"BEYOND THE RHETORICIAN'S TOUCH": STEVENS'S PAINTERLY ASTRACTIONS
Alan Filreis(published in American Literary History, Spring 1992, pp. 230-63)
[W]e have pondered the impact of foreign ideas on American thought [but] we have neglected to evaluate our own part in the process of intercultural penetrations. In the absence of such a study, it is difficult to combat the widely held view that Ame rica is merely the recipient of European culture. -- H. F. Peters, "American Culture and the State Department" (274)
As you know, I pay just as much attention to painters as I do to writers because, except technically, their problems are the same. They seem to move in the same direction at the same time. You and I know that when a poet is writing merely like othe r poets it amounts to this: that when he is in New York he writes like the poets in New York, but if he moves to Paris, he writes like the poets in Paris. The same thing is true of painters. -- Stevens to Jose Rodriguez Feo (Letters 593)
We have accepted [abstract art's] existence almost without reflection on how strange, and indeed frightening it is, that l'art moderne, in coming so far, had arrived here. -- Robert Motherwell, using "here" to mean the United States (93-94)
Paris has lost to a great extent its role as international arbiter of fame and quality in the fine arts. -- James Thrall Soby ("Does Our Art Impress?" 144)
France leads us far more than we realize. -- Stevens to Henry Church (Letters 542)
AFTER TRUMAN DEFEATED DEWEY in 1948, Wallace Stevens suggested to Paule Vidal, his agent in Paris, that "the vast altruism of the Truman party"--meaning the Democrats' vow to the middle class that the redis- tribution of wealth through taxes would continu e--directly impinged upon his own ability as an American to buy French paintings. He deemed the election result "a misfortune" because the Democrats' project of "taxing a small class for the benefit of a large class" would make him "think twice about buy ing pictures." He realized that internal revenues were also used overseas to fend off enemies ("by enemies I mean the Russians, assuming that they are enemies") whose success would make it in any case impossible to "enjoy books and pictures in a world me naced by poverty" (Letters 623). It was not only Democratic taxes, but also crippling strikes on the French side, including one Vidal described involving the art dealers themselves, that made new purchases of paintings difficult. Because it has b ecome a clich‚ about Stevens that he had his Paris imaginatively, it seems about time to ask why Stevens did not turn to New York--to what Robert Motherwell was calling "here," with its ready supply of new paintings rising into vogue. The answer to this question is complex, but I think a start may be made in the letter about Truman, for here Stevens identified, though briefly, some connection between postwar politics--indeed, the cold war--and the American's capacity for acquiring paintings.
In making the difficult case for close relations between the abstract American painting then ascendant and cold-war politics, Max Kozloff, John Tagg, Eva Cockcroft and Serge Guilbaut have shown in various ways how, in Guilbaut's attractive phrase, "New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art" from Paris. As the U.S. made the final transition from colonized nation to colonizer, this argument more or less convincingly runs, a new American form of painting was enlisted as a weapon in the war fought for the min d of Europe. To some extent, Stevens's attitude toward painting involved him in the new cultural politics. It is also important to the reading offered here of Stevens's postwar paintings and poems-about-paintings, however, that I describe his exceptiona l approach to the situation. An observation key to the revisionists' version of the rapid ascendency of abstract expressionism is that from the end of the war through the early fifties the typical traffic flowed one way, from the U.S. to France-- indeed that in the months immediately after the war, and through 1946, "there was almost no exchange" of paintings between the U.S. and France at all. "Nineteen forty-six was a year of questioning" (Guilbaut 124). Assuming this as fact, we begin to recognize Stevens's relationship with Paule Vidal as a significant anomaly. For after negotiating unsuccessfully through her agency for a second painting by De la Petellier, in August of 1946, that evidently dry year, Stevens asked her to visit the home of Camille Bombois and purchase his Loiret et Olivet. While promoters of the new American art were gleefully observing how New York was supplanting Paris as the center of the art world, Stevens was ever more earnestly looking to Paris.
American art critics fought hard in this period to overcome traditional European reluctance to credit American painting with any value. Just as the counterassertion--of American creativity and originality--had been absorbed into a comprehensive "New N ationalism" during World War II only a few years earlier, so now it was as vigorously a part of cultural cold war. Yet both rhetorical and substantive differences between the wartime and postwar nationalisms were obvious to anyone who visited exhibits an d read the catalogues as mindfully as Stevens did: in wartime, curatorial strategies often entailed exhibiting French paintings in an explicitly Americanist setting, a trend Stevens's museum visits amply showed him. But just a few years later, no such al legiant, nativist context needed construing by curators lying in wait for OWI and other propaganda dollars, for by then there was a generation of young American painters ready to display their works. Not surprisingly, European critics' resistance to the shift in centers of aesthetic power, and to the latest American claim of originality, became stiff at times. Reviewing an exhibit of abstract expressionists for a French readership, Jean-Jose‚ Marchand was sure to mention first that the exhibit had been f unded by the United States Information Agency; he then announced his judgment that Gottlieb, Bearden and Browne "would pass for very mediocre in France." Clement Greenberg's exchange in the Nation with David Sylvester gives a good sense of accusations of ideological bias traded back and forth almost from the moment the war ended. As Greenberg saw it, Europeans wrongly assumed "that since America has not yet produced anything very important in the way of art, there is little likelihood that it ever will" (Greenberg, "European View" 490). Sylvester had been referring to the Biennale exhibition in Venice, where Gorkys, de Koonings and Pollocks were met with phrases like "merely silly" and talk centered on how "[t]he future of art . . . depended on which p olitical side wins." In a counter-reply, Sylvester decided that Greenberg's complaint smelled of red-baiting, already a well-developed American sport (though not overtly Greenberg's). It is telling of the rapid ideological readjustments of the time--194 6 through 1950 especially-- that someone as politically independent as Greenberg could face such a charge. "[I]n explaining away European indifference to the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale as the product of anti-American prejudice," Sylvester n oted, Greenberg and other backers of the new American abstraction, along with the paintings themselves, fell headlong into "the world of politics, where no one is disinterested, [and where] there is some excuse for attributing base motives to opinions tha t differ from one's own" (Sylvester, "Sylvester Replies" 492). The British critic wanted only to state how deeply implicated in cold-war policies the art world had and would become, in spite of all efforts to stay aloft. "[I]f our criticisms of your pai nters are the consequence of our 'resentment' against our 'economic dependence' upon you, your worries will soon be over so far as England is concerned; for after 1952 we shall need no more Marshall aid, and then we shall be able to give your art its due" ("Sylvester Replies" 492). By raising the extremely sensitive issue of Marshall Plan assistance, and implying its ultimate power as cultural cooptation, Sylvester, it seems to me, got the better of Greenberg, whose reliance on a canny "Eliotic Trotskyis m" could not quite satisfactorily prove to an Englishman the inherent potency of American ideas when they were not backed by dollars and counterintelligence. Indeed, as the Sylvester- Greenberg argument carried on, Porter McCray, formerly of Nelson Rocke feller's Office of InterAmerican Affairs and MOMA's postwar director of circulating exhibits, prepared to leave New York for Paris, where he would work for the foreign exhibits section operating out of Marshall Plan budgets and Marshall Plan offices (Cock croft 40; Lynes 384-85); and Thomas Braden, who had served as MOMA's executive secretary, joined the CIA and helped design programs to infiltrate various international cultural fronts (Braden 13). In an otherwise understated institutional biography of MO MA, Russell Lynes has written of McCray's move to Paris: "The Museum now had, and was delighted to have, the whole world (or at least the world outside the Iron Curtain) in which to proselytize--though this time the exportable religion was home-grown rath er than what had been in the past its primary message, the importable faith from Europe" (Lynes 385).
If contemporary American painting did play as important a role in the cultural cold war as especially Cockcroft, Guilbaut and Lynes suggest, what is extraordinary is not that fact alone--for many cultural enterprises found themselves playing some such role--but that so deliberately apolitical a movement could become so intensely politicized. Responding to a criticism that had attacked all abstract art as irresponsible, Paul Burlin claimed that he and his colleagues painted at the end of ideology. "Mo dern painting," Burlin said, "is the bulwark of the individual creative expression, aloof from the political left and its blood brother, the right" (quoted in Guilbaut 181). For Harold Rosenberg, postwar art entailed the political choice of giving up pol itics: the expressions of the current abstractionists fashioned "an idiom that belongs to no one country, race or cultural temperament" (Rosenberg 75). Motherwell also asserted that "art is not national, that to be merely an American or French artist is to be nothing" (quoted in Guilbaut 175). And when he noted how far modern art had come, he meant "far" both figuratively and literally-- figuratively toward abstract expressionism and literally toward the United States. He wanted to point out, in other words, how far modern art had gone only to find its permanent home (Motherwell 93-94).
