Proposal for Artists in America

This would be a biographical/conceptual dictionary with extended entries on the most important artists in all fields--music, literature, visual art, performing arts--who worked primarily in America from its beginnings, with approximately 250 entries at 600 words apiece, or 150,000 words in sum. The introduction would identify characteristics of “The American Imagination” that makes American art generally different from European. The secondary theme is that these individuals constitute the American canon and that knowledge of their achievements is essential literacy.

The entries would be generally appreciative and at once introductory and scholarly, as I’ve done before, concluding with short bibliography of both primary and secondary references. While this reference book is destined ultimately for libraries, I hope that the writing would be clean enough for it to life as well as a trade book, perhaps with a book club or as a paperback reprint. Since I did my graduate work in American history on artists in America, I have thought about these individuals for over three decades. I expect that the writing could come easily and deliver the book within a year of the receipt of the advance. While many of these individuals were also covered in my Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (1992; rev. ed., 2000), I would expect to draft even those entries from scratch, emphasizing not their avant-garde quality, as done before, but their importance to American cultural history. Since I assume that categories such as painting and dance define work, rather than people, individuals will be treated in alphabetically or chronologically (by birth year, to suggest intellectual history). The book will also have timelines as well as sidebars on themes, institutions, and collective operations (such as movements, schools, corporate entities).

Among the artists deserving individual entries, consider the following:

Henry Adams
Edward Albee
Louisa May Alcott
Louis Armstrong
John J. Audubon
Fred “Tex” Avery
P.T. Barnum
Saul Bellow
George Wesley Bellows
Irving Berlin
Leonard Bernstein
Bix Biederbecke
William Billings
Marlon Brando
John Cage
Mary Cassat
Willa Cather
Alexander Calder
Charles Chaplin
James Fennimore Cooper
Aaron Copland
Stephen Crane
Hart Crane
E. E. Cummings
Merce Cunningham
Betty Davis
Miles Davis
Willem De Kooning
Emily Dickinson
John Dos Passos
Theodore Dreiser
Isadora Duncan
Bob Dylan
Thomas Eakins
Duke Ellington
Ralph Ellison
William Faulkner
F. Scott Fitzgerald
John Ford
Stephen Foster
Robert Frost
Buckminster Fuller
Loie Fuller
Frank Gehry
George Gershwin
Allen Ginsberg
Philip Glass
Martha Graham
D. W. Griffith
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Ernest Hemingway
Winslow Homer
Langston Hughes
Washington Irving
Charles Ives
Buster Keaton
B. B. King
Henry James
Jasper Johns
James Weldon Johnson
Robert Johnson
Chuck Jones
Amy Lowell
Edward MacDowell
The Marx Brothers
Herman Melville
H. L. Mencken
Adah Mencken
Marianne Moore
Samuel F. B. Morse
Ogden Nash
Isamu Noguchi
Georgia O’Keeffe
Eugene O’Neill
Frederick Law Olmsted
Charlie Parker
Charles Wilson Peale
Edgar Allan Poe
Jackson Pollock
Ezra Pound
Richard Pryor
Robert Rauschenberg
Ad Reinhardt
Theodore Roethke
Will Rogers
Philip Roth
Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Carl Sandburg
Roger Sessions
Frank Sinatra
Bessie Smith
David Smith
Gertrude Stein
Alfred Stieglitz
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Gilbert Stuart
Louis H. Sullivan
Henry David Thoreau
Louis Comfort Tiffany
Jean Toomer
James Turrell
Mark Twain
Edgar Varese
James McNeill Whistler
Walt Whitman
Hank Williams
Tennessee Williams
William Carlos Williams
Frank Lloyd Wright
Richard Wright
Frank Zappa

Collective Operations:
Abstract Expressionism
Black Mountain College
Las Vegas
National Endowment for the Arts

If the order is alphabetical, rather than chronological, I’d like to do a timeline, ideally inventive in form, combining general history with artist’s biographies. With sufficient support, I may recruit colleagues to do entries better than mine would be.

I welcome suggestions for other major American artists who should be similarly treated.

