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

 



 

In the first three decades of the twentieth century, "uniquely American" art depicted the country's characteristic modernity in styles that were considered experimental and inventive. Sheeler excelled at this kind of artistic self-presentation, and through it, established himself as a premier iconographer of the Machine Age. Given his modernist program, we might imagine that the past had no relevance to Sheeler. Why seek out Bucks County barns when New York City and Detroit provided abundant stimuli for the fashioning of American identity? But Sheeler did portray barns as well as factories, always maintaining an active dialogue between preindustrial traditions and technologically sophisticated modernity. William Carlos Williams perceived this in Sheeler's art when he wrote that the artist "is the watcher and surveyor of that world where the past is always occurring contemporaneously and the present always dead needing a miracle of resuscitation to revive it."[9] In other words, according to Williams, Sheeler approached the past in a way that ameliorated the stultifying forces of the present.

Indeed, to modernists of Sheeler's generation, the past -- in the form of folk and vernacular traditions (see cat. 40 ) -- gave another viable answer to the question of what constituted a uniquely American art. Not the past as defined by the academy, but as newly discovered, reconstituted, as if seen for the first time through a modernist lens.[10] In 1917, the New York artist and gallery owner Robert Coady voiced prevalent sentiments of the time. "We need our art. But... [it] can't come from the Academy or the money old ladies leave. . . . Our art is, as yet, outside of our art world."[11] Coady catalogued diverse materials that he felt attested to the vitality of aesthetic production in this country:

The Panama Canal, the Sky-scraper and Colonial Architecture . . . Indian Beadwork, Sculptures, Decorations, Music and Dances . . . The Crazy Quilt and the Rag-mat . . . The Cigar-Store Indians . . . The Factories and Mills . . . Grain Elevators, Trench Excavators, Blast Furnaces -- This is American Art. [12]

Coady listed items stemming from popular, vernacular, folk, and industrial culture. He also interestingly commingled past and present ("the Sky-scraper and Colonial Architecture") in his evaluation of appropriately indigenous subject matter that could inspire a legitimate American art.

Such conceptual marriages of old and new, of the local and the cosmopolitan, characterized the "usable past" quest in America during the years following World War I. Initially formulated by the literary scholar Van Wyck Brooks, this intellectual project involved a critique of American society and values as either ineffectually genteel or ruthlessly materialistic. Brooks believed that from the time of Puritan colonization, both these polarities had impeded the establishment of vital aesthetic traditions. He wrote in 1918:

The present is a void, and the American writer floats in that void because the past that survives in the common mind of the present is a past without living value. But is this the only possible past? If we need another past so badly, is it inconceivable that we might discover one, that we might even invent one? [13]

Brooks called for a fundamental reevaluation of America's literary past and the overturning of the established canon in order to discover or even to invent another, more vital history.

Brooks's challenge echoed those of figures in the art world, like Coady, who wanted America to express a confident cultural self-sufficiency. These critics condemned the elite painting styles of the immediate past as derivative and irrelevant. They hoped that discovering a heretofore unrecognized indigenous lineage might inspire contemporary artists to create a separate but equal status for their work in relation to foreign achievements.

 

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