CHAPTER THREE: FIVES
III. 1. ARCANUM NUMBER FIVE
ART SCHOOLS AND IDOLATRY
THE NEW YORK CIRCLE
POP AND THE FIGURE 5
POINTS OF LIGHT
III. 1. ARCANUM NUMBER FIVE
When we first began to string up the warp threads for weaving this text about Marcel Duchamp and his mystery sculpture, With Hidden Noise, we chose a card from the Major Arcana of the Tarot called the Hierophant, the card marked with the cardinal Roman (originally Etruscan) numeral V. Our intent was to use this as an expository device, a kind of psycho-cosmic window or looking-glass through which we might better frame and focus our subject's image. The Tarot's Major Arcana traditionally consists of twenty-two cards, although one radical, contemporary teaching indicates this number ought to be expanded to twenty-four. Each of these cards illustrates an "archetype," representing a basic aspect of the nature and function of the human psyche. Even though the authentic tradition has been maligned and misunderstood, frequently corrupted and fraudulently embellished, the Tarot is still known as one of the Books of God, and therefore--on principle--deserves the respect we are bound to accord all such sacred texts.
In theory, these archetypes work in a pre-intellectual manner, with symbolic colors and imagery that can be apprehended directly and immediately, without the need for priestly intercession, much less requiring scholarly interpretation. Viewed historically, the Tarot is one of the world's great loose-leafed books of popular wisdom. Its origins are uncertain, lost in a scramble of conflicting claims about primacy and the wildest superstitious speculation; but in its marked state, the Tarot appears in Western Europe sometime in the fourteenth century, immediately antecedent to the appearance in the West of the revolutionary print technology that introduced moveable type.
Not for a moment have we presumed to lay out here in any systematic or comprehensive way the esoteric teachings of the Tarot. One of the self-referential declarations within the Tarot tradition tells of certain historical circumstances in which the full deck is to be published. Several sources suggest that that time is very near--the time to bruit about the Tarot's secret teachings. If this be so, it is fully in accord with, for example, the Hopi prophesies which say that the time of the Third Purifier is at hand: the way of peace with love.
Should humanity fail to respond appropriately to this challenge-- to follow the Hopi along the path of peace with love--then surely there will come, say the Hopi, the Fourth Purifier, which will be without compassion. So, it would seem wise and prudent--particularly at this time--to direct our optimistic attention toward whatever teachings might increase and expand the degree of human awareness necessary for returning our world to harmony with the principles of nature and basic sanity. Our intention in offering commentary on such issues here is certainly to assist this process in whatever small way; but at this time and in the present context, we do not presume to discuss the entire integrated, formal curriculum tokened by the Tarot. Nevertheless, at the calculated risk of trying to take something out of fully-fleshed context in order to provide helpful guidance for ordinary human beings, we propose to include certain references to these esoteric teachings in our present exercise of publishing an exoteric text on a global network.
At a crucial historical moment in the evolution of America's national attitude toward art and artists, Marcel Duchamp realized one eloquent embodiment of the archetype: the Artist as High Priest, with its related ideas and imagery. He accomplished this through his creative nonconformity and newsworthy personality--in the popular American way--i.e. through both fame and notoriety. We can appreciate this more fully and in finer detail by playing out some of the meanings and associations of the Hierophant card. In variant forms and as represented in different packs, the Hierophant may be depicted as the Pope, or as some other (such as an Egyptian) High Priest. The human figures (and indeed the other elements) depicted on the cards are all meant to symbolize aspects of our inner being. But we are cautioned not to identify with any one card; we are all of them, and all of the cards are within us. Neither are some cards "good" or "lucky," nor are others "bad" or "unlucky." But read aright, they do provide us with concrete representations which can be viewed as elements in a formal language--a graphic, symbolic shorthand--illustrating characteristic stages in the evolution of normal human consciousness.
