Editor's note: The following essay was written in 2000 by Robert P. Metzger and appeared as the Introduction in the catalogue for the exhibition "Matthew Daub: In the Shadow of Industry, Watercolors and Drawings of Eastern Pennsylvania." The essay is reprinted with the permission of the Reading Public Museum. This exhibition is supported in part by grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Friends of the Reading Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Reading Public Museum directly through either the following phone number or web address:



 

Matthew Daub: An Introduction

by Robert P. Metzger

 

The art of Matthew Daub celebrates the great American road, whether it be the railroad, highway or city street. Each image invites the observer on a solitary yet fascinating journey through the urban landscape which developed in the shadow of.American Industry. Daub's fascination with the man-made geometry of bygone industry results in a portrait of city life of crystalline clarity in which light is never merely a physical phenomenon, but takes on a tangible prismatic and dramatic form.

Throughout the history of the visual arts, the roadway traditionally has been used as a metaphor for escape; yet the exits and entrances in Matthew Daub's work are secluded and empty, as if departure were after the fact. Rather than serving as vehicles for leaving, these roads guide one to explore the scene before them. Eschewing narrative and figuration, Daub confronts the street head-on at ground level with utter familiarity, allowing the viewer to stand at eye-level in the spot where tracks and street converge or cut through the contiguous architecture.

The foreground space of asphalt, steel, or concrete contains and anchors the composition while at the same time serves to open up, both visually and literally, the pictorial space. Daub employs this dynamic psychological device of road or tracks in the foreground to lead the eye into the picture, inviting the viewer to enter. The rectangular edges of roads and buildings interplay with light and shadow, creating arbitrary arrangements which transform themselves into abstract patterns. Daub's tightly controlled technical mastery of watercolor combines with an unerring sense of how intense light models solid form, functioning as an active force to create archetypal architectural pictures of great power.

Matthew Daub is one of the finest watercolor painters working in America today, bringing to this medium an astonishing breadth of composition and virtuosity of technique. His unfailing sense of what makes a picture and what does not, prioritizes reality, reducing complexity to basic ideas of design. Daub has an uncanny ability to isolate fragments of the metropolitan scene in order to draw attention to both the stunning detail and the timeless subtleties inherent in the ordinary. The carefully calculated geometric forms of buildings and roads are rendered in clean, crisp lines and edges. Their planar surfaces and darkened planes representing shadows are effectively contrasted so that each angle, curve, and flat and rounded surface is frozen in breathtaking clarity.

Although born in New York, Daub has spent tile past third of his life living and painting in eastern Pennsylvania, more specifically in Berks County. Reflecting his love of his adopted home: the ninety striking watercolors and conté crayon drawings in the exhibition take their subjects from several Berks County locations: Reading, Fleetwood and Kutztown and also from neighboring Lehigh County (Bethlehem) to the northeast, and Lancaster County (Lancaster) to the southwest.

By concentrating his major efforts on favored streets and structures in and around Reading, Daub ironically presents a compelling vernacular essence of urban America as a whole in the second half of the twentieth century. His penetrating scenes represent "Everywhere USA" in the same way that Rembrandt's portraits represent "Everyman." Daub returns time and time again to certain Berks County towns and communities, which remarkably evoke our highly industrialized nation in the late twentieth century.

The raw material of the city of industry is an uncommon subject for art, yet it appealed to Daub?s innate sense of precision and order. His impulse is to paint repeated views of a limited number of motifs which constitute distinct groups and series. Although he has also painted large cities such as New York, Chicago, and St. Louis as well as the towns of Evansville, Indiana, and Carbondale, Illinois, specific locales seem less important than the subtle handling and mastery of transparent, faceted washes on the houses, factories, power lines, storefronts, warehouses, bridges, office buildings, churches; garages, streets and rail tracks of urbanized America. In Daub's hands all of these subjects are quintessentially American. Time and space are not particularized as he chooses to focus on the less traveled roads: avoiding the obvious, more frequently depicted subjects.

