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



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] (See cat. 4.)

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 picturemaking and were understood by their contemporaries to elevate form over associative or descriptive content. Although overtly rejecting the past, modernists actually 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.

In America, the task of defining oneself as a modernist became even more complex after World War I. It now meant not only studying developments from abroad but establishing a distance from them as well. Severely disillusioned with the war-ravaged nations on the Continent, American critics warned artists in this country against slavish emulation of the European avant-garde. They urged native painters to distinguish their work significantly from foreign contemporaries. Suddenly, the need arose to establish roots in native ground.

This nationalistic project posed serious challenges, however. In the first place, European modernism possessed enormous authority and served as a profoundly stimulating (and simultaneously intimidating) model. The poet William Carlos Williams, who wanted to be a painter in his early career, testified to the American vanguard's ambivalence toward French artists: "We looked upon the French with a certain amount of awe because we thought they had secrets about art and literature which we might gain. We were anxious to learn, and yet we were repelled too."[7] Furthermore, the predilection for abstraction in modernist art tended to limit assertions of specific national or local identity. Nevertheless, American artists like Sheeler heeded the calls for cultural self-sufficiency, and one of their most effective responses involved developing an iconography that embraced the dominant features of America's rapidly modernizing environment -- urbanization, industrialization, mass marketing, and other technological innovations. These widely admired aspects of American society were unparalleled in the world during the early twentieth century and therefore effectively served artists looking for powerful national symbols. No wonder Sheeler made such concrete features of urban/industrial modernity central to his artistry. His novel adaptation of the machine aesthetic dramatically evoked both the power and sensorial qualities of the technological environment (fig. 1). This allowed Sheeler to retain his modernist credentials, even while incorporating a rigorously realistic and uncannily "objective" approach to painting in the late 1920s and 1930s. [8]


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