The meaning of the Hierophant card in such a process has to do with the barriers that knowledge can present, even though it is assumed (as in Plato) that we already have within us all of the knowledge we need for Enlightenment. Having completed the extensive preliminaries that qualify us to become fully aware of this sacred knowledge, the situation indicated by the card is one in which the process of embodying that self-awareness has not yet occurred. The Hierophant conjures with a gesture of Unity, but the path is blocked in three ways: physically, intellectually and emotionally. Only when we open ourselves in these three centers of consciousness will we really be prepared for a balanced spiritual evolution, to receive the essential stimulus for realizing that sacred knowledge.
In such circumstances, knowledge can be viewed as a formidable barrier, since it may manifest as bullying prejudice, dogmatic beliefs or deeply held emotional biases. But the traditional teachings say that only our Essence is truly sacred, so the Big Danger tokened by this card is that we might remain outside the "Kingdom of Heaven," however much we may adore the sacred knowledge but neglect to take it inside with a pure, unselfish motive and compassion in our hearts. A person undergoing this process is measured in a most profound way: for this challenge gauges the degree of our internal clarity about reality. Here the idea of measurement, we could say, has become literally crucial: we must cross these barriers. But for many people the idea that everything is already inside us can be terrifying, because then there is no exogenous power or being to blame, and finally, we must accept some degree of mature responsibility for the evolution of our own consciousness. However, we must also avoid the Big Temptation of solipsism or idolatry, as in believing that something is real or holy just because it is we who happen to be doing the believing.
Duchamp beautifully illustrates--in his life, in his writing, and in his art--these balanced aspects of knowledge. Measurement--in his radical, revolutionary approach to art--was absolutely crucial, as we shall explore shortly in greater detail. Duchamp demonstrated respect for his own inner calling both historically and biographically, making career decisions that, despite their ethical consistency, might have confounded even the closest of his practical friends. Yet, his resilient, reflexive sense of humor, always on guard against taking himself too seriously, enabled Duchamp to transcend the solipsistic isolation of becoming wrapped in a private universe, a peril that may well have blocked several talented and (otherwise) successful artists.
ART SCHOOLS AND IDOLATRY
Let us consider Duchamp, then, as our guide in the land of art history through the precipitous gorges of temptations such as artistic solipsism or the specter of idolatry in art, old and new. These temptations are inculcated in places known as fine arts departments or art schools, being modern descendants of the institution conceived by the King of France, Louis XIV, for exploiting state resources in order to fabricate art of an invented, personally determined style, which could then serve as an effective vehicle for promoting the new political and economic ideas of French nationalism. Art schools would have been--and still are--unthinkable among the traditional Hopi or the Balinese.
In the Western tradition, conservative art schools encouraged copying from the masters, and taught drawing from plaster casts of antique sculpture. Copying is a legitimate way to learn technique, and the fine arts tradition in China has always employed it (with a big downside for individual creativity, of course). But which masters to copy? Ah, it takes a master to know one; and there's the rub: the weak, the wrong, or the wacko teacher. But in a bureaucratic system, who is really to know? Not administrators. At its best, such a program supplied well-trained technicians, cogs in a big art machine. With a highly skilled driver, this could produce Gobelin tapestries and the gardens at Versailles. But after Mansart's early architecture, Bernini's sculpture, and the painting of Nicolas Poussin, this culture engine down-shifted to crank out safer state-controlled aesthetic works by the court architect Louis Le Vau, by the sculptors Girardon and Coysevox, and by the painter Charles Lebrun who, in 1663, became director of the French Royal Academy that had been founded in 1648.
Apart from the absolutist, totalitarian political motives of establishing centralized control over the arts (as for every other aspect of life), the rationale for founding the Academy was to provide theoretical knowledge, replete with intellectual pretensions, by way of supplanting the practical knowledge (despised as humble mechanics) which had been lost in the Baroque when the chain of oral transmission from fully qualified master painter to apprentice painter was broken.
[Lebrun] established a rigid curriculum of compulsory instruction in practice and theory, based on a system of "rules"; this set the pattern for all later academies including their modern successors, the art schools of today. Much of the body of doctrine was derived from Poussin's views but carried to rationalistic extremes. The Academy even devised a method for tabulating, in numerical grades, the merits of artists past and present in such categories as drawing, expression and proportion.
