The 2013 Armory Show centennial provided a unique moment to celebrate and reflect upon the meaning and significance of this seminal event in American art history. Several notable exhibitions, including the New York Historical Society’s The Armory Show at 100 and Montclair Art Museum’s The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913, offered visitors an opportunity to encounter some of the art work displayed during the original exhibition. In a sign of the times, the Art Institute of Chicago and others offered visitors a virtual experience of the exhibition. Despite these commemorations, Jed Perl wrote in the New Republic that exhibitions, like the one held in New York, “never really caught on with the public or the critics” (para. 1). In his own estimate of this underwhelming response, Perl suggests that “there is not much left to say about it in our battle-scarred postmodern period. The feeling may be that no purpose is served by revisiting some antediluvian debates about the nature of tradition and innovation.” Perl points out that the original Armory Show—whether or not it was intended— conflated for its audience “novelty” with “independent-mindedness” (para. 22).
For the purposes of this special double issue, the 1913 Armory Show serves as a starting point for our consideration of Williams’s engagement with avant-garde art; however, in no way should it be misconstrued as a singular, limiting focus for these essays. Yes, Williams recalls visiting the New York Armory Show in his autobiography. He memorably comments that viewing of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase made him laugh “out loud [ . . . ] happily, with relief” (A 134). Williams’s attendance at the Armory [End Page 1] Show, however, is debatable. Flossie, for one, disputed the accuracy of his claim. Several critics have weighed in on whether he did or didn’t attend but to date a smoking gun has yet to appear—a ticket or souvenir from the event, perhaps? Ultimately, though, an actual visit to the Armory Show will not determine Williams’s credibility for understanding what this art event offered American poets and painters. Williams’s ability to manipulate the meaning of laughter about Duchamp’s work from derision to inspiration reflects a keen grasp of the artistic innovations that would shape the work and thoughts of his contemporaries. Thus the Armory Show centennial provides a unique time to look back, as well as forwards, at the very real ways that visual art influenced Williams’s way of seeing and expressing his world in words.
Williams’s deep connection to visual art underlies all of the contributions to this volume. His family upbringing no doubt shaped his appreciation of the value of art. Friendships with artists like Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, and Marsden Hartley later refined his sensibilities for avant-garde expression. His curiosity about this avant-garde persisted throughout a lifelong exploration of the interrelationship between word and image.
No doubt Williams’s enduring appreciation of the visual arts stems back to his mother’s artistic passions. In I Wanted to Write a Poem, Williams explains, “[h]er interest in art became my interest in art” (16). An aspiring artist, the young Elena Hoheb Williams studied at the School for Industrial Design (L’Ecole des Arts Industrielles) in Paris and won medals in each of the three years she attended (Mariani 16). Depleted family funds, though, abbreviated her stay and forced her to return to Puerto Rico. She was unfamiliar with the work of Cezanne, Van Gogh, or Gaughin, according to Williams. He describes her as “no more than an obscure art student from Puerto Rico, slaving away at her trade which she loved with her whole passionate soul, living it, drinking it down with her every breath” (Y 5). Yet despite her diverted artistic plans, she managed to convey to her sons a deep appreciation and love for art. It’s one of the things that connected him to her.
Williams knew he wanted to express himself artistically, but he was unsure how to go about it. He entertained the possibility of painting and practiced at it, even painting a...