Yet in its politically shrewd reaction against politics, in its ostensible demonstration that competing ideologies had depleted themselves and dissipated adherents--in Rosenberg's feeling that political commitment caused artists' ruin even as he percei ved their particular "revolt against the materialist tradition" (Rosenberg 75; see Tagg 69-70)--the new painters and their supporters had of course become fully engaged in the issues of the day. While claiming no national allegiance, their work served in the most powerfully disarming way to put forth a fresh, intrepid American image abroad. James Thrall Soby--then of MOMA and formerly of Hartford's ambitious Wadsworth Atheneum (where Stevens knew him well and knew his modern collection painting by paint ing)--wrote about the exciting American innovations in one of his Saturday Review columns, in August 1949, identifying the Soviets as the sole propagandizing force in Europe. In reply, Soby argued, the new art, though not perhaps intrinsically pro pagandistic (as thirties-style realism had been), must be pressed into the service of countering propaganda by virtue of its uniquely American aesthetic import. Soby's tone and terms were quite obviously on loan from the rhetoric of cold war: "[W]e need every means of communication we can get . . . [because] we are engaged in a vital struggle." He was quite confident that this "vital struggle" would helpthe peoples of Europe regain their strength, to persuade them that we and they are committed to the same basic ideals. One of the most effective propaganda charges used against us in this struggle is that we are a rich, vast, powerful nation, but a natio n not deeply concerned with the arts or with related spiritual values. On the political front, . . . [i]n refuting propaganda of this kind, we need every means of communication we can get. Our problem, unlike that of the Russians, is not to convince our own people of democracy's advantages. . . . It is to show the peoples of other nations, in their own lands, what we are really like, without attempting to distort, to aggrandize, or to conceal. . . . [O]ur few internationally known painters and sculptor s are an immense asset toward foreign understanding. (Soby, "Does Our Art Impress?" 147)
Those who advanced the idea that American art circulating in Europe should be officially endorsed (and financed) by the U.S. government, such as Stevens's old friend Soby, and a newer friend, James Johnson Sweeney, did not imagine themselves as underwr iting an American hegemony--the can't-lose assertion abroad of proof that American aesthetic freedom, a genuine avant-garde, thrived at home. Far from it in Sweeney's case. Surely when he rose to his position on the editorial board of the Partisan Re view in early 1948, he considered it an affirmation of his political neutrality and intellectual independence in a time of increasing conformity in both areas. Sweeney's enlistment at Partisan was nevertheless part of a distinct rightward real ignment there; he was joined at the same time by Allan Dowling, James Burnham (then a CIA "researcher"), and Sidney Hook (as well as Lionel Trilling). Just prior to Sweeney's move to Partisan, some Republican critics in Congress complained that th e State Department was backing with taxpayers' dollars "communistic" painting abroad, arguing that "Modern art is Communistic because it is distorted and ugly, because it does not glorify our beautiful country, our cheerful and smiling people" (quoted in Hauptman 48); Sweeney, in formulating his response, did not view the act of defending postwar abstraction against the right as having anything at all to do with denigrating--or for that matter glorifying--"our beautiful country." When the State Departmen t finally did cancel the government-funded modern art project, Sweeney was one of the loudest public protestors, claiming that not having state sponsorship, and some concomitant control, was "a threat to liberty of expression" ("Artists Protest" 24 )--a somewhat untenable argument familiar as such to supporters of experimental art who found themselves forced to use it in 1989. Clearly, then, backers of the new American painting in the late forties and fifties--including Sweeney whom Stevens would s ee regularly throughout this period at the Park Avenue parties given by his friend Barbara Church, at least several times at Sweeney's East End apartment and during several visits to the Guggenheim--simply did not at the time perceive these efforts as ent angling contemporary American painting in the "contemporary"-style war of ideas against the Soviets. Whether they were conscious or not--in Sweeney's case it seems not, even when he made the American selections at the same Venice show that caused Sylvest er's cry of American heavy-handedness and Greenberg's response charging antiAmericanism (see Lynes 385); and even when he ran an exhibition in Paris organized by the virulently anticommunist (and CIA-funded) Congress for Cultural Freedom, an exhibit Mrs. Church attended--it can hardly be disputed that these exertions corresponded with tremendous overt and covert efforts made by various branches of the U.S. government to put into place "a postwar program to demonstrate our cultural activity to our former A llies" (Genauer 89).
The pattern that emerges from Stevens's first postwar acquisitions reveals an uncommon, complex relation to these fresh cultural claims for and in American art; he both repudiated them and finally reinforced them, but each disposition discloses a trend in his later poems--a movement back to the real that had somehow to consort with what he was calling "the momentum toward abstraction" (Letters 601, 608). Well aware of the great ideological force moving alongside this "momentum toward abstractio n" in painting, and long an admirer of certain abstract canvases, he nevertheless deliberately chose to move against a main tenet of the current program--namely, that France was no longer central and the United States no longer peripheral--choosing in fact to buy representational modern French paintings, which, through the elaborate process of buying them sight-unseen, he allowed to be outstripped by his poetic imagination; and this, in turn, meant a leaning toward, not away from, bot h the newest abstract mode and its cultural promotion. While deliberately stemming the flow of abstraction in purchasing his paintings, he tried to go along with it in the poetry. He wrote poems to replicate the paintings he bought, basing several works specifically on the paintings as he imagined them during the process in which they were described in his agent's letters. Any timidity restraining his actual purchases was overcome by the poems about the paintings, poems that are boldly "contempo rary" in the sense then momentous. Stevens could maintain his dearly iconicized Europe, and could shore up his integrity against the propagandistic politics of art through faithful representations of that "longed-for land" (see Collected Poems 486 ), and yet still be part of the fascinating momentum toward the noniconic, allowing his career-long interest in abstraction unprecedented free play. Indeed he would learn from his new poems-about-painting, as I will show, that contemporary poetry could b e even "abstracter" (Letters 602) than contemporary painting; he himself never quite arrived at so "contemporary" a poetry, but his painterly works of the late-forties I think point toward such a verse even as they may not have been easing once and for all his doubts about noniconic art.
There were, of course, other reasons why Stevens sought a dealer for his postwar purchases in Paris and not in New York. The complex story of his acquisition of Pierre Tal Coat's Still Life and its direct effect on the composition of the poem " Angel Surrounded by Paysans" (1949), a story I have told elsewhere in detail, presents a comedy of culturally meaningful errors, and demonstrates that Stevens enjoyed for its own sake the related semiotic and social intracacies of buying a painting sight- unseen--the literal poetics of agency (Filreis, esp. 354-64). It was not only that his dealer, in most instances, was compelled by the process to convey in words the paintings she thought he might like to buy; further, hers were the words exclusively of letters--written, mailed and received--involving all possible epistolary miscues and misdirections. No less than with his Cuban correspondent, Jose‚ Rodriguez Feo--whom Stevens warned would risk "accusations of imperialism" by paying closer attention to t hings American than to things Cuban (Coyle and Filreis 52-54, 56)--Stevens saw the process of acquiring postwar French paintings, a matter of working through an international relation between a wholly intact culture and a war-torn one, as greatly stimulat ing in itself--and, more, that the process directly implicated the art he was buying and the devastated culture he felt he was supporting by its means. The poems he wrote about the paintings bear signs of a special foreign obligation as well as devotion to already Americanized senses of the abstract.
Basic miscommunications--for instance, when letters from or to Vidal containing essential information crossed in the transatlantic mail--were never really causes for anxiety, even when a moderate sum of money was involved. They were but additional, ev en delightful, new features of foreign exchange to be learned and mastered. In 1947, for instance, Stevens was engaged in the process of procuring his Roland Oudot Bathers; his June 16 letter was written and sent before Paule Vidal's long letter o f May 20 had arrived, an unfortunate crossing as Vidal's May 20 letter described two Oudots she decided Stevens might like. When Vidal then received his June 16 letter, she seems to have believed that it had been written after he had already received her May 20 letter. She replied finally to both his June 16 and June 18 letters. (In these he was now specifying which of the Oudots previously mentioned he wished to purchase, though this selection was not the painting he eventually bought.) Yet by the ti me she sat down to reply to the two mid-June letters, he had already written his letter of June 23, which she had not yet received. In the event that Stevens felt he had to be certain to convey a timely piece of information, such as when on July 9 he app roved the purchase, after all, of Oudot's Bathers, he simply sent a telegram in advance of his letter. Otherwise he seemed to relish his effort to manage the minor confusions; indeed, one of the unspoken rules of his epistolary, cross-cultural rel ationship with Paule Vidal was that she should take even his strictest instructions merely as suggestions from an American who did not finally know a great deal about French painting. This placed a much greater burden on her than on him. One can hardly imagine trying to follow, for instance, these instructions:I should not mind having a picture by Tal Coat, or any other intelligent painter, regardless of manner, provided it is not ugly. A few really experimental pictures touch one as the pictures, say, of the impressionists touch one because the artist starts out to experiment to the exclusion of everything else. An experimental picture may convey a sense of intellectual rigor or of esthetic vitality that is quite as agreeable as anything else but it must not be ugly.