...It is hardly surprising that this straightjacket system produced no significant artists.
[ H. W. Janson, History of Art, p. 555. ]
If art schools in twentieth-century America were to point out any French artists for emulation, they certainly would not finger Duchamp. The traditionalists have been catching up with Manet and Monet--both of whom were excellent artists...but, alas, from the previous century. More "progressive" art schools might suggest Cézanne or Seurat to the serious student. Indeed, Roy Lichtenstein's mocking Portrait of Madame Cézanne (1962) is a parody of instructional diagrams in the once widely-used textbook by Erle Loran. As John Coplans has pointed out,
The drawings fascinated Lichtenstein, if for no other reason than the attraction of outlining a Cézanne when the artist himself had noted that the outline had escaped him.
[ John Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein, quoted in Jean Lipman and Richard Marshall, Art About Art, E.P.Dutton, New York (1978), p. 102. ]
Nobody in America pays much attention to art schools; in the recurrent assaults on our public educational institutions, the budgets for art and music are the first to be cut. Ever since the impact of the Armory Show in 1913, in conventional popular wisdom, art has been like a baby for critics and journalists either to cuddle or burp. For many if not most Americans (with Keene eyes on Christina's world), art has meant something between the stilted exercises of illustrators such as Rockwell Kent (who was on the Hanging Committee that refused to exhibit Duchamp's Fountain in 1917), and the mass media manifestations of the Muse's imagery as Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell: that is, "art" in America has had a hard (and thirsty) time of it, caught between a Rockwell and a Rockwell.
When the "higher education" in America's academic establishment succumbs to temptations of idolatry to art, it is often by way of prognosticating upon the pronouncements of posterity as if--in full professorial pomposity--presuming to call the shots of history, very pretentiously, in advance. The essentially internal, magical process of art is misrepresented by pseudo-scientific would-be knowledge under the guise that "names and dates" have become somehow reified, objective data, thus confounding matters of real substance. Of course, names and dates can be reckoned, and--as we have seen with With Hidden Noise--ignoring them altogether is certainly difficult for historians to justify. Yet, Duchamp taught us a lesson about how to avoid the narrow business of "names" by changing one's persona (Rrose Sélavy), and by extending the artist's signature to a point beyond absurdity, as when he signed a "Readymade" mural, extant in a New York cafe, thus performing an early act of art-by-appropriation. Taking into account all of Duchamp's lost originals, his authorization of manifold replicas or recreations of Readymades, and the many abandoned or long-term secret projects, he also seems to be telling the serious student not to put much significance in the mere transient temporality of "dates." The idolatry issue has been slugged out often when the history of religion--and specifically the belief that forms and images possess some magical power or agency--infiltrates the history of art. The original Jewish Temple differed from the pagan temple in NOT containing a cult image. So much for the art and craft of sculpture that had flourished, celebrating the Great Goddess, since Her ivory representations were placed in the shrines of their encampments by paleolithic mammoth hunters, Her stone images carved in the caves, and Her form in clay figures fired (around 25,000 BC) at Dolni Vestonice. But "graven images" became extraneous for the rabidly patriarchal Semitic tribes, as they diverged ever further from traditions that used those sacred objects in venerable rites honoring the processes of a bountiful and sustaining nature--which was also to be sustained by those very practices of religion that came to be deprecated as "pagan," and "idolatrous." Tending their stock and moving on, overgrazing the land and turning it into desert, the early Jews saw the "idol" only as a thing, focussing on the nominal "product," while the verbal "process" of respecting the Great Mother, from contemporary perspectives on ancient ecology anyway, was deeply, disastrously misunderstood.
A figure, to be regarded as an idol by the early nomadic Semites, had to cast a shadow; but for some ultra-Orthodox Jews and many strict, fundamentalist Muslims even today, any representation of the human form may be considered taboo. However, subtle and doctrinally sophisticated distinctions may be drawn between idolatry and a recognition of certain intrinsic qualities in works of art that inspire or describe events with a spiritual flavor. In the Himalayas, rocks on which are carved or painted the sacred mantram OM MANI PADME HUM ("Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus!") are revered not simply in and for themselves but obviously for their pious message, while some icons or holy images in Orthodox Christianity are believed to have appeared on Earth by divine fiat. All of which suggests that liturgical proscriptions against the presumed audacity of Mankind impersonating God's Creativity must be distinguished from innocent art appreciation.
