Cummings' career as a painter, though less well-known than that as a poet, follows the same trajectory as his writing career and embraces the same sense of aesthetic values, from a willingness to be open and experimental, sometimes wildly so, to a nearly scientific rigor applied to the efforts to understand that which comprises aesthetic value and underlies all art. Cummings attempted to discover what would make a work of art not only pleasing and "successful" but also give it permanence, allowing it to transcend a given moment or a given "school" of art or thought and to touch that which is fundamentally human. An iconoclast and resolute individualist in both his poetry and his painting, Cummings consciously eschewed the favor of contemporary critics in order to pursue what he considered the more elevated course--the attempt to develop his visual art unencumbered by the trappings of any contemporary "school"; and he pursued this effort with a seriousness of purpose that belied some later critics' tendency to view him as a 20th-century American primitive: a subtle and sophisticated shaper of words but a visual artist whose subjects--landscapes, portraits, still lifes, nudes--became increasingly simple.
In this collection--the bulk of Cummings' entire output of visual art over the course of a lifetime--the truism that "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts" is borne out in dramatic fashion. As Kidder points out, "[Cummings'] sunsets, for example: seen as subjects are merely repetitious. Seen as experiments, however, they speak directly to his theories" about the relation of color to aesthetic feeling and experience. We see the experimenter both developing and testing his ideas about aesthetics and perception, in particular regarding the use of color. Far from being the "simple" paintings he was criticized for creating, Cummings' representational work is the culmination of an entire life spent studying the nature of beauty and the human apparatus for perceiving, understanding, and expressing it. If this meant, as happened in his later life, that Cummings fell prey to critics who were unable to see beyond his choice of subjects, he willingly sacrificed the critical attention in favor of pursuing with integrity the artistic concerns around which he had focused his life--literature, painting, and even, to a lesser extent, music. As such, much light can be shed upon Cummings' multitudinous notes and reflections on aesthetics and visual art by the examination of the actual "experiments" themselves--the finished works of art--and a re-evaluation of Cummings' artistic accomplishments, unimpeded by the tides of critical fashion in his time, can be undertaken with a view to understanding, once and for all, the visual and aesthetic vocabulary of a man who is universally acknowledged as one of the great literary artists of the modern era.