The unfollowable guidance he gave his dealer was nonetheless part of an overall design. Indeed, in my view, giving Vidal what he thought was the freedom to choose for him was integral to his general ambition to work against the grain of the new Americ an modes; if the prevailing politics of painting centered on the nationalist solemnization of the abstract expressionists--their durable fame seemed then already largely assured to gallery-goers sensing an "irreversib[ility] . . . about the course paintin g was supposed to be taking" (Kozloff, "Reception" 32)--Stevens deliberately preferred, on the other hand, "some nice little bit by nobody." Here again, of course, his instruction to Vidal implied that she would have to weigh the celebrity value of the p ainter somehow against the absolute aesthetic value of the painting ("it must not be ugly"), as if these were comparable categories. "I should much rather have some nice little bit by nobody," he wrote, "provided I like it, than to buy it for no other re ason that but I believed it to be by a celebrated painter. I care nothing about his celebrity if his paintings mean nothing." If Stevens's ambition to go against the "momentum toward abstraction" did not succeed in the end, it was because buying paintin gs was one thing for him and writing poems somewhat another: whatever resistance he threw up in one act of cultural relation (dealing with Paris as if New York had not advanced) was undone when he attempted to continue the resistance in the poems that rep roduced the cultural relation, and so the American poems-about-French paintings he wrote in the late forties were actually of a piece with the newest American work and power in art. The differences between resistance in the acquisition of art and accommo dation in producing it were quite stimulating for Stevens; he learned rapidly how to control them. His poetic appropriation of Oudot's Bathers, inciting "A Lot of People Bathing in a Stream," enacts the same brilliant interartistic strategy for ad justing Tal Coat's Still Life to "Angel Surrounded by Paysans" a little later.
Paule Vidal did purchase for Stevens a painting by Camille Bombois. Soon afterward, she received his letter praising the Bombois; she took the occasion to clarify the dilemma presented by her peculiar position as mediator between Stevens and painting. On February 8, 1947 she wrote him:I know well how difficult it is to buy a work of art for a third person and, what's more, you prefer so-called "modern" painting[;] your taste for Braque confirms it[.] I, on the contrary, I am more a "moderate" and I've a horror of abstraction in art, i n painting as in music. Art is transposition, but it still has to touch my sensibilities and ravish me. Your appreciation of the BOMBOIS amused me.
Stevens's reply to this, a letter dated March 6, calls out to be read as part of the delicate negotiations concerning Vidal's agency. His effort to qualify his inclination toward modern abstraction was less an expression of his own "horror of a bstraction in art" than a matter of smoothing over the differences between him and his agent. He wanted her to "feel, always, that I have confidence in your taste and judgment." "While I like Braque," he wrote, "I like him in spite of his modern pervers ions. There is a siccity and an ascetic quality about his color that is very much to my liking. Some of his greens and browns are almost disciplinary. . . . After all, one can be as much ravished by severity as by indulgence." His improvised solution h ere was to speak of the modernist's colors--rather than of nonobjective forms. He was keenly aware that when he said a painting must please him, he really meant that, "under the circumstances," a painting must please her (Letters 547-48).
But Vidal had been addressing a contradiction to which Stevens did not respond in an otherwise adroit reply. For all his interest in abstraction, her letter had wondered, hadn't he just purchased a Bombois? After all this, then, "Your appreciation of the BOMBOIS amused me." Stevens's attitude toward modern art was indeed confusing to Vidal. On one hand there was all this intrepid talk about abstraction; and on the other hand, his actual purchases, rather securely representational. "His bridges are substantial bridges," Wilhelm Uhde wrote of Bombois (in a book Stevens later purchased); "his churches seem to be built of actual brick and stone. His art is not an expression of sensibility via symbolism, but sensibility expressed via delight in literal fact and form. The objects he paints are almost literal facts. . . ." (Uhde 81). Loiret et Olivet, Stevens's Bombois, while not quite as literalistic as the solid, factual manner Uhde describes, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be said to participate in the manner of modern abstraction (see illustration).
As Vidal and Stevens turned toward the project of a purchase to succeed the Bombois, a pattern began to repeat itself. When push came to shove, Stevens seemed to prefer the safer, representational paintings; it was a tendency Sweeney observed, and indeed "playing it safe" was the phrase he later used when asked during an interview to characterize Stevens's acquisitions (Brazeau 227). Choosing between Francisco Bores's abstract "geometry" and Roland Oudot's "poetry" and "fantasy," Stevens and Vidal decided to pursue the Oudot, a clear sign that an earlier acute interest in James Soby's neo-Romantics--Eugene Berman, Yves Tanguy, Pavel Tchelitchew--had left its mark and that Stevens had learned from the way in which Soby had described the neoRomantic "reaction" against geometric and analytic abstraction (against cubism in particular) and a "return" to the object (to "subject matter") admittedly reactionary. In fact, Vidal was conscious throughout this process of the distinction Stevens had made when rationalizing his demonstrated appreciation of Braque. She tried to explain that Bores and Oudot were "totally opposed as artists," and she deliberately likened Bores to Braque (though, she confessed, Bores was a Braque with "a little less talent"). Once again, Stevens, for all his talk, shied away from Bores and chose in favor of what Vidal described as Oudot's fantasy, sentiment and style. During a visit to Oudot's atelier, Vidal tried to reiterate her client's statement of his preferences and Roland Oudot himself pressed into her hands "a composition entitled 'The Bathers.'" "Seeing this canvas," she reported to Stevens, "I felt my heart leap." Her description of Oudot's Bathers made it clear from the beginning that this painting was not an abstraction:Beside a pond, under a sky of somber blue, in the penumbra of a summer evening [la p‚nombre d'un soir d'‚t‚] . . . four women. They occupy the left side of the canvas. The first seated, a guitar to her right in the grass. To her left, a woman playing the mandolin. Another standing, her body nude to her hips, smoothes her hair with her right hand. The fourth nude, splashes of white and red of her clothing around her knees, is seated next to the pond. In the pond two bathers are shaded in. The scene seemed to me one of perfect poetry and grace.Vidal had trouble locating a suitable frame; she described the laborious process of finding a tasteful one not unreasonably expensive relative to the price of the painting itself, 45,000 francs. She shipped a framed painting to Stevens as soon as she could; he had written, "I am wild with impatience to have something new." His Bathers arrived in mid-November 1947 (see illustration).
Vidal herself had hinted, in her careful description of the painting, that Stevens's passion for the ut pictura poesis might be excited by this Oudot, with its "perfect poetry." And so Stevens wrote a poem, "A Lot of People Bathing in a Stream" (Collected Poems 371-72). Here he attempted to create in words a sense of abstraction the painting itself quite obviously lacked--to provide the painting with the modernity or contemporaneity he appar- ently had not the nerve or taste to acquire with it.It was like passing a boundary to dive"A Lot of People Bathing in a Stream" was only partly successful in teasing from the recently arrived painting a sense of presented abstraction. But the effort is nonetheless obvious. Until the very last lines it suppresses the tendency of words to comb ine into story, withstanding the urge to reproduce a narrative strongly suggested by the engaging bathing shapes; it bears out my sense that Stevens was advancing toward a break with the traditions of the ut pictura poesis, and that his efforts lea d to the painterly poems of Ashbery and O'Hara rather than away; such poems sustained a postwar, post-Romantic avant-garde rather than countered it. In other words, if Marjorie Perloff's helpful idea--presented in a chapter on John Cage and David Antin f ollowing one on Ashbery's "mysteries of construction"--that Modernist and neo-Romantic poetry stressed ethos (character), lexis (diction) and melopoeia (song) over opsis (spectacle) obtains for many such poets (Perloff, Poet ics 288), it does not obtain for the particular Stevens of "A Lot of People," "Angel Surrounded by Paysans" and a handful of similar works. A line from this Stevens, a "presenting" rather than "meditating" Stevens, through Zukofsky to Ashbery, and even to Dorn or Antin, can be drawn, more or less as Michael Davidson has boldly drawn it (Davidson, esp. 143-44, 148, 157). In Paule Vidal's verbal reduction of the painting, which for a long while was the only "visual" sense of it Stevens had, she emphasized narrativity even while trying to account for the scene's spectacular (and unpsychologized) indolence: the bathers just "occupy" the scene; one of them acts barely, merely "smoothes her hair." In Stevens's poem, then, the action is referred to but never set in motion. The line, "It was like passing a boundary to dive" quells and stills an act of diving, obliges the simile but also inhibits it with an inexplicit "It"; the phrase is not, after all, "We dived" or "They dived." The same effect is achieved by a diction of qualifiers foregrounding linguistic selectivity (as well as by intensifiers having the surprising effect of introducing doubt): "Ourselves, in the clearest green--well, call it green"; "No doubt / We were the appropriate conceptions, less / Than creatures"; "It was passing a boundary, floating without a head / And naked, or almost so, into the grotesque / Of being naked, or almost so . . . ."
