“The painting has futurist and cubist features: the prismatic breakdown of space and light, which in part refers to the rain and lights, and the use of words and numbers to help establish the two dimensionality of the picture plane, as in the largest 5. the word Blew., and at the bottom of the painting the initials C.D. and W.C.W., referring to the artist and the poet. However, the letters and numbers are used not only to establish the surface plane but also to suggest the opposite: deep space. We see this, obviously, in the diminishing and therefore needing 5s and in the word Carlos, the latter cut off by an element that lies behind the planes of the 5s. The painting is pulled back from being a complete abstraction only by the use of the words and letters and by the presence of the street lamp and distorted buildings. The angularity of the prismatic background is played off against the recurring circles: those of the four lights in the top half, the curve of the streetlamp standard, the bulbs at the lower tips of the 5s, and the quite arbitrary curve at the lower left and upper right of the painting. We feel not only the tremendous activity within the picture but also its final calm and control. Despite the directional lines borrowed from the futurists and the intellectually organized space that comes from cubism, the cumulative effect of immediacy, sense of scale, and clarity is American. Of his relationship to the work of a fellow American painter Demuth once observed, “John Marin and I drew our inspiration from the same source, French modernism. He brought his up in buckets and spilt much along the way. I dipped mine out with a tea spoon but I never spilled a drop.” [Henry Geldzahler on Charles Demuth and William Carlos Williams]
Probably the closest any of Demuth’s posters really comes to Pop is I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, the William Carlos Williams one, where the advancing figure 5s compare with Jasper Johns’ inert rows of numbers or with Robert Indiana’s emblazoned numbers; Indiana did model his Demuth Five, 1963, and other of his paintings upon it. Otherwise, they are quite different, in purpose as well as form. Their seemingly haphazard and random objects and words were meant to evoke the presence of a friend or associate from Demuth’s world of art and letters by alluding cryptically to his or her interests, or style of art or writing. More than that: I’ve come to see that the very means of arrangement of the objects—their number and shapes—suggest the personality of the “sitter.”
There are eight, perhaps nine posters (rather than the seven I once believed there to be), including one of a nonposter character: a picture of calla lilies rising out of a shell that had been intended as an object-substitute for an actor and female impersonator named Bert Savoy, to whom Demuth (a homosexual) had been introduced backstage by his friend Robert Locher. A shell in this Savoy painting had already appeared in a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe of 1919, Music—Pink and Blue No.1, and it belonged to her: “I knew one of his girl friends who gave me a beautiful shell because she knew he had always wanted it, and she wanted him to see that she gave it to me. The shell is in that large portrait of calla lilies at Fisk.”4 Demuth saw, then, in the erotic suggestiveness of the undulating flower, an appropriate object-substitute for one who traded on the aura of sexuality. [Abraham A. Davidson on Charles Demuth’s Poster Paintings]
Charles Demuth (1883-1935) is in many ways an unlikely herald of a new and dynamic sensibility celebrating technology. He was a dandified, langorous figure who with his moustache bore a resemblance to Joris-Karl Huysmans, the leader of the fin de siecle French Decadent Movement and thus remembered for his fantasy novel, “Against Nature.” Demuth was burdened: His homosexuality was a definite problem in that era and he was also plagued by diabetes and a bad hip.
Yet these poster portraits (this show marks the first time all of them have been assembled together) are fairly bursting with energy. They have a strong basis in billboard and magazine advertisements, as is thoroughly explained in the catalogue by the curator Robin Jaffee Frank, but countering this very public aspect is their ultimate recondite and cryptic character. [William Zimmer on Charles Demuth]
The Hell Hole (the “Golden Swan” in the Village), the Baron Wilkins (a cafe) in Harlem, a costumed ball at Webster Hall, Cafes Brevoort [The building occupies almost half its entire block and many revelers from the old Cafe Brevoort probably wandered eventually into the Cedar Tavern that became the famous hang-out of the Abstract Expressionists until its building was torn down to make way for an annex to this building known as the Brevoort East at 20 East Ninth Street] and Lafayette were Demuth’s favorite places about 1915-16 and he used to take me along. . . .
He had a curious smile reflecting an incessant curiosity for every manifestation life offered.
An artist worthy of the name, without the pettiness which afflicts most artists; worshipping his inner self without the usual eagerness to be right.
Demuth was also one of the few artists whom all other artists liked as a real friend, a rare case indeed.
His work is a living illustration of the disappearance of a “Monroe Doctrine” applied to Art; for today, art is no more the crop of privileged soils, and Demuth is among the first to have planted the good seed in America. [Marcel Duchamp on Charles Demuth]