at the CompassRose Gallery

Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) was born in Winnetka and graduated from New Trier High School, and he was first exhibited in Chicago, but somehow his native city never cared much for him. He left for New York in the 30s and spent the rest of his long career writing and painting in New York. (He was a critic for such publications as ARTnews, The Nation, and Art in America and championed the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning.) Until now his work has not been widely shown in Chicago and many of his earlier or more significant works have never been seen here. This is being corrected at the debut exhibition “Fairfield Porter: Pictures and Words,” at the new CompassRose Gallery.

Rare, seminal works included in this exhibit reveal Porter’s early influences, his quick mastery of those, and their effect on his later works. His Maine Interior With Ship Model, which is being shown for the first time (it was originally bought directly from Porter’s studio and remained in a British collection thereafter), demonstrates the effect on his work of one of the most gifted postimpressionists, Edouard Vuillard. Like many of Vuillard’s pieces, Maine Interior With Ship Model is an intimate interior scene, and it contains a frequent Vuillard motif, a person reading a newspaper in the foreground. But the setting is more hazily depicted than most of Vuillard’s, looking as if it had been photographed by a camera with Vaseline smeared on the lens.

The piece is shrouded in diaphanous warmth. The floor area is bathed in burnt sienna, the rest is so permeated by ocher that the rounded lamps are barely distinguishable from the background. But within the mist brilliant spots of color can be identified, and through vertical rectangles representing doors sunlight is depicted by squares of radiant orange and yellow. As in many of Vuillard’s paintings, these bright spots provide the occasional vivid contrast to predominating low-key tones: a pink blanket on a chair and a white open door next to it accent the delicate, dim luminosity. This recalls Vermeer, whose interiors Vuillard undoubtedly revered. Here, as in Vermeer’s and Vuillard’s works, a mysterious quiet is suggested, and is heightened by the self-absorption of the figure. Maine Interior is a masterpiece of atmosphere, achieved by Porter’s subduing of every detail of reality.

A second and more typical phase in Porter’s career is represented by Yellow Room, a painting of the same scene as Maine Interior With Ship Model, but done about ten years later. Every object is clearly defined. The area adjacent to the couch, in which in the first painting only a lamp shade can be distinguished, now contains a book-strewn desk and the ginger jar lamp from which the shade was detached.

White paint distinguishes the rounded lights from the background. And the handling of paint and the way it describes objects have changed: paint is thicker now and without soft blending. Porter has become more American, adopting an American impressionistic style, “capturing the moment” with broad strokes of colors. Yet unlike the most American of American painters, Edward Hopper, who was able to capture with keen insight the urban American plight of loneliness and melancholy, and unlike Porter’s own earlier version of the same subject, Yellow Room is devoid of any mood or sentiment.

Another sample of this second phase is October Interior. It is most representative of the type of work for which he became known. It shows an upper-middle-class sun porch, with a housewife seated on one edge of a couch and a lush backyard visible through windows. Here, specific details are noted. The wife is stylishly dressed in a short skirt, sitting in the midst of wicker chairs, potted plants, and a rocking horse. The paint handling is assured and the Vuillard characteristic of not distinguishing between shadows and objects has reached colorful brilliance. The shadows of a pale, straw-colored chair are intense orange, and the wall underneath is pure mauve. In the hands of a lesser artist, the darks of the chair would have been rendered in bland, brownish yellows. The effect of the purple is not garish overload but, because of adept toning, pure luminosity. The room seems drenched in sunlight.

The problem with this and many other of Porter’s works of this time is that technical virtuosity dims their glimpse into, to use Porter’s own words, “the state of the soul of the artist” (“Class Content in American Abstract Painting,” ARTnews, April 1962). These works suffer the same fate as did many by John Singer Sargent: masterful technique (and in Porter’s case, superb sense of color) and hollow expression.

For Porter, these works seem to have been his attempt to reconcile figuration with 20th-century abstraction and its emphasis on accepting the picture plane as a two-dimensional surface — not a flat object for representing three-dimensionality — and its penchant for portraying objects with pure color, instead of realistically with varying shades of one color. Both October Interior and Yellow Room adequately address these modernist tenets. Objects are composed primarily in terms of color — not tones — and neither painting demonstrates any attempt to paint objects as convincing solid items. Nevertheless, the cost of such achievements for Porter was high: formally lifting figuration into abstraction robbed his work of expression.

Porter didn’t seem satisfied with the stiff price, either. He continued to work at the problem, as is evidenced in Twilight, a view of a road at dusk, and Late Afternoon Snow, a landscape covered in snow. Both were done in the 70s, shortly before his death, and indicate a new direction in which he was aiming. In Twilight objects are represented as silhouettes. A car, car lights, and trees are painted as simple shapes, set against and contrasted with an orange-and-blue sky. Accents of thick white paint, reminiscent of the cadmium dabs in Maine Interior With Ship Model, form the headlights. Spare and minimal in its elements, the work still suggests the temper of long car trips at nightfall.

With Twilight, Porter’s artistic progress curves back to his shrewd gifts of atmosphere and poignancy. Unfortunately, his life ended before he was able to resolve for himself the formal problems of abstract figuration. Or perhaps, this was not really the problem. Perhaps, the problem was finding a subject matter that was dear to him, that meant more than a quick visual description, that had remained in his subconscious long enough for him to communicate some of his intensity about it.