‘The American Spirit in Art’: Williams and Abstract Expressionism

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Editor: Jonathan Vereecke
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 206. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,409 words

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[(essay date 2010) In the following essay, Cappucci focuses on a speech Williams presented to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, finding that despite his tenuous connections to abstract expressionism, the poet shared “its avant-garde aspiration for authentic newness.” Quoted material in this essay has been removed due to copyright restrictions.]

Many studies have demonstrated that William Carlos Williams was influenced to a large degree by the early art movements of the twentieth century. For instance, Bram Dijkstra and Henry Sayre offer compelling studies that point to the extent of the plastic arts influence upon Williams. In The Hieroglyphics of a New Speech, Dijkstra points out how Williams was influenced by an earlier assemblage of the New York avant-garde led by Alfred Stieglitz and the exhibitions at 291 during the 1910s. “The picture of these years as a grey cultural age for the majority of Americans may indeed be accurate,” he writes, “but for a small circle of poets and writers in or near New York during those years, the opposite was true. Williams was an enthusiastic and open-eyed, if occasionally baffled, member of this group” (1969, 7). Williams continued to see New York as an avant-garde center where “they do meet” and “talk,” albeit “nothing is exchanged / unless that guff / can be retranslated” (1988, 163). In “A Place (Any Place) To Transcend All Places” (1948), a response to Wallace Stevens’s “Description Without Place” (Mariani 1981, 517), he details the grotesqueness of this place complete with its “tuberculin-tested herd” (Williams, 1988, 164). Yet there is also a claim for what “we have,” which includes “Southern writers” and “foreign / writers” (165). As Paul Mariani remarks, “New York, for all its obscenity and abstraction, was still finally a place, and as a place it could still nourish one’s roots, still nourish a poetic” (517).

Understandably, due to his limited contact with Abstract Expressionism, his association with this movement has not garnered exhaustive study. Yet it is the art movement during Williams’s lifetime that signaled America’s emergence as the vital center of the avant-garde—an occurrence that did not go unnoticed by the Rutherford poet. To expand upon the larger cultural relevance of this movement to Williams, it is necessary to examine his most sustained commentary about it—an address entitled “The American Spirit in Art,” which he delivered on December 18, 1951, to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In his address, Williams links the various contemporary experiments with abstraction to an Emersonian call for a distinct American art. In consideration of the ideas he expresses to the National Institute, it is also necessary to examine his contact with several key figures associated with the movement, most notably the painter Robert Motherwell and the art critic Harold Rosenberg. Both his address and personal contacts make clear that Williams, although an outsider to the nexus of the movement, was in tune with its avant-garde aspiration for authentic newness.

Prior to making his address to the National Institute of Arts and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420125416