PRINT March 1974

“Charlie Was Like That”

In my painting of Orchids which Charlie did—the one called Pink Lady Slippers [1918] he was interested in the similarity between the forms of the flowers and the phallic symbol, the male genitals. Charlie was like that.
—William Carlos Williams, quoted in Emily Farnham, Charles Demuth, Behind A Laughing Mask

CHARLES DEMUTH’S GREATEST AMERICAN CONTEMPORARY, John Marin, was unique in passing through the first third of the century in America with serene, almost sublime, sensuous and pictorial self-confidence, working in a boldly conceived—yet highly unique landscape style derived somewhat randomly from Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism. But Marin was atypically strong personally and artistically. Others were equally strong and confident personally, but artistically inconsequential. Only Demuth approached Marin on the level of artistic quality (both actual and potential). But lacking innate sensuous confidence, he had to fabricate a substitute.

Fabricating a substitute meant for him the grafting of modernism to a uniquely personal and at the same time dependable imagistic base, and in Demuth’s case that base was achieved in rarefied cerebral emblems of sexuality perceived by him to be unnatural. Once these were established he could proceed with a sense of self-reliance and originality in the domain of imagery and direct his efforts toward estheticizing, or more properly, “spiritualizing” that imagery into something pure and unphysical.1

Out of the process of refining the overt quirkishness of his imagery by a selective overlay of surface effects carefully gleaned from French and German modernism and from more than a few Old Masters, Demuth ultimately made his art an esthetically significant confessional of spiritualized personal (and national) immaturity. Necessarily rejecting Marin’s pictorial bluster, Demuth turned epicurean. For him, this meant simultaneously savoring the flagrant and cultivated sexual inclinations which he viewed as personal weaknesses, and making those weaknesses the most dependable sources of his creative strength.

It appears to this writer at least that some attempt must be made straightaway to give an account of Demuth’s sexuality—across the board, so to speak—in order to proceed from the comparatively straightforward externals of his life and his work to a more basic comprehension of its true pulse and, by extension, its meanings and the sources of its distinct qualities. Sexuality, its varieties and its importance, are difficult enough to discuss with conviction in the work of any primarily visual artist. With Demuth whose skill at personal disguise was both consistent and nearly all-encompassing, the difficulty of discussion (and the potential for error) is overwhelming. Yet an attempt must be made; the paintings in their provocativeness seem to demand it. There is, finally, more potential for error in avoiding the issue of cultivated sexuality in Demuth than in phrasing it wrongly. To avoid it means to overlook so much contained in so many images that there remains too little left to see, and Demuth wanted his pictures seen above all.

Generically speaking, the sexuality which is, in varying degrees of explicitness, present in Demuth’s work (particularly after 1915), quite self-consciously bespeaks unnaturalness or “corruption,” to use the language of Henry James’ Turn of The Screw, one of Demuth’s favorite tales and the theme of a series of illustrations done in 1917–18. Presumably Demuth’s particular “corruption” was ultimately homosexual—to judge from the most overt visual documents which remain. Yet to call the playful and troubling sexual suggestiveness of his work from the teens strictly homosexual is to miss the mark—randomly sexual, yes, distinctly homosexual, no. From this comparatively early and productive period in Demuth’s life, sexual innuendos, whether represented by actual figures or indirectly by flowers or other plant life are ambiguous and pictorially supportive. Later on in the 1920s, as industrial and still-life paintings become increasingly programmed to elicit the shapes of genitalia, usually male, overt sexual imagery emerges and appears dominantly homosexual; and much later in the early 1930s, when this imagery becomes flagrantly, almost defensively, explicit, the result is pictorial disaster.

The longer one looks over the whole of Demuth’s work, the more it is apparent that his achievement of quality seems to have depended more often than not upon the imagistic tension, resistance, or perhaps perverse security of sexual imagery, although it was the tension of concealment rather than the overt statement of that imagery that was important. Overtness in Demuth collapses tension and with it quality. The real content of sexual tension in Demuth’s best work is not much more or less than the kind of adolescent feeling of naughtiness so stimulating to a child of puritan upbringing at even the mention of a mildly dirty word. This tension exists for as long as a person’s interpersonal physical sexuality remains unexplored. For this reason, one tends to doubt the fact of much real sexual experience of any sort for Demuth prior to his ultimate surrender to homosexuality rather late in life. One suspects that sexuality was for him far more mental than physical throughout his life, and for that reason it informed his art in very special ways.2

