Charles Demuth

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, January 23, 1988 | Go to article overview

Charles Demuth


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


Charies Demuth

There is a familiar puzzle-drawing that is a picture of a rabbit or of a duck, depending upon the way one looks at it. The "duck-rabbit," as it is called by philosophers, has been used since Wittgenstein to demonstrate how the same thing has different identities under different perceptual aspects. It would be a rare student of philosophy, on the other hand, who raised the further question of what deep identity connects ducks and rabbits so that they should be aspects of each other. But such considerations would not have been far from the mind of Man Ray when, in a 1930 photograph, Anatomies, he showed a woman from the shoulders up with her head bent back in so strenuous a way as to show us her chin from underneath: The lines of the jaw form an obvious visual pun on the head of a penis, for which the neck becomes the shaft. As were most Surrealists, Man Ray was obsessed with such transformations, and he would have considered the photograph a surprising revelation of an underlying oneness between male and female. A precise, if inadvertent, anticipation of Man Ray's wily and unsettling picture may be found in a sculpture by Brancusi. Princesse X is a sleek and abstract portrait bust of a woman with a very long and arched neck, her head and breasts reduced to polished knobs. It is a powerful irony that this marvelous form, in which a woman is reduced to her essential lines, should, through an irresistible perceptual switch, look unmistakably like an Art Deco phallus. It at least looked sufficiently phallic to have been removed, on grounds of questionable decency, from the Salon des Independants of 1920, angering Brancusi to the point that he refused to exhibit in France for the next several years.

With a work such as Brancusi's phalloprincess, the term "exhibition" (or, en francais, exposition) takes on its own double meaning, which is captured, deliciously, in a masterpiece of giggling visual innuendo by the American modernist Charles Demuth, for me a high point in the stunning show of his work on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City (it ended January 17). Titled Distinguished Air, the watercolor shows five persons, who could just be a group of lovers of advanced art, gathered in a circle of admiration around Princesse X displayed on a modernistic pedestal. As such, as much for its air of aesthetic sophistication as for its luminous and exact use of watercolor, it could have been a cover for The New Yorker. But the ambiguity of Princesse X makes the drawing itself ambiguous, and doubtless too risque for that magazine. For it is also possible to see the scene as consisting of four persons caught up in a network of extreme erotic tension, transformed from art lovers to phallus worshipers. Two of the viewers/voyeurs are evidently gay lovers, their backs to us--a sailor and a sort of dandy who has looped one arm over the sailor's shoulders while drawing the latter's arm around his waist. The dandy could have brought the sailor here for aesthetic appreciation--or for sexual suggestion. The sailor must in any case be aroused, for another man, swinging a cane (and perhaps Demuth himself, who carried a cane and depicted himself with one) is peering, unmistakably, at the sailor's crotch (other drawings of sailors in the show leave us in little doubt as to what he saw). On the right is a woman in a delicate red frock with a fan in her hand. And the position of the fan leaves it unclear whether she has dropped her arm in aesthetic rapture or metaphorically to cool her inflamed sex. It is a witty meditation on art and sexuality--on art and sexuality as aspects of each other as they were aspects of Demuth's own personality.

These are aspects in a set of rather more explicit paintings of sailors--most markedly in Two Sailors Urinating, again of 1930, showing what must have been figures of his sharpest fantasies, holding the heaviest cocks I have seen outside the wall paintings of Pompeii, and possessing angelic faces. …

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