Charles Demuth amid the Silos

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Luckily or not, Charles Demuth (1883-1935) 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 a poem by William Carlos Williams, it powerfully conveys the passing clamor of a red New York City fire truck with the numeral 5 on it. But while it has become one of the icons of American modernism, its author has remained a little elusive beside the heavier reputations of his contemporaries: Georgia O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Charles Sheeler. What Demuth needed was a retrospective to put him in ! focus, and now, in the capable hands of the art historian Barbara Haskell -- who has also done excellent shows of Dove and Hartley -- he has one, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

Blessed with a private income from his parents in Lancaster, Pa., coddled in childhood, lame, diabetic, vain, insecure and brilliantly talented, Demuth lacked neither admirers nor colleagues. He was well read, his tastes formed by Pater, Huysmans, Maeterlinck and the Yellow Book, and he gravitated to Greenwich Village as a Cafe Royal dandy in embryo. Perhaps the main reason Demuth has not been seen in depth before is that some of the paintings that meant the most to him were not thought exhibitable. For Demuth was homosexual; not a flaming queen, in fact rather a discreet gay, but still loath to suppress his fantasies and memories of sexual encounters -- many of which, in the time-honored way, concerned sailors on leave in Baghdad-on-the-Hudson.

If Demuth 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 drenched in genital imagery, the skill with which he did this might seem almost quaint. But in Demuth's day, the public atmosphere was, of course, very different, and he, like Marcel Duchamp and other artists in the avant- garde circle that formed around the collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg, took a special delight in sowing his work with sexual hints. 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; in some still lifes, the flowers and vegetables acquire a nudging suggestiveness. Sigmund Freud was so much spoken of in this milieu that, Writer Susan Glaspell complained, "you could not go out to buy a bun without hearing of someone's complex."

If these scenes of Greenwich Village bohemia were all Demuth did, he would be remembered as a minor aesthete, somewhere between Aubrey Beardsley and Jules Pascin, though arguably much superior to the latter. But Demuth was, by any standards, 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.

Around 1920 Demuth began with increasing confidence to explore what would become the major theme of his career: the face of industrial America. What he and other artists like Ralston Crawford and Sheeler made of this rich, untapped subject acquired the name precisionism. It must have seemed unlikely that Demuth, yearning for Paris, should have become obsessed with grain elevators, water towers and factory chimneys. But it was no more improbable than the fixation of a later dandy, Andy Warhol, on the coarse repetition of media images. And in fact there was an adumbrative whisper of Warholian values to come in a letter Demuth wrote to Alfred 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 what was in front of them, a functional American landscape refracted through a deadpan "modernist" lingo that, in Demuth's case, picked up bits of Robert Delaunay and Lyonel Feininger while anticipating some of the essential subjects of pop art.

In her catalog essay Haskell does a fine job of unpicking the strands that wound into his precisionist masterpiece My Egypt, 1927, a veritable manifesto of a painting whose image must have seemed intolerably spare to "romantic" taste. It is a frontal view of a grain elevator in Lancaster, 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. In part it is quite sincere, since the almost threatening visual weight of those twin pale silo shafts and their pedimental cap does indeed suggest Karnak.

But as Haskell argues, Demuth had a deeper level of intent. His title connects to the story of the Exodus. Egypt "was at once a symbol of the Jews' oppression and the point of reference for their self-identity and emergence as a distinct people." An invalid in later life, Demuth was "exiled" in Lancaster, cut off from the intellectual ferment of Paris and the sexual- aesthetic comradeship of New York. Yet he was poignantly aware that the industrial America that gave him a rentier's income had also given him a great subject that would define him as a painter. From that tension, his finest work was born.