The Byzantine Iconoclasts in 726 AD, inflamed by an imperial edict and supported by traditions of ingrained Middle Eastern iconophobia, gave the biblical prohibition against graven images (Moses vs. Aaron and the Golden Calf) a fundamentalist reading, and sought to limit artistic representation to plants or animals and abstract forms. They felt obliged by the fervor of their belief to destroy all art depicting the human form (as conservative Islamic tradition feels to this day). The Western empire, where the Latin traditions were stronger, had its vengeance by 843, destroying all the art of their Eastern adversaries. Similarly, latter day Protestant iconoclasts in the Netherlands just as sadly obliterated all the Dutch medieval and Renaissance art they could find. For example, the elaborate frame of the magnificent Ghent Altarpiece by the brothers Van Eyck was destroyed by Christian fanatics bent on exorcising idolatrous art in 1566, and it is only because forewarned clerics hid the painted panels that the world is still able to marvel at this aesthetic treasure.
The secular art schools of Europe and America practiced a sort of idolatry all their own, specifically with a piece of sculpture known as the Apollo Belvedere, one of art's most sacred cows. Proudly promoted during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as THE quintessential exemplar of Classical fifth-century BC Greek aesthetics, some luster was lost when archaeological evidence identified it as a later copy from an antique period of stylistic revival that took place in Rome, thus undermining the idolatries about a period of time and a special place which supposedly defined a golden age for the arts. Still, the statues of pure white Mediterranean marble, perfectly-proportioned and providing state-sanctioned role models of an Aryan physical type--that fit in so conveniently with the modern emergence of Eurocentric racist theories and nation state propaganda campaigns--purportedly showed everyone how "true" or "real" art should look.
When further research confirmed that the ancient Greeks polychromed their marble sculpture, this devastated an idolatry erroneously based on color, or the presumed absence thereof. When we realized that most of the major Classical Greek sculptors worked in bronze, while their later Hellenistic and Roman copiers made the cheaper marble immitations, this challenged an idolatry based on materials and notions about their respective preciousness. That most of the bronze masterpieces of antiquity were melted down for money or for weapons of war only added a sanguineous, sardonic twist to the ideals of Progress, Civilization, Development, and Evolution, seriously undermining the desperate quest for absolute material standards to apply in the evaluation of art.
One direct expression of idolatry in modern America, however, retains some of this old-fashioned penchant for worshipping the material art object as a scarcity commodity, as a rare and precious, valued "thing"--an Anglo-Saxon legal term having the same force as res in Latin. Only a nitpicking distinction separates such idolaters from the worshippers of Mammon, since for the latter this value is conceived and expressed as dollars and cents; when bequests were tax-deductible, universities and art museums used to receive many more highly-valued works of art as gifts. Noblesse oblige, some say--or, we may have to concede a point to those tempted by cynical skepticism.
Idolatry of knowledge, and of the special sects or cliques that supposedly have that knowledge about twentieth-century art history, is closely tied in with often arbitrarily defined "movements," such as Cubism or (later, in America) Abstract Expressionism, each with its own heroes. Artificially linear temporal sequences are then supposed to demonstrate "influences," with the most influential artists hailed as all-stars--an idea (like the all-star concept in movie casting or professional sports) that critics and "experts" promote to prop up a peculiarly strained (but highly marketable) fable of individualism. From a dispassionate view, the Temptation there is one of idolatry of individuals in the sect, clique or movement--leaders of the pack.
[ A tip-o'-the hat to Phil Spector, and the Shangrilas from Queens.]