Industrial America, in particular, has a special hold on Daub's interest. From the large complexes of Bethlehem Steel Corporation in Bethlehem and Carpenter Technology Corporation in Reading to F. M. Brown's grain elevators in Fleetwood, Daub's fascination with the precise lines and edges of walls, chimneys, tracks, and roads is readily apparent. Quiet city neighborhoods, with their habitually picturesque streets and houses are often glimpsed quite literally in the shadows of the factories or highways that fostered them. The massive industrial complexes which once personified all the promise of a bright new civilization, are often depicted by Daub in their essential austerity, grimness and dilapidation. Nevertheless, as painted in vibrant color, they remain in their basic solidity and towering unassailability, reminders of an optimism and spirit of another time. The inherent bleakness of his subjects and the social implications of the machine vis a vis the notion of "progress" not withstanding, America's industrialization as portrayed by Daub remains tremendously awesome and impressive.

Daub's capacity to endow a genuine sense of place to the most commonplace and non-descript subjects is a tribute not only to his enormous technical skill but also to his unfailing aesthetic sensibility. In lesser hands these town and city subjects would appear banal and plebeian. Following, however, in the great American tradition of Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler and Charles Burchfield, Matthew Daub achieves a sublime timelessness in the most ordinary of scenes.

Hopper, of course, often depicted people in lonely isolation within a populous cityscape, but just as often concentrated solely on the small town or city architecture of shops, businesses and streets as in Early Sunday Morning (1930). Although Burchfield:s towns occasionally included people on the streets, Sheeler never included the human element in his pristine paintings of industrial America. In this respect Daub has followed Sheeler's example with most scenes totally empty of people. Sheeler's photographic images of industry stand on their own alongside those by Lewis Hine, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and Andreas Feininger. Other American painters who depicted industrial subjects include Joseph Stella, Charles Demuth, Preston Dickinson. Louis Lozowick, Elsie Driggs, Thomas Hart Benton and Reginald Marsh. The theme of industry has not been a usual subject for painters in twentieth century America, yet a number of gifted artists and photographers were drawn to this motif.

As important as all of these predecessors in painting and photography were to Daub, the overarching impact of motion pictures on the creative arts in general in the twentieth century cannot also he denied. In a larger context, the cross-fertilization of film on all human creativity crosses all generational and cultural lines to profoundly affect the collective subconscious. American filmmakers were even less prone to industrial subjects than painters and photographers. When industrial themes did appear in film, they frequently dealt with union-labor conflicts and were often set in mining areas, on the docks, or on the road with teamsters. The one true masterpiece of this genre is Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936), a comedy set in a factory which deals with the tyranny of machine over man.

As the dominant visual art form influencing the way we view society and the world, the history of film is replete with powerful dramas with an industrial theme or background. Daub's American factories and mills have been created within this context. Daub follows in the tradition of King Vidor and other Hollywood filmmakers who went on location to actual factories to achieve their visions. Steel mills provided settings for a handful of notable films, including Charles Lamont's Sons of Steel (1935); King Vidor's epic immigrant saga An American Romance (1944) which was filmed on location at the United States Steel plant in Chicago and at Chrysler Motors in Detroit and Los Angeles; Tay Garnett's The Valley of Decision (1945) set in Pittsburgh; and George Sherman's Steel Town (1952) shot at the Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana, California.

Auto assembly lines provided the background for Paul Schrader's Blue Collar (1978), Ron Howard's Gung Ho (1985), and Francis Ford Coppola's The Man and His Dream (1988). Aircraft factories were used in both Richard Thorpe's Joe Smith, American (1942) and Jonathan Demme's Swing Shift (1984). Since mid-century women working in factories greatly increased, as reflected in such films as George Stevens' A Place in the Sun (1951), George Abbott and Stanley Donen"s Pajama Game (1957), Martin Ritt's Norma Rae (1979), David S. Ward's Cannery Row (1982), Taylor Hackford's An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Adrian Lyne's Flashdance (1983): and Mike Nichols' Silkwood (1983).

Unencumbered by the incessant human dynamics often portrayed in dramas or potboilers, Matthew Daub instead focuses all of his skill and attention on the roads and buildings themselves. Shared with all of his realist American predecessors, Daub's poetic truth and integrity, are apparent in his use of light and shadow for emotional effect.

In the peopleless streets completely void of incident as depicted by Hopper, Sheeler, Burchfield and Daub, one grasps the moving effect of intense natural light modeling very powerful forms. The finished stage of his watercolors reveals virtually no evidence of brush strokes or hesitations. Sharply bounded by rectilinear edges in systematic arrangements within compressed spatial depth, the carefully calculated geometric shapes are magically transformed by Daub's dazzling treatment of light. Thus, these seemingly ordinary scenes of deserted city streets and buildings possess deep and subtle poetic truths.

