A Deep Affection for All Bumbling Things

“You can only buck generalities by attention to fact. So aesthetics is what connects one to matters of fact. It is anti-ideal, it is materialistic. It implies no approval, but respect for things as they are.“ —Fairfield Porter

Jane Freilicher’s recent passing prompted me to dip into Art in Its Own Terms, a book of reviews by her colleague and friend Fairfield Porter. In a 1953 review, Porter points out “though [Freilicher’s] new exhibition shows an advance in skill, this advance is not at the expense of her love for life that grows as fast as her control. The clumsiness, the blunt puppyish forms remain and mean what they meant before—a deep affection for all bumbling things.”

An otherwise positive discussion of Porter’s great book cites this as a throwaway line, Porter’s way of avoiding actually reviewing his friend’s work. I’m not so sure. Drop the (admittedly unfortunate) adjective “puppyish,” and it’s hardly mindless praise or even a neutral statement, but a subtle compliment that could be easily misconstrued: she’s gotten good,  but not too good: she has reached a point where things stay just a step ahead of her ability to render them. Hence, “clumsiness,” which in this context, and coming from Porter, is a laudatory term. The idea is that “respect for things as they are” is not a matter of mastering things, but instead honoring their rough edges, their resistance to generalities. Porter also suggests that this respect is not a matter of knowing or cognition, but of “affection,” of emotion/affect.

I’ve discussed clumsiness before, with regard to John Clare and James Schuyler (who, interestingly enough, was friends with both Porter and Freilicher). The word itself is fascinating: from the Old Norse klumsa, “make speechless, palsy; prevent from speaking,” which places it in the vicinity of aposiopesis, the rhetorical term for a sudden break in speech, often to indicate overwhelming emotion.  

I’m beginning to realize that “clumsiness” is a quality shared by the artists I value most. For instance, Thelonious Monk, with his off-kilter phrasing, awkward pauses, and abrupt shifts in tempo, dynamics, etc–all played with the flats of his fingers:

Poet George Oppen writes:

words, the words older
than I


of poets

(from “Res Publica: The Poets Lie”)

And the two words most often used to describe the work of painter Giorgio Morandi are “silent” and “clumsy”    


The overlap between Oppen and Morandi is, to me, significant. Both are willing to forego the facility of standard syntax and structure to engage more deeply with their respective medium and, ultimately, with “reality”—a word that Oppen says he’d like to avoid, but can’t (Collected Prose, p 30). Both confront these high stakes with ridiculously modest means—Morandi with his extremely limited subject matter and format; Oppen with “the small words.” Each word, each brush stroke is an achievement. 

The consequent quality of search, of finding one’s way, is palpable in all three artists.

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