When You Arrange, You Fail: Style And The Art Of Fairfield Porter

January 14, 2016

When You Arrange, You Fail: Style and the Art of Fairfield Porter

If that seems like the start of an interminable essay, don’t worry; I mostly want to post some of Mr. Porter’s art, primarily his semi-abstract portraits, many of which are of men, many of whom were dressed well in a quiet, slightly preppy way. Porter came to serious painting a little late, enabled to lead a life of semi-leisure by a lingering family
(his ancestors owned farmland in Illinois that would end up being Chicago’s Loop). He painted people and scenes in his homes in the Hamptons and Maine–mostly his family, and poets, critics, and painters in his social circle. The paintings are abstract, sure, if less so than the work of many of his contemporaries in the middle of the 20th century. But in addition to discerning Porter’s perspective on the essence of his subjects, you can pick out some tradly details: OCBDs, flannels, maybe even a knit tie or two if you squint. In the photo above, Porter himself can be seen in a OCBD and tweed jacket with swelled edges.

A widely published and respected critic, Porter once wrote something about art that I believe can also be applied to personal style: “Order seems to come from searching for disorder, and awkwardness from searching for harmony or likeness, or the following of a system. The truest order is what you already find there, or that will be given if you don’t try for it. When you arrange, you fail.”

Not to say you can’t strive for personal style, or arrive at it by aiming for harmony (in fact those may the only ways to get there), but it can be stifled by precision and fussiness—you don’t think of Cary Grant fiddling with his cuffs, or David Bowie worrying about the collar gap on his jacket. But I often feel my best in imperfectly matched, imprecise clothing, combinations that come together in the order that appears when I’m not trying for it.