Finding Fairfield

I was living on South Main Street in Southampton in the early 1980s, and I noticed what looked to be a vacant studio next door. I went to the main house and knocked on the door, and an elderly woman answered. I inquired about the studio, if it might be rented. The woman was Anne Porter, and she said yes right there on the spot, but that it would be available starting in one year.

 The year passed, and I moved in. The working space of the old barn was up a narrow staircase to the loft where hay was once kept. It was my first proper studio, and I felt immediately at home.

There were storage racks on the ground floor, and tucked in to the back of one of them was a roll of linen. I passed it a few times, and curiosity finally made me pull it out and unravel it. The roll contained about 25 oils by the studio’s previous tenant, Anne’s husband, Fairfield Porter. A critic and a painter, Porter had died in 1975.

I took the paintings to Anne, and in her kitchen we peeled through the work. It was an odd group, probably considered not worthy of keeping by Porter. He was wrong. The works were a mix of early and late Porters. The early canvasses had the stamp of Thomas Hart Benton, a teacher of Porter’s, and the later works bore the influence of his friend and neighbor Larry Rivers. Some of the pieces were mature and wonderful.

 Anne was thrilled to see them again, and grateful, and some weeks later she gave me a small watercolor (below) with an image of a bus careening around a corner in Rome. The sheet had images on both sides of the same bus and was painted by Porter during a trip to Europe and Russia in the early 1930s.

I worked in that studio for 25 years. I’d grown up in Hawaii, and after that had been a traveling gypsy. Then I stumbled on the Porters, and so much came together for me in their barn. It launched my career as a painter. I grew close to Anne and her family. They, in a way, became my East Coast family.

When Anne aged into her 80s she sold the property. I moved to my new studio in Tuckahoe, where I work today.

Some years ago I decided to offer the watercolor Anne gave to me to Guild Hall in East Hampton. I talked with Anne about it, and she thought it was a good idea. I called Guild Hall, and they were thrilled, adding that it would be an excellent addition to their collection, and that they had only a few of Porter’s works.

 I wasn’t surprised. While greatly appreciated by his artist friends, foremost among them Willem de Kooning, Porter was the tortoise of the group. Broader recognition of his work moved steadily but slowly, and really only came to full bloom long after his death. That old chestnut.

Something occurred to me much later: how museums often miss important artists. Yet, artists often know who’s who, and the phrase “an artist’s artist” describes it. Porter was an artist’s artist. I had a vision of our area’s museum brass getting in their automobiles and making the short trip to Porter’s and many of his colleagues’ studios in the 1950s. Artists like being in museums’ permanent collections. Porter would have gladly given them a canvas — maybe even two.

Which brings to mind Van Gogh. Most of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were “shown the door” in favor of the more academic painters of their time. The famous result being the event dubbed the Salon des Refusés (The Exhibition of the Rejects), a show by artists whose work had been rejected by the Paris Salon. The original Refusés show, featuring such rejects as Manet and Pissaro, spawned an annual exhibit of work by “independents,” as they came to be known, including Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat, and Cezanne.

The trick and the challenge is to be as tuned in to the here and now as was the great French art dealer Ambroise Vollard. He made a career of finding and supporting great artists before anyone else, Picasso, Renoir, and Van Gogh among them. If anyone ever had his ear to the rail it was good old Vollard, ahead of the curve by miles.

Stories like Vollard’s and Porter’s are inspirations to anyone making art, whether we want to be discovered, or toil in happy obscurity.

Paton Miller, an artist who works and lives in Tuckahoe, is the curator of “East End Collected,” an annual survey of artists and artwork currently working on the South Fork. In two shows over the past two years, “East End Collected” at the Southampton Cultural Center showed 70 artists and 150 works of art.

Paton Miller