In a New Book, Alexander Nemerov Looks at his Aunt, Diane Arbus

THE DAILY PIC: A scholar compares his poet-laureate father and artist aunt.


THE DAILY PIC: I’d never seen this unusual Diane Arbus, titled A rock in Disneyland, Cal. 1962, until I came across it in a new memoir (of sorts) called Silent Dialogues, by the great art historian and cultural observer Alexander Nemerov. The book is a pair of extended essays on the author’s father, Howard Nemerov, the fine American poet, and on dad’s relationship–in life, but mostly in art–with his sister Diane, the truly great American photographer. One of my fondest moments in recent academe came from watching Alexander Nemerov dissect and elucidate the Edward Hopper painting called Ground Swell. Thinking back on that moment, as I read his new book, I realized that Nemerov’s great talent has always lain in taking description – of every detail in a Hopper, or of every facet of a poem or photograph or sibling rivalry – and making the richness of that description do the work of an argument. It is close reading, cubed.

In the space of a Daily Pic, I won’t try to summarize the descriptions, or argument(s), in Silent Dialogues, except to say that the book gets at the virtues and flaws in both of its subjects’ art. And even though it is properly kind to the father’s efforts, it acknowledges the greatness of Arbus. Somehow, for me, the difference can be summed up in the fact that Howard Nemerov used the skull-rock photo by Arbus for the cover of a 1963 collection of his poems – but  cropping in tight on its skull and printing the image in Hallowe’en orange. Too much focus, and too much color–too much poetry–gets in the way of seeing things as they are. (©The Estate of Diane Arbus)

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