walls on specifically installed picture ledges, also thinks seeing the works in progress in all its different guises will inspire people.
“It’s nice to see how an artist will paint on all these different materials. One sees how eager a creative person is and what a strong need they (artists) have to express themselves. You realize Porter used whatever he found around him for his work,” Ottmann says, while explaining that some of the drawings and watercolors are on corrugated cardboard or Masonite boards. Others were even painted on aluminum or asbestos boards.
Ottmann has made sure to leave the raw edges of the unfinished pieces exposed so that people get a chance to see the materiality of the work, which he finds to be very important in experiencing the art.
Throughout his life Porter was very aware of all the experimentation going on in the art world, as he was an art citric as well as a painter; however he made a conscious choice to continue painting in a more traditional and figurative way. Ottmann admires how he “stuck to his guns” despite all that was happening around him during the 50s and 60s.
“He was aware he was a bit of an odd man out, and yet he did publicly say that he was very influenced by the work of de Kooning,” Ottmann notes, while also mentioning that Porter, who was good friends with Willem de Kooning, was very interested in the process of painting. Something that is associated more with abstract expressionism than Porter’s genre of painting.
Both Sultan and Ottmann hope the show will travel to other venues around the country once the exhibition finishes its run here on June 13, but for now this show at the Parrish will be the only way for people to view such a unique cache of Porter’s work. For those who want more information on the show and Porter’s work, the Henry Luce Foundation will also publish a book in conjunction with the show that will be on view and for sale at the Parrish.