In a highly self-conscious, yet esthetically productive way, homosexual feelings succeeded on a regular basis in stimulating the puritan raw material of guilt (combined with fascination) in Demuth and in sublimating that force into painting. The direct physical sensations of nature alone were never comparable in their creative effect on Demuth to the filtering of those sensations through a screen of guilt, sponsored by what he saw as unnatural sexual associations. Demuth was, of course, hardly alone in cultivating sexual guilt to produce a consciously perverse style. By the turn of the century, elaborate codes of sexual self-presentation had become relatively commonplace and had already proven their potential as a positive stylistic force. This esthetic potential of homosexual sensation, clearly evident in the writings of men as otherwise separate as Oscar Wilde and Robert McAlmon, provided Demuth with the encouragement he needed to translate the substance of his confused sexuality, whether genuine or feigned at its source, into a kind of sickly—sometimes pretty, sometimes heavy and downright morbid—decorousness in his mature art. Whether in figures, flowers, factories, or still lifes of fruit, the drive to submerge decorously but without total concealment naughty and frequently chaotic sexual suggestions seems to establish a goal, or completion point, in the conversion of a motif into a painting.

With totally abstract art still too new and too threatening, and with forthrightly sensuous realism so clearly at odds with the substructure of Demuth’s whole personality, the discovery and cultivation of emblems denoting complex if unclear sexual feeling were critical to the achievement first, of dependable pictorial quality and second, of an ongoing method whereby that quality could be obtained with some semblance of routine beyond that already provided by literary sequence in his illustrations.

The curiously inverted and declared “unnaturalness” of Demuth’s artistic personality, while original in detail, location, period, accomplishment, and general purpose, was hardly unique in type. Very little insight is required to posit the source, which was English and of an earlier date—roughly 1895. Both the manner and the substance of the London world of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley cast an unbroken spell over Demuth’s entire life. The Whistler-cum-Huysmans brew of English “decadence” seemed as psychologically true to Demuth as Picasso’s and Matisse’s paintings ultimately seemed esthetically true. The fact that Wilde and Beardsley regularly used their own homosexuality to incontrovertible esthetic advantage firmly supported Demuth’s half-studied, half-compulsive inclinations in the same direction. Like them, Demuth followed Whistler’s example of how an artist should act, what he should say, and how he should say it. Like them, too, he read and reread the handbook of fantasy, Huysmans’ À Rebours, to learn what unnatural sensations might be had and how one might have them. The title of Huysmans’ work, suggesting the direction of the sensibility it portrayed, translates into “against the grain” or “against nature.”

Huysmans’ book is one of the comparatively few things which Demuth is known to have read with enthusiasm and which he recommended to friends. Reading À Rebours with Demuth in mind is an even more revealing exercise than one might suspect. It seems hard to fathom, at least initially, why this book even more than its more fashionable and refined successor (of Demuth’s own day), Proust’s Remembrances, impressed itself so firmly on Demuth’s mind. But while Proust provided so much sensation that Demuth found Remembrances heavy and overextended, Huysmans provided just enough individual sensations, all of the right sort, with no one sensation pushed descriptively beyond the bounds of clinical curiosity and seemingly rational analysis.

À Rebours appears to have provided the code which first initiated various forms of Demuth’s nonliterary imagery and which ultimately keyed its overall meaning. Coming at the critical, if not the historical end of the tradition of the realist novel in France, À Rebours represents a sensibility utterly satiated to the point of sexual impotence with the real sensations of nature. In order to continue existing at all, Duc Jean des Esseintes, the central character, is driven to construct new sources of sensation from indirect or artificial means. Living in a virtually windowless house, existing more by night than by day, and cut off from all contact with the outside world, des Esseintes first creates and then experiences oral and olfactory “symphonies” of liquors and rare perfumes. He uses the most rarefied and refined of books to experience vicariously travel, religion, and whatever he deems worthwhile in the world outside. The paintings of Gustave Moreau, particularly his Salomé, and later the grotesque (almost necrophilic) blossoms and leafage of exotic plants provide des Esseintes with means of stimulating his mind to erotic reverie. When his memories turn directly, if inadvertently, to the female body, he sets them to rest by recalling from earlier days his even greater sexual excitement at the sight of the two great man-made ladies—new locomotives recently put into service by the French national railways. The voluptuous sensation of specific machines thus recalled, des Esseintes’ impulse to recall the physical source of real sexuality is obviated. However, he does toward the end of the narrative entertain the specific memory of one experience of the body which remains exciting in its imagined fictions, if not in what des Esseintes saw as its squalid facts.

