My Egypt (1927), from the Whitney Museum of American Art. Copyright Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2016.
Charles Demuth’s My Egypt is one of the works that attracts little or less attention in the Whitney‘s Portraits show. Hidden in a small and crowded corner of the seventh floor, the piece depicts a “steel and concrete grain elevator belonging to John W. Eshelman & Sons,” in the artist’s hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, according to the wall text. It would not be truthful to say that I fell in love with it at first sight; my affection for My Egypt is founded primarily on a simple fact: Demuth painted the work in sickness, bedridden with diabetes and near the end of his life, looking out towards death with a certain resigned pride and introspective contemplation.
His study of the structure, which “assumes,” as the curators write, “a monumentality emphasized by the inclusion of the lower rooftops of neighboring buildings (suggesting the more traditional architecture of smaller family farms) at the bottom of the painting…” is poignant and honest, beautiful and majestic. It can be said in this vein that the essence of the work is ‘American,’ “a modern day equivalent to the monuments of ancient Egypt.” It even evokes what the museum staff insinuates is the bedrock of the factory’s construction: the joint histories of slave labor and a brutal industrial revolution that continue to mar our country’s past.
There is definitely a serious and “heavenly radiance” to My Egypt, but my favorite aspect of the piece is how it relates to me and to my own art. As I experience its sheer immensity, almost an imposition on the viewer with its celestial, ephemeral patina, I think of Demuth’s process and my own; I consider both of our encounters with physical suffering, me having had a TBI in November and him with the imminence of an exodus from his pain looming in the foreground. The metallicity of the pipes and windows and even of the lines flying through the painting suggests it to be unconquerable, sterile, and clinical, so mammoth and impersonal. Such, too, is the case with disease. One never knows for sure how and when it will manifest. Maladies are fickle, unpredictable, tricky, but with My Egypt, Demuth transcended the heavy-weighing minutiae consuming his existence and offered us the lightness of the sun, the cool blue of the sky, the austerity of a fade from clarity and health, instead. The art-deco trend that pervades Demuth’s other pieces, reminiscent of paintings by contemporary craftsmen such as Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today mural, now reinstalled at the Metropolitan Museum, falls short here with so much else to mull over. Echoing that sentiment, I’d like to say that My Egypt inspired me to push the bounds of my own ailments in developing artworks that convey a range of human struggles. I have yet to do so, but hope to in the future.
You can check out My Egypt for yourself through February 2017. Listen to a fun audio-guide about the work (led by curator Adam Weinberg) here.