For the authors discussed in Remarkable Modernisms—poets John Yau, Charles Simic, and Mark Strand, and novelists Ann Beattie and Joyce Carol Oates—writing about modern art not only helps to illuminate the work of the artist but also serves as a stimulus to verbal self-portraiture. By revealing as much about their own lives and works as they do about the visual objects reviewed—pieces, for example by Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell, Alex Katz, Edward Hopper, and George Bellows—the authors studied by Daniel Morris extend the scope of their analysis. In all five cases, writing about art becomes a critical inquiry into the nature of public acts of witnessing and private acts of seeing and not seeing.
While challenging older, rigidly formalist approaches, these authors also diverge from the strictly contextual approaches favored by many contemporary academic critics. As poets and novelists, they remain sensitive to the value of compositional techniques when they address a visual artifact, and they reject the shibboleth of "content" versus "formalist" approaches to art. They reveal that this dichotomy fails to account for the "semantics of form"— the interwoven relationship between the "how" and the "what" of a work of art. Indebted to visual art as a basis for their own compositional discoveries in words, these authors' writings on art have the effect of turning pictures into a language that extends our frame of reference beyond the flat surface of the picture plane to each author's version of contemporary society as social text.