Once having visited the circus, des Esseintes was struck by a female acrobat—an American girl named Miss Urania, “with a supple figure, sinewy legs, muscles of steel and arms of iron.” Huysmans describes the progress of des Esseintes’ reaction to the girl as follows:

Little by little as he watched her, curious fancies took shape in his mind. The more he admired her subtleness and strength, the more he thought he saw an artificial change of sex operating in her; her mincing movements and feminine affectations became ever less obtrusive, and in their place there developed the agile, vigorous charms of a male. In short, after being a woman to begin with, then hesitating in a condition verging on the androgynous, she seemed to have made up her mind and become an integral unmistakable man.

In that case, [des Esseintes said to himself] just as a great strapping fellow often falls for a slip of a girl, this hefty young woman should be instinctively attracted to a feeble, broken down, short-winded creature like myself.

By dint of considering his own physique and arguing from analogy, he got to the point of imagining that he for his part was turning female; . . . this exchange of sex between Miss Urania and himself had excited him tremendously. The two of them, so he said, were made for each other; and added to this sudden admiration for brute strength, a thing he hitherto detested, there was also that extravagant delight in self-abasement which a common prostitute shows in paying dearly for the loutish caresses of a pimp.

Meanwhile, before deciding to seek the acrobat and see if his dreams could be made reality, he sought confirmation of those dreams in the facial expressions she unconsciously assumed, reading his own desires into the fixed, unchanging smile she wore on her lips as she swung on the trapeze.3

Having seduced the acrobat, des Esseintes discovered that she offered “no justification for the cerebral curiosity she had aroused,” and that she was unfortunately “not subject, as he had for the moment hoped she might be, to sexual fluctuation.” Yet the cerebral excitement she had caused remained in des Esseintes’ mind justifying itself despite the absence of physical confirmation.

While it is unlikely that any European reader of À Rebours 20 or 30 years after its publication in 1884 could have experienced afresh its rapierlike incidents of sensation, particularly its eroticism, an American like Demuth could have and probably did. For an American of Demuth’s generation Zola’s Nana and Huysmans’ À Rebours were, in spite of their age and their differences of perspective, morally if not officially proscribed texts. They could be read only at the risk of moral corruption, but that fact alone made them continuously attractive for any American seeking to become cosmopolitan. Significantly, Nana, the most formidable realist presentation of the life-passage of a modern femme fatale, became the text for Demuth’s first series of watercolor illustrations, while À Rebours established the sexual coding—whether elaborated or not—of his flowers, his acrobats, and later his machines.

What was perhaps most valuable for Demuth in Huysmans’ code was its comprehensiveness. Its range of sexual transmutations both in general scope and precise effect was exceptionally broad. Nearly everything which Demuth wanted to paint was preeroticized by Huysmans, but the options of stress or nonstress were left marvelously open. The choice of how definitely or indefinitely his own emblems should be formed rested fortuitously on Demuth’s inclinations of the particular moment—inclinations either of a stylistic or of a programmatic sort. What was also extremely supportive about À Rebours was the fact that it was a book. Its codes were literary in origin, if not in development, and as such safer and more available to Demuth in their predefined sensuousness than any comparable codes he might have gleaned from nature or from painting.

Yet for all the stimulations and license of Huysmans, and of Beardsley and Wilde as well, it seems doubtful whether the 1890s quality of Demuth’s attitude could have been productive after 1910 even in America were it not for the fact of the reinforcement of that attitude by more contemporary ideas and events. One of these was the near mania for amateur Freudian analysis that existed in New York during the war years. Besides being directed at people, the fad extended—as it has ever since—to the earnest and playful search for phallic and vaginal symbolism in seemingly neutral objects. This particular aspect of Freudianism coupled with an elementary comprehension of phobias, fantasies, complexes. and sublimations could quite easily have led anyone with Demuth’s sensibility to reexperience “decadence,” not only with the delight of initial discovery, but also with a sense—probably an intellectually false sense—of ultimate comprehension. With Freud as a means of clarification, the sensuous mysteries of “decadence” became at once deeper, yet less puzzling, and, finally, capable of even greater refinement than “decadence” itself had ever achieved.

“I Remember, Of Course, Marcel Duchamp”
Combined with the reinforcement to “decadence“ of Freudianism were the contemporary uses to which Freudian association had already been put in the context of the most contemporary and available European art of the day. Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia arrived in New York in 1915, shortly after the outbreak of war in Europe. Both men had quite recently parted with Cubism over the issue of definiteness, preferring to cultivate an art of precise—or seemingly precise—cross-reference between human and machine forms. As a contrast to the loose and objectively unpressing studio imagery of Cubism, Duchamp and Picabia chose to develop a richness of mental associations culled from the complicated modern world around them.

