Text by Deanna MacDonald
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Though various European art movements influenced Demuth, his style – with its expressive directness, sense of scale and urban, industrial feel – is distinctly American. The artist was part of the Modernist group – whose members including Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe – centered around photographer Alfred Stieglitz that in 1920s New York sought to define an authentic American identity in the arts. Demuth helped to do just that with this painting, which is today considered an icon of American Modernism and a forerunner of Pop Art.
It was first exhibited at Stieglitz’s gallery 291 and was one of a series of eight abstract poster-portraits – inspired by Gertrude Stein’s word-portraits – that Demuth made of friends and colleagues between 1924 and 1929. The subject is the poet and physician, William Carlos Williams, whom Demuth had first met years before when he was an art student in Philadelphia. Williams was also a member of the Stieglitz circle and in this portrait Demuth evokes not only the man but also his poetry.
The portrait contains no physical likeness, but rather is a collage of symbols associated with Williams. There are the rather obvious initials – W.C.W. – and the names ‘Bill’ and ‘Carlos.’ Less obvious, for those who have not read Williams’ poetry, are references to his poem ‘The Great Figure,” which describes a red fire engine with the number 5 painted on it rushing through a New York City night.
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.
Williams was an ‘Imaginist’ poet and sought to express ideas in the most direct, succinct manner possible; an approach that Demuth here approximates in painting. The artist breaks down the space, line and colour of the image to their most symbolic components.
With crisp lines and bold colours, Demuth evokes the experience of the poem: slashes of grey, black and white speak of the ‘rain/and lights’ while striking reds and golds suggest the ‘gong clangs/siren howls/and wheels rumbling.’The number 5 seems to both recede and speed forward in the geometric space of Ninth Avenue (the avenue where Williams recalled he had seen the fire engine that inspired his poem). The roundness of the lights, corner arcs and the number 5 play off the straight lines of the fire engine, buildings and rays of light, creating an atmosphere of rushing energy.
Demuth often tailored his style to suit his subject: in paintings of nature his approach is often delicate and lyrical, while his urban subjects, like this one, are treated much like a machine: controlled, clean and hard-edged. This style, called Precisionism, incorporated various influences – such as the splintered planes of French Cubism and the mechanical ethos of Italian Futurism, which Demuth knew from his travels in Europe – however, its uniquely New York subject interpreted through Demuth’s literal precision resulted in something decidedly American.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1928 René Magritte: The Reckless Sleeper, London, Tate
1928 Emil Nolde: Large Sunflowers I, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1929 Salvador Dalí: Illumined Pleasures, New York, MOMA