The following essay is a chapter of the exhibition catalogue titled "Charles Sheeler in Doylestown: American Modernism and the Pennsylvania Tradition," ISBN 0-295-97643-8, Copyright 1997 by the Allentown Art Museum. The catalogue was published in connection with the exhibition "Charles Sheeler in Doylestown: American Modernism and the Pennsylvania Tradition," organized by the Allentown Art Museum and held at the Museum April 6 through June 22, 1997. The essays are reprinted, without illustrations, with permission of the Allentown Art Museum and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essays please contact the Allentown Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Charles Sheeler, Modernism, and the National Identity
a chapter of the exhibition catalogue
"Charles Sheeler in Doylestown: American Modernism and the Pennsylvania Tradition"
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 (fig. 1). These pictures from the 1920s and 1930s established his reputation as "the Raphael of the Fords," and this characterization persists into our time. Recently, the critic Michael Kimmelman dubbed Sheeler "an iconographer for the religion of technology," and art historian Matthew Baigell called him "the true artist of corporate capitalism." 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.". Sheeler's astonishing turn of mind indicates a surprisingly divided and unresolved attitude toward the subject matter for which he is best known.
If America's innovative technological achievements did not provide secure access to "spiritual content" for Sheeler, where else did he search for integrated wholeness? What other subjects contributed to his sense of personal, artistic, and national identity? The answer to these questions lies in a far 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 often overlooked -- wellspring of the artist's creativity. 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.
But what did it mean to be a modern artist in America during this era? What defined the art that American modernists tried to create? Difficult to answer today, these questions must have been even more perplexing in Sheeler's time. Certainly, then -- as now -- the task of modernist self-definition involved developing an original, experimental style that displayed a sophisticated knowledge of international vanguard trends. But this merely pushes the question back. What in fact constituted international modernism? 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. :
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