Projected word counts:

Biographical entries (600-900 words): 187,500 (750 words x 250 articles)
Bibliography/Works/Further Reading (200-400): 75,000 (300 words x 250 articles)
"Sidebar" essays (200-500 words): 30,000 (350 words x 85 articles)
"Timelines" (200 words): 4,000 (200 words x 20 articles)
Introductory essay: 5,000 (5000 words x 1 article)
Estimated total: 300,000 words

Below are sample entries, mostly derived from my Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes:

BEIDERBECKE, Bix (10 March 1903, Davenport, IA - 6 August 1931, Flushing, NY; b. Leon Bismarck B.). The son of Iowa German immigrants who were amateur musicians, he began to play music as a small child and developed an interest in ragtime and jazz that were beginning to receive national dissemination through records and radio, not to mention traveling musicians. Playing his cornet (a kind of trumpet) in improvising bands (The Wolverines, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band), Beiderbecke gravitated to New York where, collaborating with saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, he created the epitome of white jazz--a happy improvisatory music utterly lacking in “soul” but still musically impressive, if not contageous. At his most innovative, Beiderbecke pioneered individuality in ensemble playing and mixed classical influences with improvisation, establishing a “third stream” long before that epithet was coined. Every year on his birthday, a university radio station in New York plays Beiderbecke around the clock, annually recovering a kind of music that got lost. if not buried, in America’s music competitive marketplace. As one older black musician explained during one of those progams, the horn style represented by Louis Armstrong “defeated” Beiderbecke’s, partly because the latter died young from alcohol-induced pheumonia.

So powerful was this image of the jazzman’s short self-destructive life in the decade following his death that novels based on it appeared. most notably Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn (1938). Nearly all of the eleven hours that he recorded are still available on discs. The composer Richard Sudhalter, who co-authored a biography of Bix, recently published a thick book, Lost Chords (1998), obviously featuring Bix, about forgotten American jazz produced by white people.


CAGE, John (5 September 1912, Los Angeles - 12 August 1992, N.Y., NY). He was one of the few American artists of whom it can be said, without dispute, that had he not existed, the development of more than one art would have been different. A true polyartist, Cage produced distinguished work in music, theater, literature, and visual art. As a de facto esthetician, he had a discernible influence upon the creation of music, several areas of performance, the visual arts, and, to a lesser extent, literature and social thought. His principal theme, applicable to all arts, was the denial of false authority by expanding the range of acceptable and thus employable materials, beginning with non pitched "noises," which he thought should be heard as music "whether we're in or out of the concert hall."
Though long considered an avatar of "chance," Cage was actually an extremely fecund inventor who, once he disregarded previous conventions, was able to realize a wealth of indubitably original constraints. The first (and for long the most notorious) was prepared piano," which prevented the emergence of familiar keyboard sounds, beginning a career that included scrupulously alternative kinds of musical scoring, idiosyncratically structured theatrical events, and unique literary forms. Perhaps because Cage never doubled back, never dismissing his earlier works as wrong, his art remained “far-out,” challenging, and generally unacceptable to the end. In the last months of his life, he completed a ninety minute film whose visual content was a white screen violated by various shades and shapes of gray.

He became such an American icon that many forget that in the middle of his career, in the 1950s and 1960s, when I first began following Cage's activities, no one, but no one, received so many persistently negative comments, not just in print but in collegial conversations. Even as late as 1988 1989, when Cage was invited to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, perhaps the most prestigious appointment of its kind, he delivered statements so barely connected that few professors returned after Cage's initial lecture!

Politically an anarchist from his professional beginnings, he worked, as much through example as assertion, to eliminate authority and hierarchy, even in his life, never accepting a position that might give him cultural power (as distinct from influence), never composing any work that requires an authoritarian conductor or even a lead instrumentalist who stands before a backup group. When Cage accepted the Norton position that gave him a title elevating him above the rest of us humans, I asked him what it was like being a Harvard professor. "Not much different from not being a Harvard professor," he replied, true to his politics.

