The Doylestown House

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

"Charles Sheeler in Doylestown: American Modernism and the Pennsylvania Tradition"

by Karen Lucic

 



 

Unlike the exterior views taken in daylight, Sheeler took these photographs at night when he could exercise complete control over lighting. Through dramatic illumination and unconventional framing, Sheeler created an evocative relationship of contrasts that suggests basic experiential oppositions. The photographs encompass light and dark, high and low, heat and cold, open and shut. They define the extreme limits of sensorial experience that the viewer might encounter in moving through the shadowy regions of this old house. Doors, windows, staircases, stoves, fireplaces, and ambiguous light sources are the focal points for the transformation of one phenomenon into its opposite. Sometimes these polarized oppositions even suggest mutually exclusive possibilities.

Because the series exhibits a dualistic structure, each photograph tends to have one or more related mates. For example, Stairwell (cat. 9) and Stairs from Below (cat. 10) form a fascinating visual dichotomy. Both portray the house's continuous spiral staircase that extends from basement to attic and can be entered from many different doors. Stairs from Below situates the viewer inside the stairwell on the first floor looking up to the second. Stairwell represents the implied destination of Stairs from Below -- the threshold in the southeast corner of the second floor that leads down to the first.

Stairwell, in its fragmentation and spatial ambiguity, is one of the most daringly modernist compositions in the series because it calls into question the most elementary aspects of what it portrays. Obviously, Sheeler has photographed a staircase, but aren't the risers oriented in the wrong direction? Isn't the photograph in fact presented upside down? This misinterpretation seems inevitable at first glance.[47] Although a close examination of the original photograph establishes the correct orientation of risers to floor, an uncertainty remains concerning how to evaluate this puzzling work that seems to insist on confusing the viewer.

Highlighted by intense, artificial light emitted at a low angle, the spiraling risers and flanking walls stand out boldly against the gloom of the shadowy surroundings. Difficult to see in reproductions -- but clearly apparent in the actual photograph -- is the narrow opening of a partition framing the view to the right and left.[48] An obscure object -- probably the top of a chair -- rests against the partition to the right. A form hanging above it resembles a musical instrument but is in reality a cubist-inspired assemblage.

In this photograph, areas of confusing spatial ambiguity raise interpretive questions. Presumably the stairwell is volumetric, enclosing enough space to accommodate a human body. Therefore, the dark, L-shaped central shadow should indicate spatial recession of several feet from the stairwell's opening to the white, plastered wall behind. But visually, the L-shaped shadow appears as a flat, abstract shape -- essentially nonvolumetric. How can this be possible? This is a photograph after all, not a painting, and presumably the world should resemble the one we know in everyday life. But the work emphatically contradicts this naive assumption by presenting elements that are simultaneously congruent and disjunctive. This challenge to fixed visual and conceptual certainties in Stairwell heightens the image's aesthetic power as well as its thematic implications.

Stairwell halts the viewer at the threshold; in contrast, Stairs from Below effectively conveys the disorientation induced when moving inside a steep, narrow passageway. The vague, undefined area closest to us is out of focus, and the camera angle severely distorts the unpainted wooden beams that enclose the staircase from the main room. We realize that the whitewashed walls of the stairwell must be at right angles to the ground plane; yet visually they incline inward as they ascend to the top of the composition. Above, the undersides of several fan-shaped risers hang mysteriously overhead. Bright light floods down through the stairwell from the second-story landing, and the vortex-like risers propel the viewer's interest toward that more well-defined area at the top of the stairs.

The photograph prizes ascent over descent. In fact, our sole option is to go up and nowhere else. Yet how are we going to achieve this transit? The photograph positions us in midair, hovering without stable footing underneath. It induces a longing for the bright destination at the end of this passageway, while denying us an obvious way to attain it --at least physically: The goal remains elusive, at the boundaries of the imagination.

In Stairwell and Stairs from Below, Sheeler focuses similarly on the undersides of the risers as the most visually arresting aspect of the staircase. In addition, the photographer pays careful attention in both to the rough-hewn wood, handcrafted joinery construction, and the whitewashed walls of the passageway. And in each photograph, he masterfully uses the light to create a dramatic, mysterious effect.

Despite these obvious similarities, these two photographs have very different thematic resonances and powerfully demonstrate the range of affective qualities in the series. Stairs from Below is simultaneously more disorienting and less ominous than Stairwell. Free floating in space characterizes the former work; claustrophobic compression, the latter. The light-filled, beckoning destination of Stairs from Below is completely unlike the threshold presented in Stairwell, which is so dark and threatening, one can barely imagine summoning up the courage to cross it. The possibility of ascent in Stairs from Below is hopeful if undefined. The implications of descent in Stairwell call up deep human fears about falling into subterranean realms.

Stairway with Chair (cat. 13) gives us a more expanded view of the stairway from the first floor than does Stairs from Below. Taken from outside of the stairwell, we now see the door hanging open, casting a dark shadow to the left. Along the photograph's left margin appears the edge of the deeply recessed doorway leading outside, and high on the wall is a small mirror in a deep, molded frame. Beyond the mirror is a window, receding about a foot from the surface of the plastered interior walls and extending a bit into the stairwell. The fenestration creates an eerie shadow behind the door, obscuring an unidentifiable form on the window ledge that resembles a pile of mechanical objects.

