Demuth's portrait of a poet

This zestful painting by American modernist Charles Demuth has achieved the dubious status of widespread familiarity. It has long been an icon of modern art. But confronted again head-on, "I Saw the Figure Five in Gold" startles you with its potent originality. It almost literally outshines and outmaneuvers any danger of its becoming a cliché. You might think about it absently as a well-worn part of art history. But to encounter it in its complex immediacy is to see what a dynamic invention it actually is.

The painting celebrates a poem. It is also sometimes described as a kind of portrait of the writer of the poem, William Carlos Williams. There are references to Williams in the painting that are like a subtext. Demuth even placed the poet's initials alongside his own. The poem is called "The Great Figure" and begins: "Among the rain/ and lights/ I saw the figure 5/ in gold/ on a red/ firetruck...." It is an Imagist poem, intended to have the objectivity of a painting. It captures a brief experience. (Williams described the moment also in his autobiography.) The poem is short, not narrative. Like a haiku, it is meant to be as instant and momentary as a procession of words can be. "Now," not a passage through time.

Demuth's painting is not an illustration of the words. It is not like a picture in a book that provides a pictorial equivalent to an episode in the story. But Williams's spontaneous vision of the figure 5 does determine the painting's dominating, magical image. A numeral is a graphic symbol, and only has two dimensions. To use this as the subject of a painting, while its realistic context – the fire engine – is relegated to the background, was surprising and original.

Signs on buildings were features of the industrial world that had previously found their way into paintings by Demuth, but the golden "5" is not just part of a picture. Repeatedly enlarged as if it is, of itself, a forward momentum, it surges toward the viewer until it seems about to burst into our space. It is the painting.

• 'The Great Figure,' by William Carlos Williams, is from 'Collected Poems: 1909-1939, Vol. 1,' 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Used with permission.

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