Not unlike other avant garde artists, Cage made works, in his case in various media, that are much more or much less than art used to be. Though the Minimal pieces should not be slighted, the greatest Cage works, in my considered opinion, are his Maximal compositions: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (19461948) is his longest and most exhaustive exploration of his first musical invention. Williams Mix (1953) is a tape collage composed of thousands of bits, intricately fused onto six tapes that should be played simultaneously, so that the result is an abundance of sounds within only several minutes. In HPSCHD (1969), Cage filled a 15,000 seat basketball arena with a multitude of sounds and sights, and Europera (1987) draws upon 19th century European opera for musical parts, costumes, and scenarios that are then distributed at random to performers in a professional opera company. Given my bias toward abundance, my favorite Cage visual art is the sequence of Plexiglas plates that became Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel (1969); my favorite Cage text, the Harvard lectures that became the long poem I VI (1990).

In his notorious “silent piece,” the superficially much, much less 4’33" (1952), he became an avatar of conceptual art. By having the distinguished pianist David Tudor make no sound in a concert otherwise devoted to contemporary piano music, Cage framed four minutes and thirty three seconds of a pianist's inactivity to suggest that the inadvertent sounds within the auditorium constitute the "musical" experience and, by extension, that all sounds, whether intentional or not, can be considered music. (One strain of conceptual art consists of demonstrations or statements that convey radical esthetic implications.) Since the content of 4’33” and its successors is miscellaneous sounds, it is more accurate to characterize it as a noise piece. With a single resonant gesture, he extended a tradition of American classical music, pioneered by Henry Cowell and Edgar Varese, of exploring sound that is not just atonal but chaotic.

Cage also revolutionized musical scoring (eventually collecting an anthology of Notations [1969] that mostly reflects his influence), introducing graphic notations and prose instructions in place of horizontal musical staves. By book-art criteria, the most extraordinary of his own scores is the twovolume Song Books (Solos for Voice, 3-92) (1970), which contains, in part through length and number, an incomparable wealth of alternative performance instructions. He also ranks among the rare artists whose statements about his own work were often more true and insightful than his critics' writings.


CUNNINGHAM, Merce (16 April 1919, Centralia, WA). After years off the edge of American dance, Cunningham became, beginning in the late 1960s, the principal figure in advanced American choreography, remaining into the 1990s the most influential individual, as much by example as by becoming a monument whose activity still intimidates his successors. Born tight-jointed, he could leap but could not extend or contort. Taller than most dancers and more solidly built as well, he was always a commanding dancer.

Originally part of Martha Graham's dance company, he presented in 1944, in collaboration with John Cage, his first New York recital of self composed solos. Rejected by dance aficionados who were devoted to prior masters, Cunningham earned his initial following among professionals in other arts.

The initial reason for the dance world's neglect was that Cunningham had drastically reworked many dimensions of dance making: not only the articulation of performance time, but the use of theatrical space; not only the movements of dancers' bodies, but their relationship to one another on the stage. For instance, if most ballet and even modern dance had a front and a back, Cunningham's works are designed to be seen from all sides; and though theatrical custom has forced him to mount most of his performances on a proscenium stage (one that has a front and thus a back), his pieces have also been successfully performed in gymnasiums and museums.

Time in Cunningham's work is nonclimactic, which means that a piece begins not with a fanfare but a movement, and it ends not with a flourish but simply when the performers stop. Because he eschews the traditional structure of theme and variation, the dominant events within a work seem to proceed at an irregular, unpredictable pace; their temporal form is, metaphorically, lumpy. "It's human time," he explains, "which can't be too slow or too fast, but includes various time possibilities. I like to change tempos."

His dances generally lack a specific subject or story, even though interpretation hungry spectators sometimes identify particular subjects and/or semblances of narrative (and more than one Cunningham dancer has suspected the existence of secret stories). It follows that his dancers eschew dramatic characterizations for nonparticularized roles, which is to say that Cunningham dancers always play themselves and no one else. Just as he defied tradition by allowing parts of a dancer's body to function disjunctively and nonsynchronously, so the distribution of his performers customarily lacks a center--important events occur all over the performing area, even in the corners. The result is organized disorganization, so to speak, that initially seems chaotic only if strict forms of ordering are expected.