Into the sun-filled water, brightly leafed
And limbed and lighted out from bank to bank.
That's how the stars shine during the day. There, then,
The yellow that was yesterday, refreshed,
Became to-day, among our children and
Ourselves, in the clearest green--well, call it green.
We bathed in yellow green and yellow blue
And in these comic colors dangled down,
Like their particular characters, addicts
To blotches, angular anonymids
Gulping for shape among the reeds. No doubt,
We were the appropriate conceptions, less
Than creatures, of the sky between the banks,
The water flowing in the flow of space.
It was passing a boundary, floating without a head
And naked, or almost so, into the grotesque
Of being naked, or almost so, in a world Of nakedness, in the company of the sun,
Good fortuner of the grotesque, patroon,
A funny foreigner of meek address.
How good it was at home again at night
To prepare for bed, in the frame of the house, and move
Round the rooms, which do not ever seem to change . . .
The poem does succeed in suggesting that contemporary poems-about-paintings, or rather poems doing a painterly depicting, must retain some signs that a scene of such depth is reproduced only as it had once been applied to a flat surface. The literalization is salient. Stevens's bathers, like Oudot's, are n ot immersed in the stream but in color: "We bathed in yellow green and yellow blue." Here Stevens attempts to stress that his own work of depicting--and insofar as the poem provides a retrospective view of the painting, he belatedly attributes the same t o Oudot's invention--is not an effort to create discrete objects or identities but an evocation of shapes re-imagined relationally. "A Lot of People Bathing in a Stream," in Stevens's rendering of his own Oudot, are "addicts / To blotches, angular anonym ids / Gulping for shape among the reeds." Thus are they granted the quality of being "appropriate conceptions." And thus the new Oudot, suiting Stevens's special purposes, presents not a story but an abstraction getting candidly at the real--a relation (as it were) of rudimentary relations.
In the letter he wrote Vidal on November 17 to express his appreciation of his latest painting, Stevens's clinched his effort to make his Oudot more abstract than it really was; after a few days, he wrote,I understand Oudot better. He limits himself to realizing the esthetic truth instead of attempting merely to realize the object and figures in his picture. Thus . . . he devotes himself to realizing the color and sense and mood of what you have called t he penombre of a summer evening instead of merely depicting a group of people. I like his work all the better for this. I think that I shall call the large picture not Les Baigneuses but what you, yourself, have called it La penombre d'un soir d'ete. our title is much the more evocative of the two and this is an evocative picture. I hope Oudot won't mind. (Letters 569)
Here, as in the poem, Stevens placed great emphasis on the painted aspects of the painting. In Stevens's reading, Oudot "limits" himself to realizing an "esthetic truth" instead of "attempting merely" to bring "the object and figures" toward so me semblance of life. One hardly recognizes the painting from his account of it here. The same is mostly true of his reformulation of Oudot's title, which had originally stressed depiction and anticipated narrative--in the plain (and plainly satisfying) relation implied between "A Lot of People" and an alluring "Stream." But in Stevens's hands the painting is renamed; the appropriated title stresses process, manner and form over depiction. Stevens's revision neatly implicated his agent in modulating t he point from representational to abstract, as "Le p‚nombre d'un soir d'‚t‚" was the phrase Vidal had used in first describing the look or "feel" of the canvas at Oudot's atelier.
The oddest part of "A Lot of People Bathing in a Stream" is its final stanza:How good it was at home again at nightThis is certainly a backing away from the poem-about-painting, a return from sexy open space to safe familiar house paralleling the retreat from daring opsis to easy ethos, as from the uncontained formal animation of abstract expression--a r etreat from people rendered feelingly as "addicts to blotches, angular anonymids"- -to the good old frame provided by the close structure of home and its changeless rooms. The ending of the poem provides, retrospectively and unconvincingly, a narr ative frame to give discernible shape to an experience Stevens had worked hard to deny as narrative in origin. It is as if he were saying, finally, of poems- about-paintings: as our eyes are unused to the effort of viewing shapely interactions, to "seein g" abstraction as a matter of process, so can we look to the frame itself for the imagination's apt boundary (as to the ending of a poem). One aspect of the difficulty Stevens recognized when putting this worn frame on his contemporary poem- painting evi dently acknowledges the trouble his French agent had find- ing an appropriate literal frame for what he liked to think was his uncategorizable Oudot.
To prepare for bed, in the frame of the house, and move
Round the rooms, which do not ever seem to change . . .
Forging such interartistic links to France, at a time when both the traffic and the cultural trend flowed the other way--and surely proud of himself for managing the unusual diplomacy--Stevens used his experience with Oudot to prepare for what he subse quently called a "close approach to reality" (Letters 760) in his last years. Yet, as we have seen, a "new knowledge of reality" (another central phrase of his very late period [Collected Poems 534]) was to be derived not straightforwardly from a unreflectively revived form of realism, but from a realist's assimilation of the abstractionist project itself. Stevens tried to explain this logic to that dear friend who was herself a dear friend of painters, Barbara Church. He had just finishe d reading Camille Pissarro's letters to his son and wrote Mrs. Church the following:The pleasure we feel in Pissarro's pictures may or may not justify them but surely it justifies Pissarro himself. Bonnard, on the other hand, left no text except his pictures. He did not paint the things he painted in the way he went about it without meaning to do just what he did. These men attach one to real things: closely, actually, without the interventions or excitements of metaphor. One wonders sometimes whether this is not exactly what the whole effort of modern art has been about: the attachment to real things. When people were painting cubist pictures, were they not attempting to get at not the invisible but the visible? . . . Apparently deviating from re- ality, they were trying to fix it (emphasis added)
This argument deftly reorganizes abstraction as a form of engagement with the real, which was precisely James Johnson Sweeney's line (and one Stevens would have heard Sweeney deliver at Mrs. Church's regular gatherings). It was also, perhaps even more importantly, the line taken by an old and devoted friend, the art critic and collector Walter Pach, who had long advised Stevens about his acquisitions and was the first to endorse the idea of buying French works sight-unseen. The timely idea that abstraction was a form of engagement, as articulated variously but repeatedly by these well-placed friends, enabled Stevens to generalize about what he was learning poem by poem from his poetic uses of Oudot, and what he was then about to learn from the experience of refiguring as an angel-surrounded-by-peasants Pierre Tal Coat's still life of a terrine surrounded-by-bottles (see Filreis, esp. 363-64). In arguing for abstract art he posited generally what "A Lot of People Bathing in a Stream" and "Angel Surrounded by Paysans"--and, I want now to add, "Bouquet of Roses in Sunlight" (Collected Poems 430-31)--all disclosed to him: as a poet he was even better suited to participate in the abstract movement than the painters.
While one thinks about poetry [he continued in the letter to Barbara Church] as one thinks about painting, the momentum toward abstraction exerts greater force on the poet than on the painter. I imagine that the tendency of all thinking is toward the abstract and perhaps I am merely saying that the abstractions of the poet are abstracter than the abstractions of the painter. Anyhow, that does not have to be settled this morning. It is enough right now to say that after a month of rain my wife's rose s look piercingly bright. I went out alone last evening to look at them and while piercing was the word, it was, after all, a very slight sensation on which to make so much depend. (Letters 601-02)
Both "The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract" (Collected Poems 429-30) and "Bouquet of Roses in Sunlight" (published together in Poetry about six months before this letter to Church) claim precisely what the letter claimed: abstraction can lead uniquely and freshly back to reality even as the artist refuses to permit figuration, an otherwise variable form of expression, to depend on its attachment to "pure," fertile sensation. One wonders if Stevens isn't here playing on, and playfully doubting, the sensation caused by Williams's famous high-modern red wheelb arrow, upon which "so much depends"; one knows, in any case, that this is among the "'impure'" abstractions Denis Donoghue rightly admires in Stevens, "an abstraction which has preserved an umbilical connexion with sense" (Donoghue 389). For reaso ns akin to those for which Donoghue favors a Stevens who knows enough to "transform abstractions into 'things'" and yet "refrain from asking abstractions to do too much" (400-01), I take "Bouquet of Roses" to be more successful than "The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract" in presenting this propitious notion of abstraction; it follows the difficult point of the letter to Church right down to the final, evidently random anecdote of the roses. But how random was it?Say that it is crude effect, black reds,
Pink yellows, orange whites . . . .