Among Americans, the great ego-master European artists of the present century are probably Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. Van Gogh is champ for the last century. Duchamp has not been a primo hero by a long shot, although his name suffers fawning adulation from a current idol-mongering coterie all his own--but not of his own doing. Since the deaths of Picasso and Dali, their names are heard less and less among artists, while Duchamp's (although he died years earlier) is bruited about with persistent frequency. This may show some genuine workings of Posterity's wisdom, because--in contrast to either Picasso or Dali--Duchamp provided a more profoundly modern and (for America) an earlier and possibly truer model of artistic consciousness interacting with life, and Duchamp's influence continues to inspire younger artists in new ways which never would have occurred to him, even.
THE NEW YORK CIRCLE
Sometimes Duchamp's influence is easy to spot in specific works, when they contain "quotations," as the term is used also in literary criticism. But lacking detailed visual references or corroborating documentation, instances of "influence" can be difficult to establish convincingly. For example, Duchamp's early interest in the visual properties and in the cultural implications of the machine, from the Coffee Grinder of 1911 on, we assume to have influenced his friend and colleague Francis Picabia. They both executed "exactly contemporary" works that paid unusual attention to the (then) almost forgotten subject of the nude, both developing this theme along similar lines, especially in the mechanomorphic paintings, with Picabia's Udnie (1913) as an obvious parallel to Duchamp's Bride of the same year. This close relationship continued when both artists managed to extract themselves from Europe and the First World War, finding refuge and warm reception in America.
[ See, Camfield, Picabia, p. 21-22, and p.69. See also, Maria Lluïsa Borrs, Picabia, Rizzoli, New York (1985), p. 101. ]
When Duchamp arrived in New York in 1915, he fell immediately into the circle of artists and writers who met in the Arensbergs' New York apartment on West Sixty-seventh Street. At first the soirees were centered around the pioneer photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but soon Picabia--who earlier had visited New York, in 1913--once again was joined by his friend and colleague from Europe, and "Duchamp and Picabia became the brightest stars of this glittering circle."
[ Calvin Tomkins, The World of Marcel Duchamp, Time-Life Books (1966) p. 37. See also, Rudolf E. Kuenzli, "Introduction," New York Dada; William Innes Homer, Alfred Stieglitz and the American Avant-garde, New York Graphic Society, Boston (1977); and Emily Farnham, Charles Demuth: Behind a Laughing Mask, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman (1971) p. 100. ]
The Arensberg salon included New York intelligentsia, flashy society figures and avant-garde artists, among whom the artist Charles Demuth and the poet William Carlos Williams were influential personalities. One part of the group calling itself "the Others" met periodically at Williams's place in nearby Rutherford, New Jersey. As a consequence of such gatherings, Marcel Duchamp developed an ongoing friendship with Demuth, the painter and watercolorist. After a masquerade ball at Webster Hall in 1915, Duchamp confided that
Demuth took me to Harlem for the first time, to Barron Wilkins' café there.
[ From an interview (no date) quoted by Farnham, Demuth, p. 103. Duchamp apparently errs, since Barron Wilkins's Little Savoy Club was originally on West Thirty-fifth Street, moving to Harlem in 1920. ]
Among all the intellectual, social, and artistic personalities, it was only Duchamp and Demuth--together with a very few others such as Mardsden Hartley--who shared an interest in ragtime and jazz, the most vital music in America at that time. From repeated visits to what were then called Negro clubs, especially the Marshall, located in a hotel basement on West Fifty-third Street under the Sixth Avenue El, Demuth made his first-hand watercolors, such as At Marshall's (1915) and Negro Jazz Band (1916), which provide rare and valuable visual documentation of early jazz, now recognized as one of America's major creative contributions to global culture.
[ Farnham, Demuth, p. 103. In his visits to the Harlem clubs, Demuth was often accompanied by Duchamp, Hartley or the artist Edward Fisk. ]
Charles Demuth was recently honored with a major retrospective exhibition, stunningly organized by Barbara Haskell, at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. This show has given many people the opportunity to appreciate Demuth's accomplishments as a fine draftsman and superb watercolorist. The exhibition confirmed most memorably, as the art critic Robert Hughes noted at the begnning of his review, that
Luckily or not, Charles Demuth (1883-1935) painted one picture so famous that practically every American who looks at art knows it. The Figure Five in Gold, 1928, is a prediction of pop art...[that] has become one of the icons of American modernism.