The titles of Cunningham’s works tend to be abstract (Aeon [1961], Winterbranch [1964]), or situational (RainForest [1968], Summerspace [1958], Place [1966]), or formally descriptive (Story [1963], Scramble [1967], Walkaround Time [1968]). As his dancers' gestures have been ends in themselves, rather than vehicles of emotional representation or narrative progression, Cunningham freed himself to explore the possibilities of human movement. In this respect, he has been incomparably inventive and remarkably prolific. To put it differently, once he decided that the old rules need not be followed, he was free to produce many dances filled with unfamiliar moves and innovative choreographic relationships.

Because Cunningham's activities are not symbolic of human activities or emotions, they are meant to be appreciated as ends in themselves. His dance thus demands not empathy from the spectator but, as Cage once explained, "your faculty of kinesthetic sympathy. It is this faculty we employ when, seeing the flight of birds, we ourselves, by identification, fly up, glide and soar." What seems at first inscrutable about Cunningham's choreography is quite comprehensible, providing one does not strive too hard to find underlying "significances." What you see is most of what there is.

Another departure comes with his use of music. Whereas most choreographers draw their inspirations from particular scores, Cunningham composes all but a few of his pieces without music; his dancers count to themselves for their cues. What music is heard in his work is customarily composed apart from the dance, as is the decor and costumes, and thus not mixed with the dance until the final rehearsals. The music tends to be harshly atonal and rhythmically irrelevant, as Cunningham has for his accompaniments long favored John Cage and those composers gathered around him.

Cunningham's choreographies are generally many sided, nonlinear, nonexpressionistic, spatially noncentered, temporally nonclimactic, and compositionally assembled. The decor and sound are supplementary, rather than complementary; and the dancers are highly individualized. Though his art is avant garde, his sensibility is classical, which is to say precise, Constructivist </HC>, and severe. He reveals the enormity of his choreographic intelligence through his profound knowledge of dance and dancers, coupled with his seemingly limitless capacity for invention.


STEIN, Gertrude (3 February 1874, Allegheny, PA 27 July 1946, Paris, France). She was, simply, the Great American Person of Avant-Garde Letters in that she produced distinguished work in poetry as well as prose, theater as well as criticism, nearly all of it unconventional, if not decidedly avant garde. She could not write an ordinary sentence if she tried; for though her diction is mundane and her vocabulary nearly always accessible, her sentence structures are not. One early development, evident in Three Lives (drafted around 1904), was the shifting of syntax, so that parts of a sentence appear in unusual places. These shifts not only repudiate the conventions of syntactical causality, but they also introduce dimensions of subtlety and accuracy. Instead of saying "someone is alive," Stein writes, "Anyone can be a living one," the present participle indicating the process of living.

It is clear that there are two Gertrude Steins in American literature’s canon. Those who prefer Three Lives and the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas tend to dismiss as "incomprehensible junk" an oeuvre that I find the richest experimental writing ever done by an American. More than a half-century after her death, even generations after it was written, much of this writing is not understood, is not taught in the universities, and, for the most part, is not even in print. In the unabridged, 925 page The Making of Americans (1926; first drafted around 1906 1908, well before the innovative novels of James Joyce and William Faulkner, she developed what subsequently became her most notorious device--linguistic repetition. To be precise, she repeats certain key words or phrases within otherwise different clauses and sentences; so that even though the repetitions are never exact, this repeated material comes to dominate the entire paragraph or section, often becoming the primary cohering force within an otherwise diffuse passage. As Stein neglected subject, setting, anecdote, conflict, analysis, and many other conventional elements, style became the dominant factor in her writing, more important than "theme" or "character."

Freed from conventional syntax (and the Aristotelian principles informing it), Stein was able to explore the possibilities of not just one but several kinds of alternative English. Having worked with accretion and explicitness, as well as syntactical transpositions, she then experimented with ellipses and economy; having written about experience with many more words than usual, she tried to write with far, far fewer. In Tender Buttons (1914), for instance, her aim was the creation of texts that described a thing without mentioning it by name. Other prose pieces have as their real theme, their major concern, kinds of coherence established within language itself: "Able there to ball bawl able to call and seat a tin a tin whip with a collar"; or, "Appeal, a peal, laugh, hurry merry, good in night, rest stole." The unifying forces in such sentences are stressed sounds, rhythms, alliterations, rhymes, textures, and consistencies in diction—linguistic qualities other than subject and syntax; and even when divorced from semantics, these dimensions of prose can affect readers.