Too much as they are to be changed by metaphor,
Too actual, things that in being real
Make any imaginings of them lesser things.
And yet this effect is a consequence of the way
We feel, and, therefore, is not real, except
In our sense of it, our sense of the fertilest red,
Of yellow as first color and of white,
In which the sense lies still . . . .
Our sense of these things changes and they change,
Not as in metaphor, but in our sense
Of them. So sense exceeds all metaphor.
. . . This is what makes them seem
So far beyond the rhetorician's touch. (emphasis added)
Here I think Stevens placed the category of abstract poems-about-painting quite deliberately "beyond the rhetorician's touch"--beyond the reach, for example, of his companions the ardent theorists, purveyors and buyers of abstraction and of paintings hung by them and their art-world allies programmatically "as specimens of A and . . . of B" (Letters 647). Yet, ironically, poems like "Bouquet of Roses" allow him to emerge as an effective theorist and purveyor himself (though, again, not a buyer). It is as if to say: painting based on such a s light yet significant sensation falls prey to rhetoric designed to yield the scene to pure or abstract expression, but an avant garde worth the name would never submit so readily, so programmatically, to such a design; this was precisely the eminen t abstractionists' "postideological" trap. Paintings and poems, and especially painterly poems, would not be "specimens," Stevens would contend, even at the cost of remaining on the outside of aesthetic clubs that would gladly have him as a member. To h im, one was either a creator of abstractions or a publicizer of abstraction as (admittedly) an arousing idea; but the latter meant promoting it with metaphors that sensationalize it, extolling purity when "impure" was its impressive aspect, nullifying vit al power and making the fertile dry. He wanted to see himself, in short, as a restrained, well-focused Bonnard surrounded by self-vindicating Pissarros. ("Pissarro's pictures," he wrote, "may or may not justify them but surely it justifies Pissarro himself. Bonnard, on the other hand, left no text except his pictures.")
The Stevens who wrote poems-about-paintings in the late forties was not opposed to the new abstraction itself, then; rather, he convinced himself he could withstand the Americanized culture that was rising up around it to metaphorize it as an imaginati ve power with special national uses. Acceptance was not so disorienting, certainly, that it prevented the new abstractionists from producing works inaccessible to the ambitions of the most frenetic nationalistic promoters; more effectively resistant, in its way, was Stevens's aspiration, in dealing with devastated Paris and not up-and-coming New York, to make his "abstracter" poems-about-painting unavailable to the rhetorical uses to which such art was being put. He did not purchase what Henry and Barba ra Church and their friend Sweeney were purchasing, nor what Soby was always trying to show him at MOMA (see Brazeau 119)--nor what all three were undoubtedly urging him to buy. (The Churches' collection, in particular, was a real attraction for him, and crucial to his sense of painting during and after the war.) To his delight, moreover, Paule Vidal, with her unyielding "horror of abstractions" and undisturbed contacts with prewar French painters, was helpfully ignorant of the latest trends.
That Stevens comprehended the cunning of his own strategy for fending off the new abstraction so as to find it emerging in his poetry, and that he knew the significance of this approach to the larger cultural conflict, cannot be doubted. I quote from a letter at length, for its understanding of the politics of modernism is framed by a sympathetic response to a revisionist defense of P‚tain. Taking a cue from Jean Paulhan, his favorite contemporary French critic, a founder of the CNE for Resistance wr iters and a person of impeccable aesthetic and political credentials when he made his rightward move, Stevens assumed here the failure of liberalism together with the ironic tyranny of modern painting in order to explain his sympathy with Paulhan's postwa r neo-conservatism:[Paulhan's] position is a position with reference to a hypocrisy local to his milieu. The e‚puration has always been something that I have not been able to follow very attentively. . . . I have always thought that P[e‚]tain, for instnce, was quite badly treated. There had to be someone to stand for France, someone to carry on with Germany, unless the whole country was to be directly subject to the German police. I think P[‚]tain acted depending on his own loyalty and honesty to shield him. While he may not in the end receive the funeral of a marshal of France (as he has said that he will), I think he ought to. . . . My sympathies are strongly with Paulhan's idea that those who are purifying might themselves well be purified, since it is they that were not pure to start with.
I kept [Paulhan's] letters because before I read them and after picking up merely a phrase here and there I thought that they related generally to the free thinking that has destroyed free thought. Nowadays we are free to think whatever it pleases someone else to think and what we need above all else is a recognition of the right of each man to think for himself and also the exercise of that right. Liberals have come to be regarded with contempt not because liberalism is a contemptible thing but because it is in the gait of an old world and not in the gait of the new world (which is far from existing). Take art for instance. All art that is not modern is antique; and all modern art . . . enjoys the completest possible prestige merely because it is modern. If I go into a gallery containing the work of a dunce, I am certain to find him protected; and if I tear my hair at his ineffectiveness, the dealer recognizes me as illiterate and insensitive. Free thought, free art, free poetry have all produced this sort of tyranny. These letters of Paulhan do not touch this, but his mind is exactly the type of mind in which such distortions disappear. (Letters 573-74)
Modernism, insofar as it was being absorbed into midcentury liberalism (as "free thought, free art, free poetry"), was becoming a tyranny. To weather such tyranny involved purifying oneself not only of liberalism but of all political specificity--the ideological term itself. Yet at the same time, Stevens--unlike, let us say, his influential friend Walter Pach--seems to have perceived the additional irony of foisting onto others this new "American" version of art, of celebrating the emergence from old ideologies in the form of what was rapidly becoming an aesthetic ideology still more disarming (the enticing ideal of ultimate abstraction as an American home-grown) that claimed to do its work of depicting wholly beyond the reach of politics. In a spee ch given at Columbia called "The Stake of the Arts in the Democratic Way of Life," Walter Pach could begin, routinely enough, by denouncing the way in which the Soviet government claimed its stake in the arts--"The tying together of aesthetics and politic s is subversive of the freedom necessary for artistic creation"--and by commending the way in which, on the other hand, the United States government was affirming "the artist's true position in society, his role in revealing the ideas in us which only his instinct, unhampered by political pressure, can bring to the light." Yet Stevens's friend could conclude the same speech by linking the "preservation of the democratic way of life" to the hope that the American government will see as among its responsib ilities its great stake in the free arts, so that the American painter "may, in the new era before us, no longer have to depend solely on his own strength" (Pach, "Stake of the Arts" 400, 409-10). Stevens's sagacious connection of modernism and li beralism to political freedom was precisely the bond art-world people like Pach would not see. The lack of freedom entailed in the freest forms of art, now that they had been installed as standards, was hardly different from the lack of freedom implicit in the demands of old-style, low-mimetic revolutionary tyrannies, the very collectivist categories robustly promoted by the Soviets and briefly (in the thirties) by many American radicals, and now (in the late forties and fifties) disavowed by Pach, Soby, Sweeney and nearly everyone else. "[T]he only painting permitted," Stevens wrote Rodrˇguez Feo, "is painting derived from Picasso or Matisse." (Here he retreated into a less remarkably conservative assertion: "And of course there are very few living in dividuals because we are all compelled to live in clusters: unions, classes, the West, etc." [Letters 622]).