Daub's depopulated industrial sites marked by an absence of all human existence are scenes where one would normally expect to see crowds of people. As a result, curious irony pervades these lonely empty locations. Close observation of Daub's world reveals a strong yet reserved humanistic content which is always implied rather than perceived. It is as if the artist does not want to know too intimately the lives of people who live and work along these grim, gritty streets. Yet, however obliquely, Daub makes meaningful connections to shared human experiences The underlying message of Daub's American road is subliminal: the missed psychological connections in which certain small details of people's lives are submerged and have lost their meaning.

Working from photographs, often taken in the roadway itself, Daub's watercolors are often quite different from the images caught by his lens. He usually extracts only the essential parts of the structures that serve his expressive needs, while omitting less significant details. Unlike some Photorealists whose paintings are a literal copying and whose finished works do not deviate from the photographic image, Daub uses the photograph as a point of departure for his art.

He frequently reinterprets the photographs, freely altering them structurally and sometimes adding a sense of mystery and ambiguity. Often, his images convey the feeling that something in the scene is hidden or obstructed. The ordinary, empty streets with a non-presence of inhabitants reinforces a beguiling curiosity for what is absent. After looking at one of his townscapes or factory complexes, an unresolved undercurrent lingers in die mind, a questioning of whether the full psychological complexities of the anonymity of contemporary civic life have been fully comprehended. Daub's provocations only hint at an added meaning which invite a closer reading, as his interest in structure usually focuses on a recording of sunlight or the atmospheric effects of artificial light penetrating the darkness. His expressive needs in creating a mood dictate his choices regarding angle of vision, the cropping of images, the spatial organization of a composition, the intensity of color, and most importantly, his decisions on the degree to which distortions of scale and atmosphere would serve his intentions. Daub's selective eye affronts much more subjectivity than that of the camera and his watercolors are much more rewarding.

The primary industrial subjects of Daub's work in Reading are Carpenter Technology Corporation (formerly Carpenter Steel Company) and Dana Corporation (formerly knows as Parish Pressed Steel). Iron forges and furnaces began in Reading back in the eighteenth-century, and the first blast furnace was built in 1824. Since 1889, Carpenter has been a giant in the specialty metals industry, supplying steel for the automotive, medical, aviation, and aerospace industries.

The growth of the industrial life of the city was greatly facilitated by the Reading Railroad, one of the first railroads in the country, and another of Daub's frequent subjects. The sprawling railroad yards share the Reading valley with the mighty Schuylkill River which flows down to Philadelphia. By 1881, the railroad had already established over 840 miles of trunk lines and branches, and by the turn of the century owned over 500 locomotives and 2,200 cars. Although Carpenter, Dana (Parish Frames) and the large railroad yards cut a swath through the center of Reading, their presence on that city does not predominate in the same way as Bethlehem Steel in nearby Bethlehem.

Tile Bethlehem Steel Corporation, formerly known as the Bethlehem Iron Company, was founded in 1860, although its actual origins go back to 1822 with the founding of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company. Located in south Bethlehem, it was known for its gigantic blast furnaces which dominate the skyline. The company began making steel rails and later battleship steel forgings and armor plate for the U.S. Navy. During World War I, with a work force in excess of 20,000, the company produced 300 ships, 4,000 field guns and 18,000,000 rounds of ammunition. In addition to its lucrative military contracts which were redoubled in World War II, the company played a leading role in the development of the high-rise structure in America. With the end of the twentieth century, production at Bethlehem came to an end: bowing to the cheaper labor of overseas operations. In an ironic twist on Henry Ford's nostalgic recreation of the American small town lost to the very industrialization which he helped to create, Daub is similarly driven to celebrate and document the remnants of our industrial golden age which has been irrevocably splintered and is quickly vanishing. The buildings themselves speak of the past glories of industrial "progress," yet curiously they also testify to the bankruptcy of the American Dream in a technological capitalist society.

The gigantic steel mills of Bethlehem fill much of the Lehigh Valley and dwarf the houses and buildings of the city. Although the railroad tracks in Reading penetrate the heart of this manufacturing city, factory and rowhomes co-exist on a more human, equitable scale. In the nineteenth century before zoning ordinances segregated uses, factories were erected in the middle of residential blocks. The uniformity of the Reading rowhouses which climb numerous steep hills earned the city a reputation as the working class San Francisco. This distinctive character of the manufacturing and residential city is deftly captured in Daub's watercolors.

