Last and best

Fairfield Porter Field Flowers, Fruit and Dishes, 1974 Oil on masonite 18 × 22

Fairfield Porter’s work reached its apogee in the last decade of his life. By today’s standards, he died young, in his late 60s, but his work achieved a new level in those last years, a more photographic clarity, simplicity and balance that seemed to serve as a counterweight to the intentionally awkward-looking, sometimes primitive, way he handled paint. Yet at the same time, in his coastal scenes, he pushed the looseness as far as he could take it to a dazzlingly luminous near-abstraction. In both modes he surpassed much of what he’d done before, though his work all through the 60s was at a new level, as was Burchfield’s, though in a much different way and even more remarkably. Porter always wanted the paint to be what you saw, as much as de Kooning and Vuillard did, both of whom he admired, but in the more precise draftsmanship of that last period, he let you see what he was representing more clearly than ever before. He got out of the way: one hardly noticed how radically he simplified what he saw, eliminating all but the most necessary detail, and it went less noticed because his line was more photographic. In Portrait of Nancy Porter Strauss, The Tennis Game, House with Three Chimneys, Lizzie and Bruno, The Harbor–Great Spruce Head, Still Life 1975, and many others he distilled and refined what he had begun to do in the early 1960s, being bolder and brighter with his simplified areas of color, far more accurate in his line and embracing a realism less French, less Impressionist, harder-edged but, maybe ironically, more and more radiant. There were amazing harbingers of his late mastery, especially The Mirror, his homage to Las Meninas, but also in probably his most complex painting, the utterly controlled The Cove, a depiction of what is probably the Maine coast, one of his favorite subjects, but this time looking in toward the land, at low tide. A lone figure in khaki shorts picks his way across countless rocks toward shallow water. The way in which he simplifies without ever violating the actual look of that uneven littoral path, the muted color of the low mountains and pines, exactly the shift in value they require to indicate their distance, everything precise and not a single extraneous bit of paint applied anywhere–it pointed toward what he would be doing even more powerfully in the 70s. Meanwhile, the almost purely abstract, and paint-besotted, Calm Morning, in 1961, points toward The Ocean, a large square canvas that looks almost minimalist in the abstraction of its layered horizontal tiers of low whitecaps and the thin sheet of lilac tidewater washing back toward the ocean. It’s both uncannily accurate and yet seemingly loose, spontaneous and improvised.

There was a brief, insufficient piece in The Economist about five years ago about the notion of “the late, great work” of famous creative artists: Van Gogh, Beethoven, Ibsen, Goya. Proust died so young that his late work is really almost his only work, which is certainly true of Keats as well, so there’s a confusion at the heart of the thesis: are we talking old age or just the last act in a life of any duration? It’s funny the way the author sticks to its guns by citing work from the minds of those who were falling apart under stress and thus creating work that reflected the inner disintegration and/or withdrawal:

For each of these composers, late style meant something different. Gesualdo had murdered his wife and her lover, and spent his last days in a torment which one can sense in his crazily discordant late works. The emotional devastation of Schumann’s final days becomes starkly evident in his ruthlessly pared-down Gesänge der Frühe (“Songs of Dawn”). The Britten string quartet which Mr Biss has chosen shows the composer delighting in an extreme—and to him quite new—economy of expression. The chaotic middle movement of Mr Biss’s chosen Schubert sonata reflects the composer, who was dying of syphilis, going to pieces in rage and terror. Brahms’s late works suggest a man whose emotional energy has been sapped dry; Beethoven’s suggest the opposite. What links these composers, as Mr Biss points out, is that “with each of them, something has happened to completely change their style”.

Beethoven’s late quartets are indisputably awe-inspiring and maybe the best argument for the thesis that creative flourishing can take a lifetime to nourish. The list to support his thesis is fairly persuasive: the aforementioned Burchfield, Van Gogh, Porter, Matisse with his cut-outs, maybe whatever Stella will be doing before he dies, maybe Rembrandt, Degas, and certainly Monet. My takeaway: there’s hope for all of us who see the traces of youth shrink daily in the rear-view mirror.

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