Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Charles Sheeler

In a period such as ours when only a comparatively few individuals seem to be given to religion, some form other than the Gothic cathedral must be found. Industry concerns the greatest numbers—it may be true, as has been said, that our factories are our substitute for religious expression. (Charles Sheeler) 

Charles Sheeler, Steam Turbine, 1939

Charles Sheeler, the son of a steamer-line executive, was born in Philadelphia in 1883. His education included instruction in industrial drawing and the applied arts at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia (1900–1903), followed by a traditional training in drawing and painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1903–6). He visited Europe with his fellow students in 1904–5, and traveled abroad again in 1908–9 with his parents and his friend Morton Schamberg, another young artist. During this second trip, he developed a particular interest in the Italian painters of the late Middle Ages, particularly Giotto, Masaccio, and Piero della Francesca, and their simple, strong massing of forms. In 1909, he visited the Paris home of Michael and Sarah Stein, early patrons of Picasso and Braque; this experience inspired him to work in a Cubist style for several years.
 Charles Sheeler, Clapboards, 1936

In 1910, Sheeler and Schamberg rented an eighteenth-century stone house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania; around this time, Sheeler taught himself photography. He worked as a freelance photographer, documenting local buildings for architects; a few years later, he began to photograph the interior of his own house. He shaped its rough-hewn spaces with light and shadow, drawing out their underlying compositions of solids and spaces. He also photographed and drew the local vernacular architecture, particularly barns, whose straightforward design he admired.

Charles Sheeler, Bucks County Barn, 1940
Throughout the 1910s, Sheeler formed lasting professional relationships with several important figures in the New York art world, including Alfred Stieglitz. He supplemented his income by photographing works of art for collectors and galleries. He participated in important group shows, including the International Exhibition of Modern Art (commonly known as the Armory Show, 1913). During this decade, he also began using his own photographs as sources for paintings.

Charles Sheeler, Catastrophe No. 2, 1944

In 1920, Sheeler collaborated with the photographer Paul Strand on the short film Manhatta, a short expressive film about New York City based on portions of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The six-minute film spans an imaginary day in the life of New York City, beginning with footage of Staten Island ferry commuters and culminating with the sun setting over the Hudson River. It has been described as the first avant-garde film made in America. Its many brief shots and dramatic camera angles emphasize New York's photographic nature. Manhatta, was filmed to emphasize the dramatic viewpoints and abstract compositions of a rapidly changing cityscape. Sheeler would investigate similar motifs in his photography, painting, and graphic art of the 1920s, turning his eye to the monoliths of New York's modern architecture and the canyons of its avenues. The sharpness and clarity of his vision associated him with the group of artists working in a style termed Precisionist.
 Charles Sheeler, Skyscrapers, 1922 
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". 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 (below) 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. 

Paul Strand, Wall Street, New York, 1915

In late 1927 and early 1928, Sheeler spent six weeks documenting the Ford Motor Company's automobile plant in River Rouge, Michigan, as part of the promotional campaign for the release of the Model A Ford. Sheeler's thirty-two photographs of the Ford plant depict its acres of gleaming, massive machinery, rather than the human process of labor. They celebrate America's ideals of power and productivity, although there is also a strangely forbidding atmosphere to the unpopulated scenes. 
 Charles Sheeler, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company, 1927
The painting that most succinctly expressed Sheeler's feelings about big industry is American Landscape (below). It holds no nature at all, except for the sky 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 arms of the loading machinery to the right. 

Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, 1930

In 1927, Sheeler and his wife Katharine had moved to South Salem, New York, a small town located approximately fifty miles north of Manhattan. While living there, Sheeler expanded his collection of early American furniture and decorative arts. He prized these items for their simplicity, noting, "No embellishment meets the eye. Beauty of line and proportion through excellence of craftsmanship make the absence of ornament in no way an omission." Many of these possessions appeared in Sheeler's photographs and paintings of the 1930s, in complex arrangements of pattern and form. These domestic interiors recall a vanished preindustrial past, while emphasizing the artistic status of local handicrafts. 
Charles Sheeler, American Interior, 1934

From 1926 through 1931, Sheeler worked as a freelance photographer, shooting celebrity portraits and fashion photography for Vogue and Vanity Fair. As Sheeler attained broader recognition for his precise yet evocative interpretations of utilitarian forms, he continued to attract prestigious commissions. In 1939–40, he traveled across the country on assignment for Fortune magazine, photographing locations for a series of paintings on the theme of "Power." The six finished paintings depicted icons of American industry such as airplanes, locomotives, power plants, and dams. Meanwhile, Sheeler was also the subject of a biography written by the historian and critic Constance Rourke (1938) and a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (1939). 
Charles Sheeler, Suspended Power, 1939

In 1939, Sheeler married his second wife, Musya Sokolova (he had been widowed by Katharine's death in 1933); the couple resided in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. Sheeler worked for the Metropolitan Museum's Department of Publications from 1942 to 1945, photographing a wide range of works from the collection, including Assyrian reliefs, classical Greek and Roman sculpture, European painting, and Chinese objects. 
Charles Sheeler, On a Shaker's Theme, 1956

As he entered the 1950s, Sheeler developed a distinctive late style. He still depicted urban architecture and industrial facilities, but he reduced objects to flat planes, rather than volumes, and pared away more detail than ever before. In works such as Golden Gate (below), he also devised complex, multiple-viewpoint compositions by overlapping two or more photographic negatives of the same subject and then transferring the resulting, synthesized image to canvas. 
 Charles Sheeler, Golden Gate, 1955

In these later years, Sheeler's art was the subject of several retrospective exhibitions. After he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1959, Sheeler was no longer able to make art; his life was ended by another stroke in 1965. He left behind a body of work that explored the balance between abstraction and representation, photography and painting, an increasingly mechanized present and a more homespun past.
Charles Sheeler, Rolling-Power, 1939

Wheels and disk driver of a Model J3A Hudson Thoroughbred locomotive (below), one of the ten streamlined versions of the engine designed to pull the legendary Twentieth Century Limited. The train was considered the most beautiful and modern steam locomotive for passenger travel in America. 
Model J3A Hudson Thoroughbred Locomotive
 Charles Sheeler, Power, 1940
 Charles Sheeler, Water, 1945
  Water depicts one of the power generators built by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s, when hydroelectric power was being distributed throughout the Tennessee River region of the United States.
Charles Sheeler, River Rouge Plant, 1932
 Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931
 Charles Sheeler, Amoskeag Canal, 1948
 Charles Sheeler, The Artist Looks at Nature, 1943
 Charles Sheeler, View of New York, 1931
 Charles Sheeler, Cactus, 1931
 Charles Sheeler, Americana, 1931


  1. Wall Street is my favorite. If they only knew what was coming.

  2. It's hard not to love Sheeler's Precisionist style. The smooth, flat and pale color gradations in "American Landscape" and "River Rogue Plant" kind of remind me of Kay Sage's surrealist paintings, with her invisible brush strokes and mild color schemes.

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  4. Sheeler and Hopper were not painting the world-they both painted America. What Sheeler saw was certain austere beauty of Geometries. Hopper saw in America a melancholy of transients casting shadows at architecture of a movie set,as if there were only fake fronts without backs ,very provisional ,lacking rootedness.New,important American Melancholy that Hopper saw,while Sheeler had no use for human form or human content because we are not geometric.Since his paintings are obviously enlargements of what camera saw we only meet optics of photography as the author.There is something insuficient in that.