After experimenting with prolix paragraphs, she then made fictions out of abbreviated notations, such as these from "The King of Something" in Geography and Plays (1922):

Did you say it did.
Very likely I missed it.
Turn turn.

Not only does such compression (along with the omission of page XVII) represent a radical revision of narrative scale, but writings like these also realize the French Symbolist theoretical ideal of a completely autonomous language—creating a verbal reality apart from extrinsic reality. However, whereas the Symbolists regarded language as the top of the iceberg, revealing only part of the underlying meaning, Stein was primarily concerned with literature's surfaces, asking her readers to pay particular attention to words, rather than to the content and the motives that might lie behind them. What you read is most of what there is.

Her plays consist primarily of prose passages that are sometimes connected to characters (and other times not). Only occasionally are characters identified at the beginning of the text, while the customarily concise texts rarely include stage directions of any kind. Stein was not adverse to having "Act II" follow "Act III," which had followed a previous "Act II." There is typically nothing in her theatrical scenarios about tone, pace, costumes, decor, or any other specifics, all of which are thus necessarily left to the interpretation of the plays' directors. Because scripts like these are simply not conducive to conventional realistic staging, most directors have favored highly spectacular, sensorily abundant productions that incorporate music and dance, in sum exemplifying Stein's idea of theater as an art of sight and sound.

Her essays were also unlike anything written before in that vein. In discussing a particular subject, she avoided the conventions of exposition, such as example and elaboration, in favor of accumulated disconnected details and miscellaneous insights, often frustrating those readers requiring accessible enlightement. Stein's reputation for distinguished prose has obscured her poetry, which was likewise concerned with alternative forms, beginning with acoherence, especially in her monumental "Stanzas in Meditation," and including the horizontal Minimalism </HC> of one word lines:


Stein frequently boasted that in writing she was "telling what she knew," but most of her knowledge concerned alternative writing. It is indicative that the principal theme of her essays, reiterated as much by example as by explanation, is the inventions possible to an author accepting the esthetic autonomy of language.


SESSIONS, Roger (28 December 1896, Brooklyn, NY - 16 March 1985, Princeton, NJ). A brainy American composer who entered Harvard at 14, he later studied with Horatio Parker (who also taught Charles Ives) at Yale before beginning his own teaching career at Smith College (1917-21) and the Cleveland Institute of Music (1921-25). Moving to Europe for several years, he composed works reflecting the influence of Igor Stravinsky and Ernst Bloch (1880-1959), a Swiss composer whom Sessions had assisted in Cleveland. Mostly in absentia, he collaborated in 1928-31 with Aaron Copland, likewise Brooklyn-born, in sponsoring in New York what came to be known as the Copland-Sessions concerts that were very influential at the time. Frightened by Hitler’s rise, which he saw firsthand, he returned home in 1933, teaching successively at Boston University, Princeton, Univ. of California at Berkeley, and then Princeton again. Retiring from there in 1965, he then taught for nearly two decades more at Juilliard. He was among the first major American composers to realize that he could do his own work while teaching not at a “conservatory” but at a liberal-arts university. (Among his contemporares, Virgil Thomson, George Gershwin, Elliott Carter, and Aaron Copland all avoided teaching positions, while Howard Hanson and William Schuman ran music conservatories.)

A subsidiary benefit of teaching at an Ivy League university with a serious program in music was many ambitious students who would later have their own careers. Retiring from Princeton in 1965, he later taught at Juilliard, whose graduate programs have always produced professionals. More than a decade after his death. Sessions is frequently cited in younger composers’ biographies, where teachers are customarily acknowledged (as in dance, but not in painting). Among those featured in this book Sessions is acknowledged by Conlon Nancarrow, Milton Babbitt, James K. Randall, and Eric Salzman. In Kyle Gann’s incomparably populous survey of contemporary American composers, American Music in the Twentieth Century (1997), for instance, Sessions is mentioned for teaching David del Tredici (1937), Frederic Rzewski (1938), John Harbison (1938), Ellen Taafe Zwilich (1939), Daniel Lentz (1941), and Tod Machover (1953), most of whom produced music distinctly different from Sessions’ own. Because few, if any, American arts professors, in any art, had so many distinguished students, Sessions became the model for younger composer/professors, though, if only because other universities are imitating Princeton’s example in the 1950s and 1960s, it it doubtful if any contemporaries will have have as many pupils who became subsequently prominent.