The unconventional lighting of the scene casts strong shadows similar to those in Stairwell and Stairs from Below. Yet here Sheeler provides a more comprehensive context for the previously disorienting subject. We now know more about how the stairwell actually functions in the Doylestown house, and it seems less threatening from this expanded perspective. The avenue of vertical transit has become domesticated, made part of everyday experience.[49] When considered as a group, these three images form a subset within the larger series, revealing the creative advantages of serial experimentation. Thematically, each image represents a different embodiment of threshold experience, a different symbol of transit between higher and lower realms. Formally, each merges abstract composition with representational exactness, synthesizing stylistic innovation with the highly descriptive potential of the photographic medium.[50] The cumulative effect endows an antiquated structure with new meanings.

Another subset of images focuses on openness and closure, paralleling the staircase views with their emphasis on ascent and descent. These oppositional elements appear in repeated images of doors and windows, such as Open Door, Stairway, Open Door; and Downstairs Window (cats. 11, 12,.and 17). In Open Door, the first-floor stairwell again appears, but now the viewer's position is opposite the southeast wall. Therefore, the composition centers not so much on the stairs but on the door leading to them. Instead of viewing it sideways, as in Stairway with Chair, we now face its inside surface with a crude patch just above the bottom brace. A smaller exterior door stands slightly ajar to the left, its wrought-iron fixtures silhouetted against the whitewashed surface of the wooden planks. Between the door and window hangs the same small mirror also visible in Stairway with Chair. Because of the camera angle, its mirrored surface is completely blank; no image reflects back at us.

Here again, Sheeler limits his subject to a small corner of the room, yet the composition is characteristically minimal and at the same time thematically complex. The interior door blocks the window behind, and the exterior door neither frames a welcoming vista nor assures comfortable security for the inhabitants within. These two thresholds suggest open-ended possibilities because where they lead remains a mystery; they offer only a dark, undifferentiated void on the other side of the room's doorways.

Equally mysterious is the absence of an image in the mirror. Why doesn't it reflect something from the other side of the room, that part of the house extending beyond the photograph's limited view and including the viewer's space? Since Jan van Eyck's fifteenth-century Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, reflected images in pictures have come to symbolize either authorial presence or the concept of art as "the mirror of nature." But in this work, the mirror's blankness cloaks affirmations of artistic agency and destabilizes the viewer's position in the scene as well. Like the spatial ambiguities in Stairwell, this motif raises fundamental questions about the relationship of the photographic image to the depiction of actual space. It seems in fact to deny art's role as the mirror of nature. Although the doors suggest a thrillingly indeterminate sense of openness, the mirror hints at aesthetic self-enclosure. Open Door is therefore a self-effacing investigation into the status of representation in the modern era. It is as if Sheeler uncovered, through modernist experimentation, a kind of absence at the core of twentieth-century experience.

Several other photographs embody sophisticated reflections on the implications of artistic practice, especially the well-known Interior with Stove (cat. 15). In it, a nineteenth-century iron stove occupies the center of the composition, with its long pipe extending to the ceiling. The stove's door hangs open to the right, and a surprisingly elegant urn-shaped finial surmounts its body. Beneath, a worn but ornately patterned metal tray protects the floor's wooden planks. To the left, only a small portion of the classically molded mantelpiece and fieldstone hearth appears. A closet door spans the wall to the right of the hearth, and its wrought-iron latch protrudes from a soiled area on the whitewashed boards. Behind the stovepipe is yet another window with blackened panes -- the mirror image of the window on the southeast facade -- and to the right, a rough-hewn door leads to the outside. A strange circle marks the wall between the window and door, just where the mirror hung on the other side of the room.

Because of its central position and the light emanating from within it, the nineteenth-century stove commands our interest over any other feature of the room. Not part of the original house, the stove nevertheless won Sheeler's favor, and consequently the photograph diminishes the older colonial fireplace that a more conventional artist might have used to represent the metaphorical heart of the house. For example, Wallace Nutting, an important turn-of-the-century participant in the colonial revival, asserted that "since men discovered how to make a fire the hearth has been the center of their lives," and Nutting's "enormously popular photographs frequently showed figures in antiquated garb gathered around an old New England fireplace.[51] Even modernist architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright, made the hearth central to the house. But in a daring negation, Sheeler situates the fireplace largely outside the picture. In this, he not only fragments his subject with unexpected framing but also removes the Doylestown house interior from sentimental associations of domestic life in colonial days and convivial family gatherings around a blazing hearth. Here he firmly asserts his distance from ancestor worship and antiquarianism.

Sheeler also used the stove to make a powerful aesthetic statement; the lighting flattens it into a largely abstract silhouette. But the stove retains undeniable symbolism. It is uniformly black, yet it contains light and provides an alternative to the total darkness outside the room. It keeps our attention within the interior; nothing inviting distracts us from it; in fact, there seems no viable alternative to the setting within.

 

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