Stevens's response to approaches typified by Pach's Columbia speech--if not to the speech itself--would entail an understanding of the double sense of freedom being purveyed, for art impresarios as astute as Pach were seeing no incongruity in celebrating the "freedom" with which the American was then obliged to def end his culture against foreign enemies. "Even when he does say what is commanded of him," Pach said of the American artist, "he does so because he believed it already" ("Stake of the Arts" 401; emphasis added). Similar contradictions in Soby's position were, if less overt, more accessible. Soby's Saturday Review column regularly gave that critic a chance to justify in general terms the internationalist ven- tures he and others pushed hard. The same Soby who during the first years of the cultural cold war promoted a vigorous program of using contemporary American art as counterpropaganda in Europe, had only a few years earlier, in 1942, warned against cultural imperialism, urging Americans not to take advantage of the wartime displacemen ts of European art. For the nationalist "Artists in Exile" exhibit he had written that Americans may "want American art to have equal voice with that of Europe in the new world, but [we must] check th[at] ambition at this point, knowing that beyond lies the dread bait of imperialism which all men of heart must suspect" (Soby, "Europe"). In its bluntest form, the cultural imperialism that flourished after the war was everything that Soby had feared in 1942. One critic closely associated the fact that "E urope has been prostrated" and that "[t]his country gives promise of being first to recover from the World War," with the cheeky assertion that "that there is an essentially abstract basis for all art" (Devree 4; emphasis added). Such essentialist arguments for abstraction were forthrightly linked to distinct, strategic advantages presented by European devastation-- which created, to many, an economic vacuum to be filled. The U.S., least damaged by war, should be prepared to take greatest advanta ge of the most severely damaged cultures, should invent and put forward an unassailable version of modernist "subjectivity," claim its universality, and thus assimilate benevolently the "prostrated" cultures. In "Does Our Art Impress Europe?" Soby was on ly presenting a more polite version of the same idea: if there was indeed a "decided curiosity" about "our" new painters on the part of Europeans--never mind how we helped develop that curiosity--then we should do indeed everything in our power, officiall y as a nation, to satisfy it. "Today . . . Paris has lost to a great extent its role as international arbiter of fame and quality in the fine arts. This is not a statement to be made gleefully" (144). In 1948 readers of Soby's Saturday Review co lumn were presented with this summary of the situation: "French art . . . is imprisoned in its parental house. . . . [T]he new school of Paris's great weakness is that it has become too Parisian" (Soby, "Report" 25; emphasis added). Soby's stateme nts, like many others, reveal only a slight awareness of cold-war contingencies of value. Yet the standards were surely shifting. Guilbaut's disclosures suggest that the question to ask oneself of an inventive painting was no longer, How Parisian is its style? But, in the new terms, How international is the style? This meant, nevertheless, How uniquely American is its claim to having transcended the very idea of national style? It was not that the world now led France in the crea tion of the new manner that would be highly valued; obviously, the United States led France.
How so much more compelling, then, when placed in such a context, is Stevens's statement that "France leads us far more than we realize" (Letters 542). His refiguration of Pierre Tal Coat's modest bottles and pots as "peasants," i n the quasi-collage, semi-antinarrative "Angel Surrounded" of 1949, proceeded directly from this huge generalization against the grain, for every other ounce of cultural and diplomatic energy was then supplementing the effort to raise Europeans up from th e status of peasants. Stevens's argument--unusual if not also factually incorrect--that French political and economic conditions were duplicated in the U.S. (more, he argued, than English conditions were [Letters 542]), might seem astonishing indeed if it were not for his strong desire to go against the trend of duplication--a kind of reverse cultural imperialism. (Stevens's characteristically American poem, based on Tal Coat's characteristically French painting, plays off many senses of "angel," not the least of which is the connotation of benevolent giver; the heaven-sent donor, willing to descend to common people, bears the gift of reconstructive insight, and announces to them: "I am one of you and being one of you / Is being and knowing what I am and know" [ Collected Poems, 496]. Stevens's angel, intercultural as interartistic, wants sorely to be one of the postwar folk--to restore them to themselves, yet not to make them over in his own image.)
To be sure, Stevens's reversal, no matter how shrewd, was itself not finally free from the usual "accusations of imperialism." As in his curious friendship with the Cuban, Rodrˇguez Feo, he had turned such accusations inside out only to create a remar kably similar effect. Indeed, Stevens's relationship with Paule Vidal participated largely in the very same attitudes that brought his three closest contacts to the American art world, Soby, Sweeney and Pach, to the point of championing American abstract ion as an ideology-free force in a cultural cold war they did not always think of themselves as fighting. While the cultural imperialism Stevens practiced flowed noticeably in the wrong direction--from devastated Europe instead of to it--and while the re sult could carry him from European painting to American poetry, the process by which he viewed postwar France did parallel his views of other exotic outposts, such as Rodrˇguez Feo's Carribbean. His exchanges with Paule Vidal gave him and his poems the p ower to behold the very France that had once been aesthetically dominant and against which the American arbiters of postwar taste were turning. By buying French, Stevens could simplify a France that had been culturally sophisticated. That he knew just e nough of postwar France to know how much he loved pictures of a place "that has ceased to exist" proved to him, in other words, that it indeed existed.
Finally, then, Stevens's insistence that New York had not supplanted Paris helped New York supplant Paris, as his poems, and his MOMA lecture "The Relations between Poetry and Painting" (1951), would themselves come to be considered fine further eviden ce of American subtlety in handling the difficult problems of abstraction, deemed previously to be the European's skill. By the time the French critic Michel Benamou took up the issue in the late fifties, it was to be assumed that Stevens was an American master of making poetic use of French painting; it was left to Benamou, he evidently felt, to describe the wide range of such use, to overturn the assumption that the poems-about-painting narrow "the poetic range . . . to studio objects" (50). It was no t that Delmore Schwartz, in having said such a thing, had been wrong, really, to think of Stevens's vision as having been "instructed in the museums"; but Schwartz, back in 1940, had been expressing representative doubts (11). Rather, one celebrated, by the fifties, the interartistic poem as indeed "a product of artifice," crediting Stevens's talent for keeping strictly to the "viewpoint" of the painter, and disallowing extraneous trends that might infect the dialogue between poem and painting--"discarding any mysterious Zeitgeist" (Benamou 47). Yet Stevens most certainly did allow extraneous trends; he craved them, precisely as, in my general reading, he craved the cultural "news" and the culturally "new" in tandem. By reaching out to French painting, stubbornly and provocatively imagining Paris as still central, he was after all participating in the business of accommodating the postwar world of undeniably American-centered news to the American imagi- nation, an imagination that would then, however, in the fifties and well beyond, be acclaimed as rejecting, not sustaining, the post- Poundian mode which stipulates avant-garde art as, indeed, "news that STAYS new." This academically favored Stevens, giving us poems as if they "were written from nowhere" (and thus as if they led nowhere poetically), has induced a reputation Perloff and Davidson are not alone in lamenting, and one that needs repair.
Altieri, Charles. "The Objectivist Tradition," Chicago Review 30 (Winter 1979): 66-80.
Altieri, Charles. Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The Contemporaneity of Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
"Art Gifts to Be Shown," New York Times, December 5, 1943: 53.
"Artists Protest Halting Art Tour," New York Times, May 6, 1947: 24.
Barr, Alfred H. "James Thrall Soby and His Collection," in The James Thrall Soby Collection. New York: MOMA-Doubleday, 1961. 15-20.
----------. "Surrealists and Neo-Romantics," Saturday Review of Literature 12, 20 (September 14, 1935): 6.
Barrett, William. The Truants: Adventures among the Intellectuals. Garden City: Anchor/Doubleday, 1982.
Benamou, Michel. "Wallace Stevens: Some Relations between Poetry and Painting," Comparative Literature 11, 1 (Winter 1959): 47-60. Braden, Thomas W. "I'm Glad the CIA Is 'Immoral,'" Saturday Evening Post, May 20, 1967: 12-14.
Brazeau, Peter. Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered. New York: Random House, 1983.
Clark, T. J. "Clement Greenberg's Theory of Art" and "Arguments about Modernism: A Reply to Michael Fried," in The Politics of Interpretation, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. 203-220, 239-248.
Cockroft, Eva. "Abstract Expressionism: Weapon of the Cold War," Artform 12 (June 1974): 39-41
Coyle, Beverly, and Alan Filreis, ed. Secretaries of the Moon: The Letters of Wallace Stevens and Jose‚ Rodiguez Feo. Durham: Duke University Press, 1986.
Davidson, Michael. "Notes beyond the Notes: Wallace Stevens and Contemporary Poetics," in Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism, ed. Albert Gelpi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. 141-60.
Devree, Howard. "Straws in the Wind: Some Opinions on Art in the Post-War World of Europe and America," New York Times, July 14, 1946: sec. 2, 4.
Donoghue, Denis. "Wallace Stevens and the Abstract," Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 49 (Winter 1960): 389-406.
Epstein, Jacob. "The CIA and the Intellectuals," New York Review of Books 8, 7 (April 20, 1967): 16-21.
Filreis, Alan. "Still Life without Substance: Wallace Stevens and the Language of Agency," Poetics Today 10, 2 (Summer 1989): 345-72.
Frankfurter, Alfred. "International Report," Art News 49, 5 (September 1950): 15-19, 57.
Fried, Michael. "How Modernism Works: A Response to T. J. Clark," in Mitchell, Politics of Interpretation. 221-238
Gaddis, Eugene R. "'The New Athens': Moments from an Era," in Avery Memorial, Wadsworth Atheneum: The First Modern Museum, ed. Gaddis. Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1984. 33-58.
Genauer, Emily. "Still Life with Red Herring," Harper's Magazine 199, 1192 (September 1949): 88-91.
Greenberg, Clement. "The European View of American Art," The Nation 171, 22 (November 25, 1950): 190-92.
----------. "The Nation Censures a Letter of Criticism," New Leader 34, 12 (March 19, 1951): 16-18.
