The Erotics of Close Reading: Williams, Demuth, and "The Crimson Cyclamen"

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Williams scholars who have focused on his relationship to the visual arts have tended towards formalistic analysis. Here is James Guimond:

When Williams-particularly in the 1920's-or Demuth dealt with subjects they admired such as flowers, their reaction was to take them entirely out of life where they could decay and disappoint. Both Demuth's flower paintings and Williams' flower poems present their subjects as timeless, richly abstract, beautiful designs. (48-49)

Peter Halter:

The tension created by such a syntactic ambiguity can be directly related to the Cubist technique of including the ambiguous or contradictory overlapping of planes, or of fusing, or metonymically displacing, the material qualities of objects, so that a pipe becomes transparent while a glass or a carafe is opaque. (88)

Dickran Tashjian:

[Demuth's] commentary on the American scene emerges from the formal means that [he] has exercised. His Cubist-Realism, as some critics have designated his style, exploits the geometry inherent in the building, thereby creating its own pictorial structure. . . . [T]he clarity of lives (even in the passages that characterize the lower street in the closest approximation of Cubism), the rays that unite sky and building, the brightness of the colors, and the elegant twists of smoke all combine to create an aesthetic experience in marked tension with the drab architectural realities of such towns. (67)

In these examples, the language of formalism obscures other interesting aspects of Williams's fascination with painters and painting. For one, the idea that blurring the boundaries of art forms (poetry and painting) was an expression of a transgressive poetics as it went against such modernist pieties (think Greenberg, think Kandinsky) as the separation of arts and the purity of form. For another, and perhaps most intriguing, the fact that many of the artists he came into contact with lived lives that I'd characterize as dissident, or nonheteronormative, or queer.

The relationship with Demuth is an excellent case in point. As noted, scholars center discussions of their relationship on the mutual interest in defining a new type of American art that accepted the realities of urbanism and industrialism as appropriate subject matter, but that was, stylistically, influenced by European modernism's attention to experimental forms and sleek designs. Critics emphasize the Futurist influence-the possibly ironic celebration of machine age culture in the smoke stacks, grain elevators, skyscrapers, and auto plants that constituted what Demuth called "My Egypt." There is discussion of how Williams wanted to be a painter when young, and Demuth, then studying art at Drexel, a writer, and of how they knew each other in Philadelphia. A note about their first meeting in 1903 over a bowl of prunes at Mrs. Chain's boardinghouse on Locust Street is de rigueur. Williams is quoted as not realizing Demuth was gay, and Demuth himself not realizing it.

The closest commentators get to suggesting the queer dimensions of Demuth's work is when they acknowledge, as do Peter Schmidt and Tashjian, that his flowers and industrial landscapes possess a veiled or displaced "erotic" dimension, even as the art works lack a specific sexual content. Of course, much of Demuth's work, especially his watercolors, is overtly, even scandalously, bawdy and homoerotic, but these works are not discussed in the context of Williams's interest in his art. Williams himself felt that the content of much of Demuth's work barred it from public appreciation. In Demuth's Three Sailors on the Beach, a watercolor from 1930, the artist depicts one of his most overt scenes of public homoeroticism through the image of men about to engage in fellatio. Demuth implicated himself in the scene by placing his own initials inside a heart-shaped tattoo upon the arm of one of the sailors.1 As Tashjian does helpfully point out, Distinguished Air (1930) depicts sailors admiring a giant phallus (based on a Brancusi) at an art gallery-a scene that Demuth drew from an episode deleted from a 1925 story by Robert McAlmon. …