E.E. Cummings’s Long-Forgotten Artist’s Book

Published in 1931, CIOPW includes 99 examples of Cummings’s visual art in charcoal, ink, oil, pencil, and watercolor.

E.E. Cummings, “portrait-self,” from CIOPW (all images courtesy of Michael Webster)

Early in 1931, in his 37th year, Edward Estlin Cummings published an extraordinary book. No writer of note had ever done anything like it before (and few have since). Titled CIOPW, it collected between a single set of hardcovers 99 examples of his visual art in charcoal, ink, oil, pencil, and watercolor — thus accounting for the acronymic title. Nine inches wide and 12 inches high, CIOPW was printed on thick opaque paper in an edition limited to 391 copies, each of which he signed “Cgs,” not with a pen but with a brush, in green paint in my copy. The book’s cover bears a replica of this stylish signature. Meriden Gravure did the reproductions only in black and white, though some of the originals had additional colors.

CIOPW, cover

Notwithstanding Cummings’s growing reputation as an innovative poet, CIOPW was not reviewed and did not sell out upon publication, perhaps because its price of $20 was too high at the outset of the Great Depression. The most visible benefit of the book was an exhibition in August 1931 at the Kokoon Club in Cleveland of 162 works, including the originals of most of CIOPW. His latest biographer, Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, notes in E.E. Cummings: A Biography that “not one picture was sold,” not even to the local collector who paid for the shipping and advertising. Many of these artworks were exhibited again at the end of that year, then once more at the Painters and Sculptors Gallery in New York, where some works on paper did sell. Exactly when the publisher, Covici-Friede, sold all 391 copies of the book cannot be ascertained now, but it must have happened eventually, because nowadays a copy of CIOPW costs several hundred dollars, even with a binding that has, decades later, disintegrated.

E.E. Cummings, “Dial—S.T.,” from CIOPW

CIOPW epitomizes the genre now known as an artist’s book, or book-art, in which the author selects images, sequences them optimally, and then finds a printer. The subjects here are mostly people important to Cummings — stars such as Charlie Chaplin, as well as his personal friends James Sibley Watson, Scofield Thayer, S.A. Jacobs, Gilbert Seldes, Joe Gould — and also landscapes, nudes (only female), Coney Island, still-lifes, etc. Few of the individual pieces survive as great; but as with any major artist’s book, the whole realizes more than the sum of its parts.

From the beginning of his career, Cummings identified himself as a “painter and poet.” He participated in Manhattan group exhibitions; he befriended visual artists such as Gaston Lachaise. He hustled the Downtown art world, which was a much smaller scene then than it is now. He obviously had enough respect for his visual work to produce a book containing only that. Instead of hiring a critic to introduce CIOPW, as would be customarily nowadays, Cummings wrote his own single-page preface, concluding with this pregnant phrase, all in lower-case type: “persanly poem printer predicated picturebook.”

The great misfortune of Cummings’s professional career was that his visual art was not as successful as his poetry. Though he reportedly reserved his daytimes for painting and drawing, writing his poems mostly after sundown, and thus perhaps spent more of his working time on visual art than writing, his art had little success in the marketplace and even less with reviewers. To the art critic Henry McBride (1867–1962), the most distinguished exhibition-reviewer in his time, Cummings’s visual work was “thin, uncertain, and separated by some curious wall of inhibition.”

E.E. Cummings, “Chocoura:sunset,” from CIOPW

To my eye, too much of Cummings’s later art is not just inhibited but undistinguished to a degree that his poems are not, even visually. It lacks the signature of his poetry — the stylistic marks that make it recognizable as his and no one else’s. In a New York literary institution, I recently saw a few of his later paintings, which had been given to Poets House founder Betty Kray, who had arranged poetry readings for Cummings during her tenure at the Academy of American Poets, and upon her death they went to this salon. Out of fear that uninsured paintings by someone so famous might be stolen, they have been displayed without any attributions. No matter: No one would recognize them as “original E.E. Cummings”; indeed, few ever notice them at all, because they simply lack the presence of his writing.

E.E. Cummings, “Sugar Cane,” from CIOPW

Exhibitions of Cummings’s art were scarce, reviews negligible, and collectors few. The most persistent was his principal patron James Sibley Watson, initially known to him as the publisher of The Dial magazine, later an experimental filmmaker and a physician/medical school professor in his native Rochester. Nonetheless, Cummings didn’t give up visual art or trying to exhibit it, often complaining that his eminence as a poet inhibited the career of his visual art. Put simply, he was a painter who didn’t sell.

In his 59th year, he had a one-man exhibition to which he contributed a biting preface that opens:

Why do you paint?

For exactly the same reason I breathe.

That’s not an answer.

How long hasn’t there been any answer?

As long as I can remember.

And how long have you written?

As long as I can remember.

I mean poetry.

So do I.

Tell me, doesn’t your painting interfere with your writing?

Quite the contrary: they love each other dearly.

They’re very different.

Very: one is painting and one is writing.

When Cummings died, the bulk of his visual art went to Harvard’s Houghton Library, which reportedly has hundreds of his paintings and drawings. Another cache was donated by Marion Morehouse to a summer camp, which in turn sold it in the 1990s to a Massachusetts bookseller who continues to have an inventory. When I gave a presentation on Cummings in the spring of 2005, mostly about his visual art, at the New York Studio School at 8 West Eighth Street, only a few hundred feet from where he resided in Patchin Place, even sophisticated people asked both my host and myself, “What paintings?” We then showed images that few had seen before, even there in the heart of Greenwich Village.

E.E. Cummings, “Day,” from CIOPW

What’s missing from the self-designed retrospective CIOPW are Cummings’s more visual poems, which would have benefited from appearing in larger typography. He clearly regarded poetry and painting as distinctly separate domains, rather than two stops on a continuum, as I tend to do. (This accounts for why words rarely appear in his visual fields — in contrast, say, to some paintings by his contemporary Stuart Davis.)

E.E. Cummings, “knockout,” from CIOPW

CIOPW also lacks the abstract paintings, except for “Noise Number 13” (1925) that Cummings produced prior to 1925, most of them in color. To those more predisposed to abstract art, such as myself, these remain his strongest visual works. The odd paradox is that as his poetry earned him greater recognition for its rigorous innovations, his visual art became less distinctive, if not altogether flaccid.

With this impressive compendium, Cummings was implicitly announcing a turn in his visual art away from innovative modernism, which I now think was unfortunate. While he continued to produce experimental poems for his entire life (most of them collected in my 1998 anthology AnOther E.E. Cummings), the most innovative period in his visual art career concluded not in 1925, as others have suggested, but with the publication of his book-art masterpiece, CIOPW.

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