"Goings on about Town," New Yorker, December 4, 1943: 4.
Guilbaut, Serge. How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art from Paris: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, tr. Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Hauptman, William. "The Suppression of Art in the McCarthy Decade," Artform 12, 2 (October 1973): 48-52.
Hess, Thomas B. "Is Abstraction Un-American?" Art News 49, 10 (February 1951): 38-41.
Jewell, Edward Alden. "Blumenthal Art to Go on Display," New York Times, December 7, 1943: 24.
----------. "C‚zanne Serves Resurgent France," New York Times, November 22, 1942: sec. 8, 9
Kozloff, Max. "American Painting during the Cold War," Artform 13 (May 1973): 43-54.
----------. "The Critical Reception of Abstract Expressionism," Arts 40, 2 (December 1965): 27-33.
Lasch, Christopher. "The Cultural Cold War: A Short History of the Congress for Cultural Freedom," in The Agony of the American Left. New York: Vintage/Random House, 1969. 63-114.
LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945- 1984. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985 (rev. fifth ed.).
Lynes, Russell. Good Old Modern: An Intimate Portrait of the Museum of Modern Art. New York: Atheneum, 1973.
MacLeod, Glen. Wallace Stevens and Company: The Harmonium Years, 1913-1923. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1983.
Marchand, Jean-Jos‚. "Introduction … l'art americain," Combat, April 9, 1947: 2.
Motherwell, Robert. "Painter's Objects," Partisan Review 11, 1 (Winter 1944): 93-97.
Nash, George H. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. New York: Basic Books, 1979.
Newman, William J. "Propaganda and the American Intellectual," The Twentieth Century 153, 911 (January 1953): 30-35.
Paulhan, Jean. Les fleurs des Tarbes; ou, La terreur dans les lettres. Paris: Gallimard, 1941.
Pach, Walter. "Art Must Be Modern," The Atlantic Monthly 185, 5 (May 1950): 44-48.
----------. "The Stake of the Arts in the Democratic Way of Life," a lecture delivered on September 6, 1949, reprinted in The Age of Danger: Major American Speeches on American Problems, ed. Harold F. Harding. New York: Random House, 1952 . 398-410.
Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.
----------. "Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?" in New Literary History 13, 3 (Spring 1982): 485-514.
Peters, H. F. "American Culture and the State Department." The American Scholar 21, 2 (Spring 1952): 265-74.
Phillips, William. A Partisan View: Five Decades of the Literary Life. New York: Stein and Day, 1983.
Pissarro, Camille. Letters to His Son Lucien, tr. Lionel Abel. London: Kegan Paul, 1944.
Rosenberg, Harold. "Introduction to Six American Artists," Possibilities 1 (Winter 1947-48): 75.
Schwartz, Delmore. "The Ultimate Plato with Picasso's Guitar," Harvard Advocate 127 (December 1940): 11-16.
Soby, James Thrall. After Picasso. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1935.
----------. "Does Our Art Impress Europe?" Saturday Review of Literature 32, 32 (August 6, 1949): 142-49.
----------. "Europe," in Artists in Exile (New York: Pierre Matisse Gallery [exhibit of March 3-28, 1942]): n.p.
----------. "Report on Paris," Saturday Review of Literature 31, 33 (August 14, 1948): 25-26.
Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954.
----------. Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966.
Sutton, Denys. "The Challenge of American Art," Horizon 20, 18 (October 1949): 268-84.
Sylvester, David. "Mr. Sylvester Replies," The Nation 171, 22 (November 25, 1950): 492.
----------. "The Venice Biennale," The Nation 171, 11 (September 9, 1950): 232-33.
Tagg, John. "American Power and American Painting: The Development of Vanguard Painting in the United States since 1945," Praxis 1, 2 (Winter 1976): 59-79.
Unpublished letters from Wallace Stevens are quoted by permission of the late Holly Stevens. These and other unpublished materials are quoted also by permission of the Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, California. One letter to Allen Tate is quoted by permission of the Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey, and one from Barbara Church to Marianne Moore by permission of the Rosenbach Museum of Philadelphia and Helen Church Minton. Research for this essay was made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Huntington Library, and funds associated with the Esther K. and N. Mark Watkins Chair at the University of Pennsylvania. Holly Stevens and the Hood Museum of Art kindly authorized me to reproduce Bombois's Loiret a Olivet and Oudot's Bathers, respectively.
1. I am indebted to Guilbaut's research for making the Soby material used in this essay particularly accessible.
2. Stevens already owned one, namely Mexican Scene. This work has been reproduced in the Parke-Bernet sales catalogue prepared for the 13 Mar. 1959 sale of Stevens's and others' paintings (item 217).
3. That Stevens was very much absorbed by a general resurgence of American interest in museum exhibits, many of them designed to reproduce a new patriotic rhetoric and to elicit a nationalist response, is clear from the surviving evidence. Both vehement and subtle forms of aesthetic nationalism were readily available at the wartime shows Stevens saw. His museum going peaked once in the two most anxious American war years, 1942 and 1943, and a second time in 1948 and 1949. Judging only from explicit references in published and unpublished letters dating from those war years, I have found Stevens at no fewer than ten major exhibits; the actual total, including shows attended unmentioned in surviving written records, is likely, of course, to be greater. Typical of Stevens's letters that docite plans to see exhibits, an unpublished note to Henry Church dated 3 Dec. 1943 describes a visit to New York and records his intention of seeing "the Blumenthal show, which opens on December 8th, and the pictures at Kno[e]dler's, etc., etc." "The Blumenthal show" was an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of 24 Renaissance paintings and other items bequeathed to the museum by George Blumenthal; among them was Joos van Gent's "Adoration of the Magi," a subgenre of continuing interest to Stevens ("Art Gifts" 53; Jewell, "Blumenthal" 24; on Stevens and adorations, see, e.g., Letters 608). The show he saw at Knoedler's Gallery on East 57th Street was closely tied to the war effort: Flemish, Dutch, and English masters were displayed to benefit the Citizens Committee for the Army and Navy ("Goings on" 4). A letter to Allen Tare confirms a 1942 visit to the National Gallery in Washington (6 July 1943). This is not to count, moreover, the many exhibit catalogues Stevens collected and carefully examined, some of which came from museum visits; others were sent him by special arrangement when he could not make the trip to New York. "Catalogues are to me what honeycombs are to a bear," he wrote (letter of 6 Feb. 1942). And when he did venture to see the exhibits for himself, he might take in two or three or more in a day. "To him," a friend later recalled, gallery going "was just part of life" (qtd. in Brazeau 84).
4. Stevens attended a number of such exhibits; typical was the 1942 Cezanne show mounted at the Rosenberg Gallery- "for the benefit of Fighting France." A friend procured for Stevens the catalogue for this exhibit (letter from Stevens to Taylor, 6 Feb. 1942) and probably the special issue of Art News assembled for it (letter of 18 Nov. 1942); what with his general rec- ognition that "Cezanne has been the source of all painting of any interest during the last 20 years" (letter of 31 Mar. 1938), it is likely that at some point he stopped in at Rosenberg's to see the paintings for himself. Whether from the catalogue alone or in the gallery itself, Stevens saw a Cezanne fully remade for the now Americanized war; a review of the show was headlined "CEZANNE SERVES RESURGENT FRANCE" (Jewell, "Cezanne" 9).
5. Denys Sutton, in the English Horizon, made a similar, though kinder, judgment: "[T]hough the majority of painters are still of secondary importance"--he was writing in 1949!--"it is difficult to resist the feeling that the artist in America is filled with confidence and is about to scale the heights" (279).
6. Greenberg's independence from cold-war liberalism is, of course, a matter of lively debate. See Clark, "Clement Greenberg's" and "Arguments"; Fried. For a taste of the anticommunist Greenberg, see "Nation Censors."
7. Some, it is alleged, were financed by covert American counterintelligence programs, the American Congress for Cultural Freedom and Encounter being celebrated examples. For a summary of the allegations, seeLasch. On this point I have also consulted Epstein and Newman. Cockcroft has named several links between MOMA, the Abstract Expressionists, and government propaganda efforts (including those of the USIA and CIA).
8. "Though the artists had begun as leftists, Marxists, and even, as Pollack, members of the Communist Party," John Tagg has written, "their reaction against ... any political reading of what they had done left them, in the end, neither opposed nor neutral" (69-70).