[ Robert Hughes, "Art," Time (December 7, 1987) p. 91. See also, Barbara Haskell, Charles Demuth, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1987). ]
Demuth's "poster portraits" with their early anticipations of pop art, in the view of many, are among his most impressive achievements. Perhaps the best-known of these is a semi-abstract evocation of the poet and pediatrician, William Carlos Williams.
[ Charles Demuth, Poster Portrait: I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (Homage to William Carlos Williams) (1928), in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection. ]
In his autobiography, Dr. Williams related the circumstances which led to composing "The Great Figure," the poem which in turn inspired the Demuth painting:
Once on a hot July day coming back exhausted from the Post Graduate Clinic, I dropped in as I sometimes did at Marsden's studio on Fifteenth Street for a talk, a little drink maybe and to see what he was doing. As I approached his number I heard a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue. I turned just in time to see a golden figure 5 on a red background flash by. The impression was so sudden and forceful that I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it.
THE GREAT FIGURE
[ William Carlos Williams, Sour Grapes, Boston, The Four Seas Co., (1921) p. 78. See also, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, New York, Random House (1951), p. 172; Farnham, Demuth, p. 101. ]
The poem and the painting it inspired exemplify the field of New York's vital artistic and literary community, in which the Arensberg salon acted as a powerful magnet. The two works, Demuth's painting and the Williams poem, both iconic responses to the attraction of numerals (the graphic figure "5"), expressed very different personalities nonetheless: a contrast pointing to the way in which Duchamp as well as Demuth, with social grace, effortlessly enjoyed heterogeneous company.
I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold [the title of Demuth's "poster portrait" oil painting, completed in 1928] gained considerable importance during the early sixties as a result of being used as a source by Pop artists. A red, gold, and blue-gray abstraction depicting a fire engine rushing through the theater district of New York, its dominating figure is a large motif consisting of three diminishing figures five, the innermost figure laid in gold leaf. As a portrait the work is most apt, since in personality and character Dr. Williams was much like a red, clanging fire engine--bold, honest, brutal, and, as his autobiography reveals, egotistical to the point of depreciating nearly all others...that Demuth was capable of simultaneous friendship with Williams and Duchamp is an indication of the complexity of his nature....
[ Farnham, Demuth, p. 102.]
POP AND THE FIGURE 5
We are divining the secret of With Hidden Noise with the aid of a clue and the idea of number, applied customarily and ubiquitously to reality by the conventions of count and measure to our temporal and aleatory universe. Duchamp's recurrent interest in these interrelated themes served as a fountain of inspiration for much art in our time, particularly for the "movement" known as Pop Art. Among Pop artists were several drawn to numerals as graphic signs, and some who delved into deeper ideas of number. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg pioneered a revitalized visual interest in the post-abstract, real world of the 1960s in America, an approach leading directly to Pop Art. Johns especially was drawn to the iconic, expressive function of numerals and letters of the alphabet. The intensity and graphic complexity of his numeral paintings implicitly display a mystical fascination with the symbolic qualities of number. We may note precedents in the typographical revolution that followed Dada, almost half a century before Pop Art; but Johns also appears to have utilized American sources found in the work of artists such as Stuart Davis (also a jazz fan), or in the famous painting of Demuth.
[ Jasper Johns, The Large Black Five. 1960. Encaustic, newsprint, burlap, and paper bags on canvas; how large? 72 1/4 x 54 3/8 inches. Originally in Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Scull's collection, New York.]
Some writers sense a continuity extending from Duchamp and Demuth through Johns and Rauschenberg to other pop artists of the 1960s, and subsequently to the younger artists who followed them. Another painter attracted to the graphic power of numerals and letter forms was Robert Indiana, who--like Johns--chose startling imagery, especially from the immediacy of America's visually rich, typographical environment.
Indiana has combined an interest in American literature...with a painting style derived from commercial design, which utilizes stencilled lettering to achieve a bold and colorful effect. Indiana's formal design and layout are quotations from commercial techniques in the same way that the visual images are quoted from Demuth. He has also borrowed from a third source--the signs of the American highway--and his inclusion of the signs and symbols HUG, EAT, USA, ERR, and DIE reflect an iconography rooted in the American experience. In this sense, Indiana's Demuth Five is about American art, literature, and design.
