New York

e.e. cummings

Gotham Book Mart Gallery

The Gotham Book Mart Gallery is showing paintings and drawings by e.e. cummings. Cummings was an uneven artist. His best art seems to have been done before the promise of his writing fully bloomed.

Gotham has a tremendous range of cummings’ work culled from the estate of his widow, only a part of which can hang at one time. It is a pleasure to look through stacks and stacks of pictures and occasionally to come across things as intense and lovely as the ink wash drawings Fuchnal and Landscape. The junk in between makes looking all the more fun.

Most of the portraits, including paintings and drawings of the artist himself, tend to be drab and splotchy. The best pieces are some small, intense pastels of women from the early ’30s. The Woman in Striped Skirt, for instance, is astonishingly well put together and radiates a controlled, vivid color. At this point it seems that cummings was under the influence of Alexandra Exter, the Russian Constructivist painter and a friend of Léger. A good thing too, for it encouraged a flattening and simplification of form and the development of a sophisticated consciousness of formal relations. Related, in a documentary way, is the oil portrait of Mikhail Larionov, Larionov Asleep, painted in Paris in the ’20s. A whole cluster of studies on the theme of the tango, related to an illustration of a dancing couple for The Dial, is of period interest.

One of the admirable qualities of cummings’ work at its best is that even when it just putters along it manages to do so without that adult affectation of naiveté that spoils, for but one example, the watercolors of Henry Miller. When a Cummings is worthwhile it is worthwhile as serious art. A particularly fine watercolor called Early Landscape resembles works by Arthur Dove. Except for a certain hamminess in the addition of a rail fence at the lower left—a fence, however, not unlike Kandinsky—the painting would be nearly as rewarding as one by Dove himself.

A lot of this stuff is at best of merely associative interest. Yet I can’t help thinking that if Cummings had been French this oeuvre would receive all-out treatment by the Bibliothèque Nationale. The unfortunate thing about the exhibition is that because of its exclusively literary connections the important paintings and drawings of e.e. cummings will disappear into the studies of English professors rather than enter public collections—a pity because the pastels and many watercolors are fine enough to be anthologized in handbooks of American painting.

Joseph Masheck