9. In the thirties Stevens had assiduously followed the collaboration of Soby and A. Everett ("Chick") Austin, who raised the status of the Atheneum from Victorian respectability to what the French collector Paul Rosenberg would call the world's only "genuinely modern museum" (Gaddis 35). Stevens knew Soby's work exhibit by exhibit; Soby himself recalled Stevens's interest in the Wadsworth Atheneum for Peter Brazeau in 1977: "Stevens went to the museum all the time. At noon hour, he'd wander around alone. He was almost furious if anyone interrupted him. He'd come every holiday. Very often on weekends. He wouldn't talk about the exhibitions. I kept trying to find out what artists he liked. There wasn't any way to tell except to follow him around the gallery and see where he stayed longest .... Stevens was a genuine lover of art" (Brazeau 118). That Stevens followed Soby's move to MOMA is made clear in a letter dated 3 Dec. 1943.
10. The shift was probably more symbolic than practical, as Philip Rahv and William Phillips continued to run the journal pretty much as they wished. Still, Phillips hoped that a new Advisory Board would meet monthly and discuss general policy. Dowling's sudden appearance as a generous patron brought Sweeney along. See Phillips 141-45; and Barrett 144- 46. "The radicalism that had once been central to the magazine's interests," Guilbaut writes of the new board, "gave way to liberalism"( 165). On Burnham's role as a reactionary with "access to articulate, left-of- center audiences," see Nash 97; on Buruham's connection to the CIA, see Nash 97, 372.
11. Unpublished portion of a taped interview with Sweeney conducted by Peter Brazeau on 15 Dec. 1976; on one trip to the Guggenheim, recorded in a letter Church wrote, Sweeney and Stevens were joined by Marianne Moore (letter to Thomas McGreevy).
12. Barbara Church saw both Sweeney and his exhibition, "Les peintres du xx siecle," in mid-June 1952 and wrote to Marianne Moore about it, reporting the show's full subtitle: "Sous le[s] auspices du Congres[s] pour la liberte la culture" (letter from Barbara Church to Marianne Moore, 18 June 1952).
13. These doubts are fully described by Altieri in Painterly Abstraction (255-56). His conclusion, consistent with his own acute philosophical definitions of abstraction and actually congenial to my notion of Stevens'sdouble attitude, is that American modernists engaged in "little direct imitation" of noniconic painting "because writers found it difficult to identify with canvases so eager for direct engagement with spiritual forces that they rejected both the denotational aspects of signs and the cultural connotations that allow language most of its afi'ective force" (256). Merging Guilbaut and Altieri, if such a thing is possible, I see abstractionists' rejection of those "cultural connotations" being so forceful as to put new and no less powerful connotations in place of the old, and Stevens's resistance to that rejection being so shrewd as to restore some of the old, more stable connotations in his acquisitions while tentatively advancing in his poetic reconstructions of them.
14. This was a policy of long standing: in 1937, after Anatole Vidal worked with Ambroise Vollard (d. 1939) to make paintings by Manet, Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro available to Stevens inexpensively--one would have cost just 2,750 francs--he proceeded instead to buy a painting by Jean Labasque (letters from A. Vidal to Stevens, 28 June 1937 and 14 Nov. 1937).
15. Stevens purchased his own copy of Uhde's book from Wittenborn Art Books (now in the Huntington collection, RB440865); that Holly Stevens discovered Vidal's 2 Aug. and 20 Sept. 1946 letters laid into it, notes pertaining to the purchase of his Bombois (WAS4261, 4262), helps confirm Stevens's interest in Bombois's literalism.
16. In discussing how "[r]umors about the decline of the French" circulated among American critics in 1946, Guilbaut notes that "the paintings sent abroad [from France] were quite timid and traditional" and lists Bombois among the French in this category (132).
17. These were qualities ascribed to the neo-Romantics by American backers in their effort to explain these paintings as part of a reaction against abstraction. For Soby, in his book After Picasso (1935), these painters were to be characterized by "a shared, traditional melancholy" and "a metaphysical assurance" (9); for Alfred Barr, in his favorable review of Soby's book, they were nostalgic, sentimental, and reactionary ("Surrealists"). See Filreis 368-70, where it is demonstrated that canto 18 of "The Man with the Blue Guitar" was (in Stevens's words) "the result of seeing" Berman's Memories oflschia, owned by Soby and exhibited in Hartford (now in the collection at MOMA).
18. Stevens owned a color lithograph pulled by Braclue himself. Nature Morte 111. Verre et Fruit (1921 ), later part of Holly Stevens's collection.
19. This visit took place during the summer, but was recalled later, after Stevens received the painting.
20. The helpful distinction--also between the objectivist "measuring mind" and the neosymbolist "interpretive mind"--is Altieri's ("Objectivist Tradition" 68), although it is made in another context.
21. In a spirited response to Francis Henry Taylor's "Modern Art and the Dignity of Man," Pach not only pointed out the inherent flaw in the logic of modern art's detractors ("if a thing has never been modern, it has never been art"); he went further in refuting the charge of irresponsibility by implying that many contemporary painters had experienced--and been exhausted by--harsh political realities. Pach bristled at Taylor's suggestion that "an hysterical and defeated Europe" caused a "spiritual breakdown" in painting (Pach, "Art Must Be Modern" 41, 46). For a sense of the history and importance of the Stevens-Pach relationship, see MacLeod 22, 30, 35, 99n20. That it was Pach who had urged Stevens to carry out the search for a painting by Jean Marchand is evident in a letter Pach wrote Stevens (25 Jan. 1938); the Marchand Stevens did buy, from Paule Vidal's father, Anatole, is the one to which "Connoisseur of Chaos" refers (Collected Poems 215). If Stevens seriously "wants to own pictures," Pach counseled, and did not himself wish to go to Paris, he would have to find, and then place unwavering trust in, a dealer whose European disposition the American consumer of art would have to study as diligently as he studied the paintings themselves (letter from Pach to Stevens, 2 Nov. 1937); the Vidals became those trusted ones.
22. Hess perfectly illustrates the way in which the rhetoric could be overwrought indeed. The answer to Hess's title question--"Is Abstraction Un-American?"--was, of course, that abstract painting was not "Un-American" in being disloyal but that it was literally not American in being so thoroughly internationalized. Hess spoke of a "matrix of pictorial invention" that had been "magically transferred to America" and at the same time argued that such art "no longer 'look[ed] American'"; rather, it had a "confident, international air" and "surpasse[d] America" (41; emphasis added).
23. This private collection was an important factor in Stevens's sense of abstract art, as some of the Churches' acquisitions were on display first at their Cleveland Lane home in Princeton and later at Barbara Church's Park Avenue apartment. Kurt Roesch, who has observed that on the walls of the Park Avenue place were to be found "remarkably good pictures," remembers that Stevens would concentrate on the paintings when he grew bored with Church's guests (Brazeau 223, 225). The Churches owned a number of French abstractions: they had acquired Braques, including Bougeoir et Verre of 1910 (Parke-Bernet Sale Catalogue, Jan. 1961, no. 67, p. 53); and their collection was full of abstractions by Klee, whom Stevens especially admired (see Letters 595), such as Glacier Region of 1939, with its irregular blue lines on a blue, white, and gray surface (no. 12, p. 5), and the geometric Hall C (no. 62, p. 46); the Churches also displayed a haunting Klee, The Holocaust Maker, with its robotic figure (no. 64, p. 50). In the late forties Barbara Church began to acquire American works, and these Stevens would almost certainly have seen: Roesoh's Girl and Moths, for example, a composition of variously shaped forms in orange, red, blue, lavender, and green, evidently acquired in 1948 (Parke-Bernet Sale Catalogue, 16 Feb. 1961, no. 187, p. 56); and an abstract Lipchitz in bronze, Joy of Orpheus (25 Jan. 1961, no. 44, p. 30). (Three catalogues for sales from the Church estate, two in New York [Parke-Bernet] and one in Paris [Palais Galliera], are holdings of the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, Santa Monica, California.)
24. Soby was not as unambiguously for abstraction as, say, Sweeney was. We have seen that as a promoter of the neo-Romantics Soby had begun his career reacting against several early abstract movements. Yet the Soby of the late forties, Barr's important ally at MOMA, was hailed as a critic who wrote "discerning paragraphs on Pollack and other young painters who at th[e] time were just beginning to be called Abstract Expressionists." Barr pointed out, as well, that Soby "had been the responsible curator when the Museum [MOMA] bought its first Pollack" ("James Thrall Soby" 15).
25. He was describing Paulhan's Les Fleurs des Tarbes (Letters 567).
26. Perioff, "Pound/Stevens" 498; she is quoting Pound's dictum from ABC of Reading. "For too long," she has written elsewhere informally, "Stevens' poetry has been read as if it were written from nowhere" (Brazeau n.p. [jacket]).
FILREIS HOME | HOT | STEVENS HOME | POETRY | FIFTIES
Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Stevens/talcoat-alh.html
Last modified: Monday, 04-Nov-2002 08:38:28 EST