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 reference to the same painting which his own object of acclamation, the American poet William Carlos Williams, thought one of his best works.
For in 1928, the year of my birth, Demuth painted his “picture” inspired by his friend’s poem “The Great Figure.” It was on a hot summer day in New York early in this century that William Carlos Williams, on his way to visit the studio of another American artist at the time, Marsden Hartley, on Fifteenth Street that he heard “a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue.” He turned just in time to see a golden figure 5 on a red background flash by. He was so impressed that he took out a piece of paper from his pocket and wrote the following poem on the spot: Among the rain / and lights / I saw the figure 5 / in gold / on a red / firetruck / moving / tense / unheeded / to gong clangs / siren howls / and wheels rumbling / through the dark city.
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 firetruck 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 then in 1963 the venerable doctor died, completing the unpremeditated circle of numerical coincidence woven within the “Fifth Dream.”
For the major painting of the “Dream” I chose the cruciform, a polyptych of unusual form in the history of painting if not sculpture—the obvious exception to this of course being Cimabue’s Crucifix, so recently nearly destroyed—by the use of which I meant to set this particular painting most apart from all others given that its theme and internal form is in direct dialogue with the original inspiration. The head, the arms, the foot, or less particularly the surrounding members echo and reinforce Deumth’s composition though somewhat simplified to fit the nature of my own work, stripped as it is of all the allusions to a cubist cityscape.
First published in McCoubrey, John W., and Robert Indiana. Robert Indiana. Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art and Falcon Press, 1968