The Extraordinary is Everywhere
Fairfield Porter at Betty Cuningham Gallery; Tim Kennedy at First Street Gallery; Tula Telfair at Forum Gallery

FAIRFIELD PORTER (1907 - 1975) WAS A LUMINOUS PAINTER whose sensibility ran counter to the pretensions of his contemporaries. At a time when painting was swollen with illusions about art’s grand aims and the artist’s visionary role, Porter devoted himself to the rhythms and locales of daily living.The enduring accomplishment of his art is evident in this welcome and gracious show.

Porter painting
Lizzie at the Table, 1958, Fairfield Porter

As a critic for Art News, Porter reviewed a 1954 retrospective of Edouard Vuillard’s painting at the Museum of Modern Art. What Porter wrote then about Vuillard applies equally to his own work as it developed: “It seems to be ordinary what Vuillard’s doing, but the extraordinary is everywhere.” If the example of de Kooning lent freedom to Porter’s paint handling, Vuillard summoned his soul.

He grasped the beauty of mundane things that pass before we notice them: the character of a child’s slump into sofa cushions, the way light changes everything in view; shadow patterns on snow, the blaze of leaves turning. A celebrant of domesticity—an American Intimist—he found his motifs in friends, family, and the places he lived: mainly Southampton and Maine.

William Agee observed: “Porter’s ideas don’t seem to have much currency today, perhaps. In his view, art does not stand for anything outside itself.” That humility is visible in Porter’s work. Theories are beside the point. What counts are responses to life; and Porter responded from within the embrace of a full family life.

He had four children, one disabled by a condition similar to autism. Ordinariness has its mysteries and its anguish. Porter lived with both yet still, without sentimentality, used painting to declare life good. In contrast to his friends Pollack and de Kooning, he acknowledged the nature of meaning as something that resides outside ourselves. True meaning beckons to be recognized; it is not willed or fabricated. His paintings resonate with the famous, final cry of Georges Bernanos’s country priest: “Grace is everywhere!”

Porter enjoyed a matchless color sense. “Noon” (1962), a deceptively simple back yard scene, builds on the myriad variations of green achieved by delicately adjusted mixtures of blue and yellow. Even the pale yellow house is kissed with blue. The addition cools the house and links its color to the surrounding foliage and sky. “Penobscot Bay with Peak Island” (1966) and “A Short Walk” (1963), with a man and child headed down a woodland path, illustrate his gift for extracting color variation from neutrals. Hard-won mastery of the gray scale, the mark of a true colorist, looks so effortless here.

Walk into the office to view the three paintings inside. The refined lyricism of “Lunch Under the Elm Tree” (1954) has a British lilt to it but for the picnic at the base. And the two smaller portraits here are among his finest, true marriages of description and the physicality of painting.

“Fairfield Porter” at Betty Cuningham Gallery (541 West 25th Street, 212-242-2772).


Kennedy painting
Tim Kennedy, December

TIM KENNEDY IS ONE OF THE FEW CONTEMPORARY PAINTERS following Porter’s thematic lead. A recurring motif is his own house, a 1920 Craftsman bungalow built in an Indiana suburb, and the life within it. His paintings track the movement of light and air through interior spaces, around possessions, across a porch and into the back yard. People move through rooms to read, play cards, dance, sleep or talk. Cluttered vignettes mirror an open and generous love affair with the everyday.

Mr. Kennedy is an ambitious and competent craftsman. Color is lively and knowledgeable; surfaces are appealing in their confidence and painterliness. A cerebral painter at ease with pictorial ideas, he puts human figures to formal ends, like ordered arrangements of still life objects.

My favorite things here are the smaller streetscape and the lovely still life “December” (2005), a simple subject in a witty and intricate composition. Notice the way the drape of a ribbon around the poinsettia pot echoes the rim of the lamp shade, tilted to brighten and warm the plant. Such small pictorial touches enhance the larger compositions.

“Tim Kennedy: Inside / Outside” at First Street Gallery (526 West 26th Street, 646-336-8053).


THE WORD UTOPIA MEANS NOWHERE IN GREEK. That makes Tula Telfair a utopian painter. She tells us so herself in “Early Utopian Ideals” (2003), a seductive panorama of a nonexistent, low-lying plain that adopts the high viewpoint and brooding weather reminiscent of Thomas Cole.

Ms. Telfair’s romantic vistas are invented scenes that mix and match formal elements from 19th century landscape painting. She has a good grasp of the vocabulary of the Hudson River School. Boundaries dissolve under infinite skies and light invites surrender to the spectacle. Paradise Found is her metier, summarized in “Space Always Marks the Territory” (2004). A setting sun, obscured by golden clouds suffused with radiant energy, is concentrated in its reflection on water. Frederic Edwin Church frequently invented bodies of water for their reflective capacities; Ms. Tulfair counterfeits the entire locale.

Less successful are pastoral close-ups, which exchange the sublime for the picturesque, and self-conscious polytychs, which combine scenery with panels of a flat color. Here, the ostentation of her titles (e.g. “Parallels Between Narrative and Spatial Sequences”) invades the image. It becomes an academic conceit, a display of art department fustian that asserts intellectual one-upmanship over mere landscape. A polytych is no bimbo, mind you, but a sober escort that “investigates how we accumulate information.” What good is a fantasy if it comes with a lesson plan or schoolmarm’s warning that it’s all fake?

Because her imagery is drawn from reproductions, her paintings have the texture of a printed page. The texture of landscape—and of paint—is largely absent. Canvases have the feel of something made for reproduction themselves. But if you like books as much as paintings, you might not care.

“Tula Telfair: Paintings” at Forum Gallery (745 Fifth Avenue, 212-355-4545).


This article appeared first in The New York Sun, March 16, 2006.

Copyright 2006, Maureen Mullarkey

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