In this article I assess the aesthetic, interpersonal, and historical contexts—American and European—in which William Carlos Williams wrote his poem “The Great Figure” and to which his artist friend, Charles Demuth, responded with his 1928 work I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold. Emphasizing what a work of art or poem “is,” as well as what it “does,” I discuss Williams’s poem and Demuth’s art in terms of the development of modern abstraction, but more importantly, in terms of Demuth as a visual heir to Williams. Celebrating new kinds of representation, modernism introduced new ways of seeing and saying. I argue that abstraction for both the poet and painter reflect creative responses to “angst, uncertainty, and confusion.” Discussing developments in cinema, jazz, advertising, photography, and experimental fiction (Joyce and Woolf), and dance as ways of understanding “The Great Figure” and I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, I offer a close reading of both works. I also show how the city shaped literary and visual arts in the early decades of the twentieth century.

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