Charles Sheeler images and biography
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Charles Sheeler

See also: American Art


"The ungainly name "Precisionism" was coined by the painter-photographer Charles Sheeler, mainly to denote what he himself did. It indicated both style and subject. In fact, the subject was the style: exact, hard, flat, big, industrial, and full of exchanges with photography. Photography fed into painting and vice versa. No expressive strokes of paint. Anything live or organic, like trees or people, was kept out. There was no such thing as a Precisionist pussycat. Sheeler's work records the displacement of the Natural Sublime by the Industrial Sublime, but his real subject was the Managerial Sublime, a thoroughly American notion. And though Precisionism broadened into an American movement in the late twenties and early thirties, Sheeler's work defined its essential scope and meaning.

"The son of a steamer-line executive in Philadelphia, Sheeler took his first art classes under William Merritt Chase at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1903 and, in the now familiar pattern of other American modernists-to-be, he experienced his conversion to Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, and Matisse during a trip to Paris in 1908. Back in Philadelphia he took up commercial photography to support his painting. He worked with Morton Schamberg until the latter's early death in 1918. Sheeler's talent for high-definition photography, with stark, plain, and well-Judged masses of tone, shied away from human documentary: he avoided figures in favor of near-abstract subjects, images of anonymous architecture, such as the sides of barns in Bucks County, Pennsylvania - plain American vernacular. This preference would inform his later work. Sheeler's interest in old structures and tools wasn't antiquarian. It came from his belief that a common line of empirical functionalism was the "unseen soul" of American tradition, linking the old barn to the new industrial plant.

"In 1920 he and the photographer Paul Strand made a short experimental film together - one of the first American "art" films. It was meant as a portrait of the city, and its title (as well as its silent-movie captions) was quoted from Walt Whitman.

"Despite the lines from Whitman's poems, Manhatta is not really Whitmanesque in feeling, because it either omits the people of New York or sees them as molecules in a crowd, abstract parts of "one-million-footed Manhattan, unpent," but with none of the social richness that stirred Whitman's soul. Strand and Sheeler's Manhattan is a hard, clear, abstract place: not always as grim in its alienation as Strand's 1915 photo of businessmen trailing long black chains of morning shadows as they scurry to work past the blank, tomblike windows of the Morgan Guaranty Trust Building, but depopulated enough to act as a series of signs only for itself.

"The film bred paintings, as Sheeler's still photographs would continue to do through the 1920s and 1930s. One shot in Manhatta looked down at a train on the Church Street elevated railway sliding into view; Church Street El, 1920, takes this image, colors it and cleans it up, abstracts it, but leaves it essentially recognizable. His vision was dour and romantic at the same time. You often feel, in Sheeler, the presence of an artist who wanted to submit himself to structures and ideologies larger than himself, as though - whatever doubts he might have had about them - they promised security. And the ideology of American managerial industrialism underwrote that promise. So he set out to become its artist laureate.

"It is difficult, today, to imagine the enthusiasm with which Americans (and especially American managers) in the 1920s embraced the idea of the machine as a model and regulator of working life. It grew out of Henry Ford's use of the production line in mass car manufacture. Ford declared in 1909 that he was going to democratize the auto, that "when I'm through everybody will be able to afford one, and about everyone will have one." He produced millions of identical cars in exactly the same way, by breaking down each stage of their making into small repetitive units of work, each of which could be performed, hundreds of times a day, not by a craftsman but by an ordinary worker in charge of a single, specialized machine. These work-molecules flowed into the river of the production line, watched over by a hierarchy of managers. In 1914, the year full production-line assembly began at the Ford plant in Detroit, the basic black Model T cost $490, a quarter of what the cheaper sort of American car had cost ten years before, and 248,000 Fords were sold; by 1924 the car was down to $290, and in 1919, on the eve of the Wall Street crash, American automakers produced 4.8 million units. The sales graph had gone almost vertical.

"Ford, omnipotent crank that he was, believed he had invented something like a new religion, based on industry. It would lead to a United States of the World, with himself - the complete anti-humanist, serene and objective in his understanding of process, the literal deus ex machina - as its messiah. "The man who builds a factory builds a temple. The man who works there, worships there." Even the defective human body, a meat machine, would in time be fixed with interchangeable parts. History, he famously pronounced, was bunk, and "machinery is accomplishing in the world what man has failed to do by preaching propaganda or the written word." And doubters were to Ford - as skeptics about one-world "Interactivity" are to Internet votaries today - contemptible Luddites, dust beneath the pneumatic tires of the certain future.

"In 1927 the Ford Motor Company hired Charles Sheeler to spend six weeks in its River Rouge plant, taking photographs. Sheeler was so deeply impressed that he would echo Ford's bizarre pieties about industrial religion: "Our factories," wrote the artist, "are our substitute for religious expression." And so, in Sheeler's photographs of River Rouge, they became. The interiors of the mighty factory buildings are high, clean, invested with a numinous light, and free of all human presences except when they are needed to give scale. His image of a stamping press expresses the fantasy of the machine as cult object, with no hint of the often boring, dehumanizing, and dangerous character of factory work: impassive and objective, the godlike engine is served by its tiny acolyte. And in 1929, not long after he made his photograph of crisscrossing conveyors at the Ford plant, he took a similar one of a much earlier form: the flying buttresses at the crossing of Chartres Cathedral.

"But the painting that most succinctly expressed his feelings about big industry is American Landscape, 1930. It holds no nature at all, except for the sky (into which a plume of effluents rises from a tall smokestack) and the water of a dead canal. Whatever can be seen is man-made, and the view has a curious and embalmed serenity, produced by the regular cylinders of silos and smokestack and the dark authoritarian arms of the loading machinery to the right. The sphere, the cube, and the cylinder are no longer things to be sought in nature, as Cezanne had once recommended: in the mighty abstraction of process and product, they have replaced nature altogether. The ancient tension between nature and culture is over. Culture has won. It has colonized all the space in the American imagination that nature once claimed. The world of Thomas Cole is finally, irreparably, concreted over. One human figure remains, and you can hardly see him, or it, at first: a tiny, scurrying ant, on the tracks by the canal, between the uncoupled boxcars."

- From "American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America", by Robert Hughes

Further reading on Charles Sheeler

Charles Sheeler Images

1920 Church Street El
1923 Bucks County Barn
1926 Interior
1930 American Landscape
1931 Classic Landscape
1932 River Rouge Plant
1939 Suspended Power
c. 1952 Windows

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