Even children are drawn, viscerally, to "The Figure 5 in Gold," one of the most recognizable works in American Modernism. Painted in 1928, its vibrant red, black and gold fire-engine motif barrels at the viewer, delivering a "Pow!" that Pop artists strived to achieve a few decades later. Somehow, the bold image manages to transmit not only the speed but also the screams of a fire truck weaving its way through a crowded New York street.
On its own, this visual impact might have made Charles Demuth's most famous work into an icon of American art. But "The Figure 5 in Gold" has much more going for it. It's the best work in a genre Demuth created, the "poster portrait." It's a witty homage to his close friend, the poet William Carlos Williams, and a transliteration into paint of his poem, "The Great Figure." It's a decidedly American work made at a time when U.S. artists were just moving beyond European influences. It's a reference to the intertwined relationships among the arts in the 1920s, a moment of cross-pollination that led to American Modernism. And it anticipates Pop art.