[ Jean Lipman and Richard Marshall, Art About Art, E. P. Dutton, New York, with the Whitney Museum of American Art (1978) p. 142. ]
Among Robert Indiana's most impressive paintings is that Demuth Five series of five panels demonstrating an imposing iconic presence, called by the artist variously, "Five Studies" or the "Fifth Dream" suite. They pay homage directly to Demuth and indirectly, by extension of literary reference, to Williams.
No doubt Indiana's initial interest in I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold was triggered by his enthusiastic reaction to the dramatic major configuration in this Demuth painting, a motif consisting of three numerals "five" situated one inside the other in a re-cessive manner, the farthest being laid in gold leaf. As early as 1960, Johns made use of this same central motif in his work The Large Black Five. Three years later Indiana produced his five paintings which are derived from Demuth's great poster portrait of Dr. Williams. Indiana himself enumerated these paintings in a letter he wrote the author on December 11, 1968: "All of my paint ings, and they number five, based on Demuth's I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold are listed here in the order on execution and completion:
It is this last painting, The Figure 5, which hung in the White House for a few years beginning in the fall of 1965, but was removed this spring  to hang in the National Collection of Fine Arts Gallery in Washington where it is now on extended loan. That is the Smithsonian's beautiful new (old) museum at Eighth and G Streets which used to be the Patent Office Building."
[ Farnham, Demuth, p. 178. ]
Robert Indiana's homage to Demuth's original "poster portrait" painting retains the device of the telescoped gold 5 placed on a star surrounded by stencilled letters. The Demuth American Dream also has the stencilled dates "1928" and "1963." We can appreciate the mystic sense of number in all this--beyond the graphic appeal that numerals (or letters of the alphabet) might hold for the artist's eye or the verbal inspiration they might generate for the poet's ear--by noting Indiana's associations with the numbers of his "Fifth Dream" suite:
I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold by Charles Henry Demuth is my favorite American painting in New York City's Metropolitan Museum. The Demuth American Dream No. 5, the central painting of the five in my "Fifth Dream" suite, is in homage to Demuth and in direct ref-erence to the same painting which his own object of acclamation, the American poet William Carlos Williams, thought one of his best works. I did my painting in 1963, which when subtracted by 1928 leaves 35--a number suggested by the succession of three fives (5 5 5) describing the sudden progression of the fire truck in the poet's experience. In 1935 Demuth died, either from an overdose or an underdose of insulin (he suffered for years from diabetes) according to Doctor Williams, the pediatrician-poet who birthed thousands of babies as well as hundreds of poems, and in 1963 the venerable doctor died, completing the unpremeditated circle of numerical coincidence woven within the "Fifth Dream."
[ Lipman and Marshall, p. 143. The authors cite Farnham, but no page; perhaps a letter from Indiana, December 11, 1968, mentioned p. 178. ]
POINTS OF LIGHT
In his book on The Cryptography of Dante, Marcel Duchamp's friend and collaborator on With Hidden Noise, Walter Arensberg, includes an important chapter on "The Universal Form." This title derives from a famous line in the last canto of Paradiso referring to Dante's vision as a "knot." In support of his novel interpretation, Arensberg cites another cryptographic line elucidated from a related, earlier passage, (Paradiso XVIII, 82-93), specificially from lines 91 and 93:
The passage refers to the sixth level of Paradise, associated with the planet Jupiter, populated with white stars that together form the shape of an eagle. The stars represent the transformed souls of people who, in their lives on earth, were particularly dedicated to Justice. The stars "dispose themselves" into letters (those emphasized above) a 35-letter cantrip. (Cabell's Jurgen was also charmed by the word JUSTICE). As Dante himself tells us quite pointedly, the star-letters form a sentence composed of vowels and consonnants "five times seven." The letters spell out, in Latin, the first verse from the Book of Wisdom (or, The Wisdom of Solomon):
DILIGITE JUSTICIAM QUI JUDICATIS TERRAM
(Love righteousness, ye that be judges of the earth.)
[ Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia: Paradiso, Rizzoli Editore, Milano (1949). Lines 88-89 read: "Mostrarsi dunque in cinque volte sette Vocali e consonanti." The translation above is by Laurence Binyon, in The Portable Dante, edited by Paolo Milano, The Viking Press, New York, (1947). ]
Since we have drawn attention to questions of artistic identity and the signature on With Hidden Noise, we should note that Walter Arensberg, the cryptanalyst, submited an alternate reading for this passage involving complicated manipulations with ciphers and acrostics and suggesting Dante's covert purpose was to add a secret signature.
Now what can be the reason for his thus indicating the exact number of the letters? ..."Five times seven" is thirty-five, the age, as is well-known, which Dante ascribes to himself at the time of his "vision." His vision came to him, as he tells us [in the Inferno I, "at the mid point along the road of life"], nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. In the Convivio he elaborates the psalmist's idea of the length of the life of man as seventy years, the mezzo of which is thirty-five. This age, moreover, is really an approximation to the age of Christ, according to medieval computations, at the time of his crucifixion. Thus Christ and Dante may be considered to have descended into Hell at the same age, a coincidence which I believe Dante intended as a further indication of his identity with Christ.
[ Walter Arensberg, The Cryptography of Dante, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1921), p. 157. A 70-year Aion for the psalmist, 72 elsewhere. ]
Dante's point about this imagery leads us to the letter "M" of the fifth word, at which the stars halted and other lights arrayed the "M" which appeared (probably in the form of a Gothic majuscule letter) looking like a Jovian eagle, "silver with patterning of gold inlaid," amid a sort of celestial fireworks display with "a thousand sparks of light." Whether or not the President of the United States of America, George Bush's political slogan "a thousand points of light" was only a cynical excuse for non-action-as-public-policy (as suggested by the "Doonesbury" cartoonist Gary Trudeau), for Dante the points meant to glorify the "M" for Monarchy, specifically the Florentine monarchia. Some see, in radical efforts to effect a transformation of the office of the presidency of the United States--latent in the patrician paternalism of F.D.R., become deviously apparent (through the use of "executive privilege" and retroactive "presidential findings") in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and even more insidiously in the clandestine petroleum-and-finance elitism of oilman and C.I.A. chief George Bush--a crypto-royalist attempt to reestablish monarchical attributes favored by Alexander Hamilton and his clique of moneyed apologists for the British crown (and for kingship generally) during and immediately following the American War of Independence.
When poets and artists read mystic signs in points of light, or in coincidences between certain numbers and events in their own lives--as in the "Gurdjieffian" numbers: 3, 6, 12, 24, 48, 96, 192, ...etc. (a series NOT in N.J.A. Sloane's Handbook)--substantive meaning must appear in the work itself. But how might this appear? Robert Indiana's web of hyper-rationalized integer-juggling was keyed by the year of his birth in 1928, and so--of course--he was also 35 years old in 1963, the date of the "Fifth Dream" suite. Admitting the need to be judicious about attributing too much importance to "names and dates," Indiana's deep concern with the symbolic power of number, still may give us pause before we insensitively dismiss such minutiae as merely incidental. For Indiana, like Johns, Demuth and Williams, treated the numeral "5" as if it were an icon having some immanent, magical quality: just like that quality Dante sought to elicit for the star-formed letter "M."
In 1921, when Arensberg's book was first published, Duchamp was only thirty-three years old. Had the book appeared but two years later, in 1923 when Duchamp was 35 years old and is then supposed to have "quit" painting, we would be more tempted to seek parallels with the respective Descents into Hell by Orpheus, Odysseus, Christ, and Arthur Rimbaud, or with those visions celestial as well as infernal described by the great Italian poet Dante and analyzed by Arensberg. The change in Duchamp's life around 1923, at that "half-way" age, when he did break with the Large Glass, may indeed provide a suggestive embellishment for speculations about hypothetical influences of Dante, or Demuth, or Indiana, or numerology. But substantive? You decide.