"Luckily or not, Charles Demuth painted one picture so famous that practically every American who looks at art knows it. The Figure 5 in Gold, 1928, is a prediction of Pop art, based on an Imagist poem, "The Great Figure," by his friend William Carlos Williams:
Among the rain
"Imagist" because each line, a snap unit of meaning, is meant by its isolation to be perfectly clear, a pulse in itself, without narrative - suspended for contemplation, like elements in a painting. Obviously Demuth's rendering has something in common with Hartley's arrays of banners, numbers, and emblems, and in fact Williams later recalled that he had seen and heard the firetruck in question from the window of Marsden Hartley's studio on Fifteenth Street. Here are the streetlights, the red back of the truck and the engine company number 5, that gloss-enamel heroic heraldry of the New York Fire Department, interspersed with lettered apostrophes to Williams: "BILL," "CARLO[S]," and, at the bottom left, "W.C.W." next to his own initials, "C.D."
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.
"The Figure 5 in Gold is deservedly one of the icons of American modernism, but it came almost at the end of Demuth's life and its author has always seemed a little elusive beside the heavier reputations of his contemporaries - Georgia O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove,Charles Sheeler. Of them all, he was the most unabashed esthete. And the wittiest too: it's hard to imagine any of his colleagues painting a factory chimney paired with a round silo and calling it, in reference to star-crossed lovers in a French medieval romance, Aucassin and Nicolette.
"Blessed with a private income from his parents in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, coddled in childhood, lame, diabetic, vain, insecure, and brilliantly talented, Demuth lacked neither admirers nor colleagues. He was well read (and had a small talent as a writer, in the Symbolist vein) and his tastes were formed by Pater, Huysmans, Maeterlinck, and The Yellow Book; he gravitated to Greenwich Village as a Cafe Royal dandy-in-embryo. Free of market worries, he did a lot of work that was private in nature, for the amusement and stimulation of himself and his gay friends, and much of it was unexhibitable - at least until the 1980s.
"Demuth was not a flaming queen, in fact he was rather a discreet gay, but if he could not place his deepest sexual predilections in the open, he could still make art from them. Seen from our distance, that of a pornocratic culture so drenched in genital imagery that sly hints about forbidden sex hardly compel attention, the skill with which he did this might seem almost quaint. But in the teens and twenties the public atmosphere was of course very different, and Demuth, like other artists in the avant-garde circle that formed around the collectors Loulse and Walter Arensberg - especially Marcel Duchamp, whose recondite sexual allegory The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even Demuth called "the greatest picture of our time" - took a special delight in sowing his work with sexual hints. To create a secret subject matter, to disport oneself with codes, was to enjoy one's distance from (and rise above) "straight" life. The handlebar of a vaudeville trick-rider's bicycle turns into a penis, aimed at his crotch; sailors dance with girls in a cabaret but ogle one another.
"If these scenes of Greenwich Village bohemia were all that Demuth did, he would be remembered as a minor American esthete, somewhere between Aubrey Beardsley and Jules Pascin. But Demuth was an exceptional watercolorist and his still-lifes and figure paintings, with their wiry contours and exquisite sense of color, the tones discreetly manipulated by blotting, are among the best things done in that medium by an American. They quickly rise above the anecdotal and the "amusing."
"Around 1920 Demuth began with increasing confidence to explore what would become the major theme of his career: the face of industrial America. It may seem odd that Demuth, yearning for Paris, should have become obsessed with grain elevators, water towers, and factory chimneys. But as he wrote to Stieglitz in 1927: "America doesn't really care - still, if one is really an artist and at the same time an American, just this not caring, even though it drives one mad, can be artistic material." Precisionism was by no means just a provincial American response to the European avant-garde - the splintering of planes from French Cubism, the machine ethos from Italian Futurism. Sheeler and Demuth were painting a functional American landscape refracted through a deadpan modernist lingo that, in Demuth's case, picked up bits ofRobert Delaunay and Lyonel Feininger while anticipating some of the essential subjects of Pop art. The machine emblems of this American landscape had fascinated some of the best minds in Europe (Picabia, Duchamp, Le Corbusier), who saw them either as exotic whiffs of the Future or as instruments of irony. Being American, Demuth took the silos and bridges rather more literally. Out of this came his Precisionist masterpiece, My Egypt, 1927. It is a face-on view of a grain elevator in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Demuth's hometown, painted with such careful suppression of gesture that hardly a brushstroke can be seen. Demuth's title whimsically refers to the mania for Egyptology planted in American popular culture in 1922, when Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen's tomb. The visual weight of those twin pale silo shafts and their pedimental cap does indeed suggest Karnak.
"But Demuth may have had a deeper level of intent. His title connects to the story of Exodus. Egypt was the symbol of the Jews' oppression; it was also the starting point for their collective journey toward the land of Canaan, the forging of themselves as a collective and distinct people. An invalid in later life, Demuth was "exiled" in Lancaster, bedridden in his parents' house, cut off from the intellectual ferment of Paris and the sexual-esthetic comradeship of New York. All these were Canaan; home was Egypt. Yet he was poignantly aware that the industrial America which gave him a rentier's income had also given him a great subject which would define him as a painter. From that tension, his finest work was born."
- From "American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America", by Robert Hughes