Of the two painters, Duchamp made the more exciting artistic and public moves. Picabia, for the most part, just painted, producing a sequence of images which either combined fairly literal mechanistic forms in such a way as to imply anatomical associations (frequently sexual in nature), or which simply renamed mechanical images so as to invoke some appropriate sort of human presence or activity. Duchamp, on the other hand, developed elaborate artistic strategies. Some of them required a lot of handwork to achieve and some simply involved the finding and “titling” of a readymade object. Probably the most famous of Duchamp’s Readymades and the one which impressed his contemporaries most forcefully was his Fountain, an object nothing more or less than a mass-produced urinal. Having separated the urinal from its normal context and having given it an artish yet rather rational title, Duchamp succeeded in making the object press those viewing it to recognize, with a mixture of humor and discomfort, its rather outlandish eroticism—an eroticism bred by the object itself but heightened enormously by its removal from the men’s room and its introduction into the art gallery. Whatever the viewer’s reaction to the urinal, the artist, Duchamp, could not be held fully responsible, a state of personal removal which increasingly appealed to Demuth as his work progressed. As many associations, as much or as little meaning could be imposed by the viewer while all the artist had done was to select the object and to alter its setting — or at least so it was thought. But was Duchamp’s selection all that pure and simple? Certainly a urinal was common and readymade, but it was a urinal. As such, its potential for stirring in a situation of unaccustomed isolation, erotic as well as scatological associations was predictable both before and after the fact, and Duchamp pretty clearly took that potential into account in making his selection of this particular Readymade.. What the Fountain finally constituted more than anything else was the brilliant discovery within the world of the Readymade and the everyday of the perfect Freudian symbol, flagrantly obvious and stimulating once it was discovered, but utterly untranslatable and, as a result, perversely pure. Phallic? Vaginal? It was a man-made female object for exclusive male functions. Yet, who could characterize it precisely? Other Duchamp Readymades approached the Freudian perfection of the Fountain, but none ever successfully equaled it.

There is a fundamental resonance between the Freudianism of Duchamp’s New York Dada and the much more open-ended elaborations of sexual association and transmutation in the tradition of “decadence.” While this resonance was generated most consistently by Duchamp, it seems to have been understood most profoundly by his friend Demuth. Demuth admired Duchamp, and spent much time in his company both in New York and later in 1921 in Paris. He even wrote and published a poem “For Richard Mutt“ to the manufacturer and hence the signer of Duchamp’s urinal. The first two lines of his poem suggest that he understood Duchamp’s accomplishment, as outlined above, completely.

One must say everything—then no one will know
To know nothing is to say a great deal.4

Along with the Fountain another of Duchamp’s works—a handmade rather than a Readymade—seems to have attracted Demuth perhaps even more and over a much longer period. This was The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, the large construction on glass, worked on from 1915–23. Demuth thought it a very great achievement. He recalled and emphasized its greatness in a letter to Stieglitz of February 5, 1929. “The big glass thing, I think, is the great picture of our time.” Great was not a word Demuth used lightly, but rather one which he reserved for use in his most special blessings. In another letter to Stieglitz, one from a slightly earlier date (November 14, 1926), he had, however, applied the word to the accomplishments of two other men “. . . Aubrey who with Oscar I still find to be great.”

At the risk of forcing a point, it is possible to suggest that Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even and Demuth’s true understanding of it provides the quintessential clue to Demuth’s basic sense both of meaning and of quality in art—a sense which his own work tried itself to contain. Few people could have brought to this or any other of Duchamp’s works the particular kind of responsiveness that Demuth had simultaneously to “decadence,” Freudianism, and New York Dada. Even fewer would have probed the relationship between Duchamp’s apparently after-the-fact title, the imagery of his great glass painting, and its probable feedback not only to earlier points in Duchamp’s own work, but also to a most memorable “event” in the endless and frequently bizarre wartime party circuit in New York—a circuit traveled regularly by Duchamp, Demuth, Arensberg, and William Carlos Williams, among many others. Just how frequently this event happened cannot be determined very precisely, but it was sufficiently remarkable for Williams to record it in detail in his Autobiography, for Duchamp ultimately to translate it into the purity of mechanical forms on glass, and for Demuth to nod his head silently in comprehension and approval. The following is Williams’ written record of his experience.

