You have to go out of your way to get to Brockport, N.Y., a pretty little Victorian village west of Rochester that had its moment in the sun before the Civil War, when the Erie Canal briefly ended there and canal boats loaded up on products like grain and cod liver oil. Yet a few enterprising Brockporters are hoping that arts-lovers will beat a path to their door this month to help them restore the works of the painter E.E. Cummings, which are torn, dusty, stained and otherwise in pitiful condition.
That's right: The very same enduringly popular, inventive bard of love, sex, rebellion and nature who ranks with the best of 20th-century poets painted with paints as well as with verbal images arranged just-so on a page.
Cummings's paintings are largely forgotten, but he considered himself just as talented a painter as a poet, and worked hard at it, especially on his early abstractions. He made thousands of works. "He painted every day, and devoted more time to it than to his poems," says Milton A. Cohen, a humanities professor at the University of Texas at Dallas and author of "Poet and the Painter: The Aesthetics of E.E. Cummings' Early Work."
How 72 of those paintings ended up in disrepair at the State University of New York at Brockport -- miles away literally and figuratively from Cummings's bohemian life in Greenwich Village, Paris and New England -- is a tale that reveals much about his career, the fame that shaped it, art-world fashions, and, of course, money.
When Cummings left Harvard in 1916, the 21-year-old didn't know what direction his life would take. Soon he was in Paris, where he studied art seriously, more so than writing, according to Cummings scholars. In tune with trends there, he mostly painted abstractions, although "there's a series of watercolors in the '20s of a town in France, Pornic, that are wonderful," says Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, one of Cummings's biographers. "They are very Cezanne."
Back in the U.S., Cummings regularly showed his work at the annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, from 1919 until about 1930. Unjuried, it showcased thousands of works, yet reviewers almost always singled out Cummings's for a positive mention. As late as 1924, Prof. Cohen says, Cummings wrote to his father saying he considered himself primarily a painter. Aside from Cézanne and early Picasso, he was influenced by Joseph Stella, Albert Gleizes, and early John Marin, scholars say.
Literary success, however, soon claimed him. In 1922 came the publication of "The Enormous Room" and in 1923, "Tulips and Chimneys." Soon, "he was in demand as a poet," says Mr. Sawyer-Lauçanno. In 1925, he won the Dial Award, which was created in 1921 by his friend Scofield Thayer, who as the Dial's editor made the publication a must-read for modernist literature.
Cummings kept painting. But around 1927 he began to abandon abstraction. Prof. Cohen says that Cummings liked to paint spontaneously, befitting his philosophy as a poet, and so he was better at watercolors than at the more serious medium of oils. "That's why he gave up abstractions, because he labored at them," Prof. Cohen says. Instead, Cummings tried out many styles and genres: still lifes, nudes, portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, interiors, religious themes.
That change was a defining moment. By the '20s, America, which had always looked to Europe as the cultural light, had produced painters like Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Arthur Dove with a unique, modern, American style. Cummings missed it. He knew people like Alfred Stieglitz, but he no longer went to artists' openings to see what his contemporaries were doing. "He continued looking back at Europe," Mr. Sawyer-Lauçanno says. Later, he disliked Abstract Expressionism.
Cummings knew that he had to develop an individual vision for his painting, but he never did. After the mid-1920s, he exhibited his paintings only sporadically. And their quality varies considerably. "You almost have to take it painting by painting," Prof. Cohen says. He calls some works "striking" -- especially abstractions like "Noise #13" -- and adds, "If he had stayed in that work, and exhibited it, he would have made a name for himself as a painter."
At least by the '30s, Cummings knew that he was far more original as a poet than a painter, Mr. Sawyer-Lauçanno says, and "he was moved in this direction because of that success."
But renown didn't bring Cummings money. He never really "worked" in a job. With little cash, he painted on paper, shirt cardboard and anything else he could find, as well as on the occasional canvas. "He wasn't thinking of the long-term," Prof. Cohen says. "He never could support himself." He always depended on patrons and friends.
Luckily for him, at Harvard he had befriended James Sibley Watson Jr., an heir to the Western Union fortune. It was Sibley Watson who had actually purchased the Dial, after Thayer's initial $600 investment, giving Cummings his main chance. It was Sibley Watson who sent Cummings money and, with his wife, Hildegarde Lassell Watson, bought his paintings. It was Sibley Watson who settled in Rochester, in an elegant mansion that Cummings frequented.
And it was Sibley Watson, after Hildegarde died, who was moved in 1978 to give much of their Cummings collection to nearby SUNY-Brockport.
Over the years, the works have gone on view a couple of times, but mostly the college was ill-equipped to handle them. "None of the paintings have ever been kept in a climate-controlled room," says Frank Short, dean of Brockport's School of Arts and Performance. "They've been in a dark place, with stable temperatures, but it's a closet."
Now they're coming out. Brockport wants to show the works, but they need restoring first -- for an estimated total of $160,000. But having failed to procure help from the government, Dean Short is turning to the people of upstate New York -- and perhaps beyond. He's asking them to "adopt" a painting by paying for an individual restoration. People can choose a work online or at a kickoff "gala" benefit tomorrow in Brockport's downtown Rochester extension center.
Are they worth it? After all, a few museums -- the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to name two -- own works by Cummings that are never on view. But both Prof. Cohen and Mr. Sawyer-Lauçanno say Brockport's collection, which includes such works as "Noise #1" and "Surrealist Landscape," is worth saving and showing. "It represents the best individual collection of any of Cummings's work, because most of those paintings were given to or bought by the Watsons and because he valued them as friends," says Mr. Sawyer-Lauçanno. "He wanted to make sure they had the best."
Prof. Cohen believes "we should be able to see what he was doing," whether or not he was a great painter. "His poetry is about spontaneity, and his paintings after 1929 try to embody that spontaneity." The two are complementary.
For $160,000 -- which in this art market barely buys a work by a recent art-school graduate -- how could anyone disagree?