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Charles Sheeler in Doylestown

by Karen Lucic


During a long and impressive career as one of America's leading modernists, Charles Sheeler produced compelling icons of the Machine Age. Trained in a spontaneous, impressionistic approach to landscape subjects, he experimented with pictorial compositions inspired by Cézanne and Picasso before developing a seemingly impersonal, machine-inspired style -- now often labeled precisionism. In this mode, he depicted New York skyscrapers, locomotive engines, power plants, and factory complexes near Detroit. These pictures from the 1920s and 1930s established his reputation as "the Raphael of the Fords," [1] and this characterization persists into our time. Recently, the critic Michael Kimmelman dubbed Sheeler "an iconographer for the religion of technology." [2] Indeed, Sheeler once compared the great medieval cathedral at Chartres to the American factory system, adding that "maybe industry is our great image that lights up the sky." But he concluded his thought with an unexpected remark, "The thing I deplore is the absence of spiritual content." [3] Sheeler's astonishing turn-of-mind indicates a surprisingly divided and unresolved attitude toward the subject matter for which he is best known.

Sheeler's search for "spiritual content" and personal, artistic and national identity are revealed in a less familiar aspect of his work. America's preindustrial handcraft traditions, such as regional barns, folk painting, and Shaker furniture, provided a fundamentally important -- but overlooked -- wellspring of the artist's creativity. [4] He first discovered such generative models in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where a hand-hewn, spiral staircase, splintered sideboarding and crumbling plaster walls, and venerable fieldstone buildings inspired startlingly modernist images.

The Machine Age left some of Sheeler's needs unsatisfied, and throughout his career, he consistently turned to old, handcrafted artifacts in his quest to discover or invent an aesthetic foundation for an indigenous American modernism. The fact that early twentieth-century artists like Sheeler so ardently sought out preindustrial objects as models for their modernist work is one of the era's most intriguing paradoxes. Evaluating these artists' simultaneous attraction to the old and the new provides a key to understanding the complexity of American culture during the early twentieth century.

Certainly, the task of modernist self-definition involved developing an original, experimental style that displayed a sophisticated knowledge of international vanguard trends. Paintings by formidable innovators such as Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso challenged the conventions of pictorial representation established in the West during the Renaissance. These artists favored abstract forms, nonnaturalistic color, and numerous expressive departures from conventional illusionism. Subsequent artists, such as Malevich and Mondrian, wanted to create new, universally valid forms of visual expression in totally nonobjective idioms.

As a young artist, Sheeler first encountered such radical innovations during a trip to Paris in 1908 - 09. This experience convinced him to renounce the late impressionist technique he had learned in art school and to join the modernist camp. "Returning to my studio meant discontent and an unwillingness to resume where I had left off before that voyage of such great portent. An indelible line had been drawn between the past and the future...," he later wrote. [5]

In 1913, the Armory Show in New York provided further exposure to revolutions in modernist painting, and it must have been simultaneously exhilarating and daunting to witness the bewildering proliferation of new stylistic options coming from Europe. Sheeler nevertheless quickly grasped one explicit feature of modernist aesthetic practice: "a picture could be as arbitrarily conceived as the artist wished." [6]

Modernists forged a welter of distinct stylistic innovations in the first two decades of the twentieth century. But beneath their disparate expressions, all of them fundamentally challenged the long-established role of art to represent the world. In doing this, they confounded everyday expectations of what constitutes legitimate picture-making and were understood by their contemporaries to elevate form over associative or descriptive content. Although overtly rejecting the past, modernists continually reconfigured tradition by looking for visual stimulation beyond established academic norms -- to non-Western, folk, and vernacular sources. Not merely a prescribed set of stylistic features, modernism encompassed a new way of thinking about traditional models and means of representation.


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