Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 29, 2001
Bruce Kellner, ed. Letters of Charles Demuth: American Artist, 1883–1935 Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999. 186 pp. Paper $19.95 (1566397812)

Like their European counterparts, first-generation modernists in the United States depended on the word—in manifestoes, catalog essays, and “little magazines”—to advocate and advance their art. The Alfred Stieglitz circle, for instance, enlisted the journal Camera Work and the critical writing of Waldo Frank and Paul Rosenfeld to explicate their aesthetic goals to a public in need of instruction. This art movement was, moreover, engaged with literary modernism, as writers were prominent figures within its ranks. Camera Work published the early work of Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams and D.H. Lawrence were admired by the Stieglitz group and in turn shaped that group’s artistic ideals. Written language figured into visual vocabulary, as seen in the glowing text from William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience in Marsden Hartley’s painting Raptus (1913) and the fragmented lettering in Charles Demuth’s homage to Williams, The Figure 5 in Gold (1928). Painters also developed ambitions as writers. Hartley published poems in the highly respected “little magazines” Poetry, The Little Review, and Contact, and in three poetry volumes; his essays on art and culture found their way into contemporary popular journals and a book, Adventures in the Arts (1921).

Charles Demuth, like Hartley, had literary aspirations. He called himself both a painter and writer in the 1910s and had some success publishing his written work. His play The Azure Adder appeared in the January 1913 issue of the Imagist magazine The Glebe, while his articles on his and his contemporaries’ work were published in exhibition catalogs and brochures during his lifetime. In her 1988 catalog on the artist, Barbara Haskell discussed Demuth’s early writings and their significance in revealing his interest in Aestheticism and printed several of his previously unpublished texts.

Bruce Kellner hopes to bring similar attention to Demuth’s writing with his edition of the artist’s writing, Letters of Charles Demuth, American Artist, 1883-1935. Demuth did not achieve the triumphs as a writer that his friend Hartley did, and he spoke of the difficulty of writing in his correspondences. His letters, Kellner argues, possess “an ebullience and ease of expression” not present in his formal literary efforts (xvii). Although much of Demuth’s correspondence has not survived, the extant letters, published in this edition, offer glimpses of Demuth’s attitudes about his and his contemporaries’ art and of his private life, particularly his struggle with diabetes. Along with several early twentieth-century essays on Demuth, this volume includes all of the Demuth letters currently available for publication—those to Stieglitz, Williams, John Reed, Henry McBride, Scofield Thayer, Agnes Boulton and Eugene O’Neill, Walter Arensberg, A.E. Gallatin, Carl van Vechten, Gilbert Seldes, and his mother, among others, with the unfortunate absence of thirty-six letters to Alfred C. Barnes, Demuth’s longtime friend and patron, which were excluded because of disputes between the editor and Barnes Foundation over annotations.

In his introduction, Kellner quotes from Demuth’s 1929 essay “Across a Greco Is Written”: “To me words explain too much and say too little” (xx). This declaration about the written word’s limitation can be claimed for Demuth’s letters as well. Some of the letters and telegrams are brief and provide minimal insight into Demuth or his work, and overall they lack a depth or philosophical stance that leaves the reader wanting to know more. Still, much more can be found in these terse epistles. The reader learns about the artist’s struggles to promote his work and the way that artist/critic relations impacted period art-critical discourse, as in the exchange between Demuth and McBride regarding the 1917 exhibition of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. As a group, these letters reconstruct the multiple and intersecting social, artistic, and intellectual networks in which Demuth worked, revealing his connection with German colleague Arnold Rönnebeck and the Paris art scene in the 1920s, his involvement with The Dial and Stieglitz circles, his interest in popular entertainment and boxing, and his attachments to his mother and longtime friend Robert Locher. Demuth’s sense of humor, affection for Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, and great appreciation for O’Keeffe’s and John Marin’s work are manifest in these letters as well.

The bulk of Demuth’s surviving letters are addressed to Stieglitz, and in these we find Demuth at his best as he reflects on his art and its direction. These letters relay information about key paintings—My Egypt (1927) and And the Home of the Brave (1931)—as well as his signature poster portraits. The letters from the 1920s about Demuth’s last European trip are especially instructive; he debates the value of European versus American culture and contemplates what it meant to make art in the United States. He writes, “I wonder if [great art] will ever happen in the land of the free?—or is it happening? I never knew Europe was so wonderful, and never knew really—not so surely—that New York, if not the country, has something not found [in Europe]. It makes me feel almost like running back and doing something about it” (20). Demuth also reports to Stieglitz about the French fascination with American culture and his discovery of his Americanness within this context: “New York is something which Europe is not,—and I feel of that something” (37).

The inclusion of essays written about Demuth at various times during his career is a welcome supplement to this book. These commentaries suggest the high regard critics had for Demuth’s still-life watercolors and literary illustrations; the recognition of his senses of color and humor; the gendered readings of his art as delicate, dainty, and unmanly; and the identification of Demuth with Americanness. These contemporary evaluations not only convey how the artist was viewed during his time, but also introduce themes that have shaped Demuth criticism ever since. Following these commentators, many art and cultural historians, including Kellner, have taken Demuth’s Americanness as a given. Kellner uses “American artist” as a subtitle and comments that the letters reveal that Demuth was an “American original” (xxii). But what was Demuth’s role in creating his American identity? As recent scholarship has shown—most notably Wanda M. Corn’s The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999)—the Stieglitz circle worked deliberately to equate their art with America, and we see Demuth in his letters actively involved with this process. For these artists, the word had the power to shape perceptions of their work.

Kellner provides an introduction and annotations to the letters. The former includes a brief outline of Demuth’s career, personal life, and relations, along with insightful statements about his epistolary style. Kellner speaks of the “many celebrated artists and writers among his friends” (xvi) but doesn’t detail these associations. Given this volume’s focus on Demuth’s letters, more discussion about the artist as writer is needed. Such a discussion might have analyzed how Demuth expressed his aspirations as a writer in his art through his illustrations of the work of Henry James, Emile Zola, and others, the use of words in his poster portraits, and the depth of his affiliations with literary figures like Williams and Eugene O’Neill. The edition could have benefited from a fuller examination of Demuth’s art and its significance within early twentieth-century modernism, especially for the lay reader whom the editor considers one of the book’s audiences. More comprehensive notes could have served this audience too. The description of Williams as “American poet and pediatrician” and longtime friend of the artist, for example, does not give an adequate sense of his importance for Demuth. Another method of annotation would add to this volume: reproductions of artworks addressed in the letters, such as Demuth’s poster portraits and still lifes or Stieglitz’s photographs of Demuth. Such changes would fashion this book into a more useful introduction to the artist for the lay reader. While this edition makes more of Demuth’s writing available, in future all Demuth’s letters (including those to Barnes), early plays and stories, and essays on O’Keeffe and Peggy Bacon should be compiled as a definitive volume. Such a publication would provide a more complete picture of Demuth’s literary efforts and ideas about art for a general audience, American art students, and scholars. It would extend our understanding of Demuth, his art, and first-generation American modernism in general.

Donna M. Cassidy
Professor, Department of Art and Program in American and New England Studies, University of Southern Maine

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