When the plan for Reading was laid out in 1748 by Thomas Penn, the son of William, it was conceptualized as a large grid and central square similar to that of nearby Lancaster. The fact that Lancaster's grid was built on a flat plain and Reading is surrounded by steep hills seems not to have been taken into consideration by the city's founders. In the nineteenth century, the development and growth of Reading was inexorably linked to the railroad which appropriated a large portion of the grid plan.

The railroad has long been a potent symbol of twentieth-century life. Daub's watercolors of locomotives and train cars of the Reading and Northern and the Norfolk Southern (formerly Conrail/Reading Railroad) manage to capture what Walt Whitman described as a "fierce-throated beauty." The railroad transformed, as well as created the fabric of the American Industrial scene. Reaching back to the steam age when trains were the industrial revolution incarnate, railroad themes bring back a bygone romantic spirit of soaring optimism and energy. Today, the diesel air horn has replaced the steam locomotive whistle, yet these great machines of power and speed still convey notions of a journey with its junction and terminus. Daub's panoramic views of the hilly terrain surrounding the ribbons of shining steel rail bring the dynamism and excitement of industrialized society to a once desolate landscape. The resplendence of the hilly terrain surrounding Reading is underscored by the perspective views of rails bisecting the landscape and disappearing in the distance. The visual illusion of movement within the confines of the picture plane is fixed in alignment with the train tracks in time and space, so that its route is always predetermined and yet tremendously adventuresome. Although these watercolors are not narratives, they suggest a dramatic promise in the sight of stretching rails through adjacent architecture and industrial landscape.

In contrast to the train, the automobile is so ubiquitous and indispensable to daily existence that its inclusion in painting is almost perfunctory. Most of Daub:s immobile automobiles are found parked at curbside, as part of the general view of the cityscape. Their form and contours become still-life objects of shape, texture, surface, color and light. The contiguous buildings and roads dominate these pictures, yet the cars add a human dimension, speaking for their absent owners and serving as specters for human interaction. The almost incidental and matter-of-fact automobile elements of Daub's watercolors stand in contrast to the highly glamorous images with their romantic fantasies that media advertising employs to mass-market the product. The routes along which cars and trains travel are of more interest to Daub than the vehicles themselves. His raw environments are ironically man-made creations designed expressly to accommodate the street and rail. Daub instinctively responds to the hard, clean surface of the road and the gleaming shimmer of the tracks.

In Daub's work, the roads and rails invariably lead to industrial complexes and their adjacent neighborhoods. The harmonious congruence of the unadorned vertical and horizontal lines marries form with function. Daub's precise lines and proportions and descriptive modeling create realistic details of brick, mortar, concrete, and steel. Although the factories are devoid of human labor, hard physical work and devotion to duty are implied in their austere structure, besoddon with smoke and soot. While the end products of these factories are often visually neutral and standardized, the buildings in which they were fabricated hold a fascination for the viewer. With the waning of machine-age productivity in America, these structures have witnessed a long slide into obsolescence. The nineteenth-century myth of the wilderness resulted in aggrandized and idealized landscapes which were replaced in the twentieth century with the myth of limitless production capacity. As the latter myth began to fade after World War II, anonymous, predictable suburban sprawl eradicated many utopian dreams. The factories, however, possess in their sheer engineering and functional simplicity of line, a tarnished but true aesthetic of their own. This unintended grandeur and beauty is captured by Daub in his celebratory conception of industry.

Matthew Daub's fundamentally down-to-earth approach to his commonplace urban environment and his repeated attachment to this theme create an affecting vision, a fresh way of responding to the world around him, which is both unmistakably rooted in the American tradition and universal. His total immersion and identification with these persistent motifs, the consistent homogeneity of his style, and the sound structural devices underpinning the whole, bring forth a keen sense of atmosphere in all of his work. Daub's intuitive sense of the expressive possibilities of light playing upon simplified shapes combines with a remarkable calm and haunting emptiness which permeates his pictures, bathing the buildings in feeling for life going on behind factory walls and facades of houses. Continuously modifying; and altering his vision, Matthew Daub's consistent devotion to reality as he perceives it has resulted in some of the most individual and original American watercolors of the late twentieth century.

About the Author

Robert P. Metzger, whose doctoral diploma is from the University of California, Los Angeles, is the Director & C.E.O. and art curator of the Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania. He was formerly a professor and the director of the Center Gallery of Bucknell University, the director of The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art and director of art at The Stamford Museum.

 

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