I was a bit late and the small room was already crowded—by Frenchmen mostly. I remember, of course, Marcel Duchamp. At the end of the room was a French girl, of say eighteen or less, attended by some older woman. She lay reclining upon a divan, her legs straight out before her, surrounded by young men who had each a portion of her body in his possession which he caressed attentively, apparently unconscious of any rival. Two or three addressed themselves to her shoulders on either side, to her elbows, her wrists, hands, to each finger perhaps, I cannot recall—the same for her legs. She was in a black lace gown fully at ease. It was something I had not seen before. Her feet were being kissed, her shins, her knees, and even above the knees, though as far as I could tell there was a gentlemen’s agreement that she was to not be undressed there.5

This “phenomenon“ itself constituted a kind of Readymade, introducing into America a profound and uniquely real event of European “decadence”—an event sufficiently disturbing in its comprehensive unnatural eroticism to have stamped itself clearly on Williams’ mind. As a doctor and as a well-traveled man of the world, Williams was hardly a stranger to visions and events of the flesh, but this “appearance” was sui generis, and he never forgot it. The combination of absolute reality and rampant “decadent” symbolism was sufficient to make even the most purple passages of imaginary “decadence,” whether written or painted, seem pale by comparison. Here was a kind of mythic bride simultaneously regaled and defiled by her bachelor attendants. Here was France passively, almost mechanically, distributing her favors willingly or unwillingly to the world, even while herself in exile. Here was sordidness for which no pure or conceivable redemptive explanation could possibly be given. And, yet, Duchamp seems to have sensed, whether for reasons of nationalism, subtlety, or sheer perverseness, a need to conceive the inconceivable—to redress and purify the “appearance” in machine forms on glass and to produce in that state a didactic stained-glass window for the chapel of a new religion whose theology remained to be determined. Of that theology one could only say that its prophets were sexually active Dada machines, its prophesies and behavioral ethics as “against the grain,” if as apparently pure, as the voices enunciating them.

Demuth understood the religion Duchamp had glimpsed in the revelation of the unnatural bride. A convert before the fact, Demuth was soon to experience for himself both the fascination and the fickleness of the new gods of the machine, just as he had already experienced the related, equally potent, but not so new gods of “decadence” as well. Like Duchamp, Demuth was ultimately out to spiritualize their flagrantly unspiritual declarations and appearances by making them appear esthetically pure, if by definition unnatural and threatening when approached in any other way.

The above is an abridgment of the introductory chapter to Charles Demuth, to be published in the near future by Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Kermit Champa



1. For Demuth as for his friend, Marsden Hartley, the pure and unphysical were among the most admirable qualities contained in the best painting of the previous generation of Americans, particularly in that of Ryder and Martin. (See, Marsden Hartley, “Albert P. Ryder,” Adventures in the Arts, Boni and Liveright, New York, 1921, pp. 37–41.) The fact of the prior American existence of these “admirable qualities” provided an element of sanction for Demuth’s inclinations, and that was important in inspiring the confidence he needed to proceed.

2. One doubts resolute homosexuality in Demuth prior to the late 1920s for several reasons. First of all, because his imagery prior to thai time, while frequently sexual (at least by association or implication) is, as mentioned above, very random. Second, one of Demuth’s oldest and closest friends, William Carlos Williams, failed to note Demuth’s homosexuality in his extensive discussion of Demuth in his autobiography, even while he does so very clearly in the case their mutual acquaintance, Marsden Hartley. However, what one tends not to doubt is Demuth’s fear of, or fascination with, homosexual feelings perhaps intensified by early rejections of his proposals of marriage and continuing through the war years when pseudo. Freudian lay analysis was everyone’s favorite pastime (and according to the journalist Hutchins Hapgood caused real psychological harm to innumerable unwilling subjects). (See A Victorian in the Modern World, New York, 1939. pp. 382–84.). The combined facts of Demuth’s lameness and the possible long-term effects of indulgence by his physically large and somewhat overbearing mother could without much imagination have been made to posit homosexuality as being inevitable. Yet whatever degree of terror, if any, the “inevitable” inspired, Demuth turned the apparent facts of predestination to positive effect by using them as a basis for cultivating sensations of the unnatural both in life and in painting.

3. J.-K. Huysmans, Against Nature, A New Translation of À Rebours, by Robert Baldick, Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1959. pp. 110–12. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

4. Charles Demuth, “ For Richard Mutt” as quoted in Emily Farnham, Charles Demuth, Behind a Laughing Mask, Norman, Oklahoma, 1971, p. 105.

5. William Carlos Williams, The Aurobiography of William Carlos Williams, New York. 1951. p, 140–41.