The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:
Both Johns and Indiana had seen Demuth’s 1928 painting I Saw the Figure Five in Gold at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was an enigmatic “portrait” of his friend the poet William Carlos Williams, inspired by his poem “I Saw the Great Figure,” where Williams describes encountering a fire engine on the rainy evening streets of New York on his way to the artist Marsden Hartley’s studio. It was Indiana’s “favorite American painting” in the museum’s collection, and he would go on to incorporate its floating “No. 5” and star iconography in several paintings of the early 1960s. (Johns also based his earlier 1955 painting The Figure, a single number five against a gray encaustic field, on Demuth’s painting.) Indiana even inscribed his own autobiographical connection to the work, pointing out that it was made the year he was born.
Indiana’s found words also allowed him to commune with the literary greats whose ghosts stalked Coenties Slip and downtown New York, most prominently Melville and Whitman. Indiana and Youngerman had called on Melville’s famous opening lines in the brochure for their failed art school, and Indiana’s herms embody the author’s “silent sentinels,” fixed on the ocean. Indiana extended this citation directly into his paintings. As art historian Jonathan Katz has written, it’s also not accidental that Indiana cites queer literary heroes (Melville, Whitman, Crane, Stein) in a moment when homosexuality was still a public taboo.