Perhaps because so much of Sessions’ time was spent teaching, the catalog of his works emphasizes substantial works, with remarkably few minor and occasional pieces. One theme of his music and musical career was increasing density, as Sessions progressed from works reflecting the influence of Stravinsky in the 1920s to 12-tone compositions in the 1950s. His three piano sonatas (1930, 1946, 1965) exemplify this development, as the third is chracterized justly as the “Hammerklavier of the 20th century--half as long, with twice as many notes.” Perhaps because he was fortunate enough to receive commissions to the end of his life, Sessions was especially productive in his seventies, when in John Habrison’s phrases, “contrasts [in his music became] more sudden, transitions more swift, sections less balanced, and motivic connections less literal.”


CUMMINGS, E.E. (14 October 1894 - 3 September 1962). The avant garde Cummings is not the author of lyrics reprinted in nearly every anthology of American verse or of a name entirely in lowercase letters, but of several more inventive, less familiar poems. Appreciation of this alternative Cummings should begin with such poetic wit as "Gay Pay Oo" for the Soviet secret police (G.P.U); his use of prefixes and suffixes to modify a root word in various subtle ways (so that "unalive" is not synonymous with dead); his evocative typography (as in a familiar poem about grasshoppers, or "t,a,p,s," or "SpRiN,K,LiNG"); and his integration of the erotic with the experimental. He wrote poems that cohere more in terms of sound than syntax or semantics: "bingbongwhom chewchoo /laugh dingle nails personally /bin" loamhome picpac /obviously scratches tomorrowlobs." He wrote abstract poetry long before anyone else in America, the opening poem of 1 X 1 (1944) beginning: "nonsum blob a / cold to /skylessness /sticking fire Amy are you / are birds our all/ and one gone/ away the they." "No Thanks" (1935) is an extraordinary poem beginning "bright" that contains only eleven discrete words, all six letters or less in length; they are successfully broken apart and nonsyntactically combined to form fifteen lines of forty-four words—all three letter words appearing thrice, all four letter words four times, etc. With such rigorous structures Cummings presaged several major developments in contemporary avant garde poetry. Though some of these innovations were not included in earlier selections and collections of Cummings's poetry, thankfully they all appear in the latest edition of his Complete Poems (1991), which incidentally demonstrates that these more experimental poems were done throughout his career, rather than, say, being bunched within a short period. They are featured in AnOther E. E. Cummings (1998), which also includes examples of his highly experimental plays, perhaps the first film scenario written in America by a noted poet (1926), elliptical narratives, his theater criticism that emphasizes performances over drama, and the opening chapter of a text known only as No Title (1930), whose prose broaches abstraction. Consider these concluding lines from its opening chapter:

while generating a heat so terrific as to evaporate the largest river of the kingdom--which,completely disappearing in less than eleven seconds,revealed a giltedged submarine of the UR type,containing(among other things)the entire royal family(including the king, who still held his hat in his hand) in the act of escaping,disguised as cheeses.


(A reviewer of AnOther E.E.C. noted that it places Cummings “not among Pound and Eliot, with whom he has little in common, but rather with Russian Futurists and Dadaists; with Latin American and German concrete poets; [etc.]”, all of which I wish I said before him, because his reassignment is true.) No appreciation of the avant garde Cummings would be complete without acknowledging his Eimi (1933, often out of print), a prose memoir of his disillusioning 1931 trip to the Soviet Union, as audacious in style as it is in content, along with the brilliant retrospective summary of this book that he prepared for a reprint in the late 1950s. Cummings also produced a considerable amount of visual art, which has never been fully exhibited (even though his oeuvre reportedly includes over 2,000 paintings and over 10,000 sheets of drawings). In short, don’t forget the avant-garde Cummings behind the familiar versifier.