The Doylestown House

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

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

by Karen Lucic

 



 

In a contemporaneous letter to Walter Arensberg, the artist compellingly personifies this stove:

It is Sunday -- but nothing can mar the beauty of this crisp Spring morning. The scene takes Place in a little country house -- which is filled with the merriment of a week end party -- of one -- rather two -- for the moment I had forgotten the stove which gives out a welcome warmth from its round red opening.
 
The small dark illusion of a way out is obliterated by the dazzling view through the wide open door -- a rectangle of sunlight has the boldness to enter the interior -- and another -- they playfully overlap. Outside the birds strut about arranging their feathers with telling skill.
 
One of the characters (the one which is not smoking) light[s] a Benson & Hedges -- The stove demands more fuel. [52]

This extraordinary passage provides further evidence of how the house stimulated Sheeler's imagination. It also reveals that he considered the stove as an alter ego -- a warm companion and fellow smoker. Despite the artist's denial of the sentimentalized hearth, his attitude toward the stove suggests a deep emotional attachment. And most importantly for our understanding of Interior with Stove, the letter outlines an opposition between the stove, "the small dark illusion of a way out," and nature, "the dazzling view through the wide open door." By extension, the entire interior is associated with a "dark illusion" into which the playful sunlight -- an emissary from nature -- is welcome but at the same time strikingly foreign.

Sheeler's letter adumbrates an intriguing dialectic, but the meaning of "a way out" remains obscure. Perhaps it signifies the potential of the imagination -- admittedly small and dark compared with the dazzling activity of nature -- to provide an alternative to human loneliness and isolation. Sheeler's playful, if self-parodying, anthropomorphizing of the stove after all converted his solitary weekend party into a comforting twosome.

Interior with Stove provides the most comprehensive view of the inside of the house, but ironically, the sense of closure here remains emphatic. The doors and windows are tightly shut, and the room is thoroughly self-enclosed and complete unto itself. In fact throughout the series of Doylestown house photographs, Sheeler never attempts to replicate "the dazzling view" he mentions in his letter. All thresholds are black and void of lightfalls. He continually cleaves to the smaller and darker illusions, to stoves and stairways, that keep the attention within the interior and away from a direct embrace of nature.

The use of threshold motifs such as doors and windows to explore art's relation to nature became an important theme in early nineteenth-century romantic painting. [53] Open Window (cat. 18) continues this long-standing investigation in modernist terms. The photograph presents a close-up view of the second-floor window opened widely from the bottom. Significantly, this is the only window in the series not tightly closed. A wire screen keeps summer insects at bay, and a potted gloxinia on the window ledge sprouts one open blossom and smaller buds surrounding it. The plant is also unique, the only living thing that has appeared in the house. It is the sole emissary in the interior from the natural world beyond its boundaries.

The open window and the plant on the sill suggest new elements that may provide an alternative to the artist's otherwise hermetically sealed, artfully constructed world. Does this photograph therefore suggest -- unlike the others in the series -- that imagemaking in fact represents a window onto the world? In the end, does Sheeler acknowledge that art -- even modernist art -- embraces the task of representing nature in the Doylestown house? Perhaps, but the plant is, after all, a potted gloxinia -- most likely cultivated in an artificial hothouse environment. And the window, although wide open, resembles the others in the series, because its black panes show us nothing beyond the enclosed interior. Furthermore, the photograph's composition repeatedly guides us back to that paradoxical window -- open but not offering access. Pictorially self-referential, the window's minimal, gridlike structure accentuates the flatness of the photograph's surface. On one level, the image suggests that art is fundamentally a reflection of itself. [54]

In the face of the imagery's complexities, the questions raised by Open Window are exceedingly difficult to address. The photograph suggests the same themes that have concerned us throughout this discussion of the Doylestown house series. But here, they emerge in a very concentrated way. In most of the other photographs, an open door counteracts a closed window. Open Window, in contrast, represents the simultaneous fusion of openness and closure in a single motif. The window's openness suggests an artistic vision that is submissive to what it represents, that loves the world and seeks to replicate it, that draws toward, in Sheeler's words, the "dazzling view" of nature. The window's opaque panes imply an opposite vision, a self-referential art that effaces the subject in order to celebrate radically new strategies of presentation. Paradoxical as it might seem, the image exists as an artistic expression of both self-reference and self-transcendence.

Sheeler's portrait of the Doylestown house is incomplete; many parts of the building stand unrecorded, and the interior remains a collection of fragments. Yet, however elusive and multivalent, the photographs exhibit a meaningful pattern as a group. Sheeler repeatedly reenvisioned the same motifs, themes, and formal structures, making subtly different choices in each image. Visual and thematic continuities link them, weave them together into an integral unit. These images compellingly illustrate Sheeler's creative aspirations during his maturation as an American modernist. In 1916,

Sheeler revealed some of these aims in an exhibition catalogue:

I venture to define art as the perception through our sensibilities, more or less guided by intellect, of universal order and its expression in terms more directly appealing to some particular phase of our sensibilities.

The highest phase of spiritual life has always in one form or another implied a consciousness of, and, in its greatest moments, a contact with, what we feel to be the profound scheme, system or order underlying the universe: call it harmonics, rhythm, law, fact, God, or what you will.. . .

Plastic art I feel to be the perception of order in the visual world (this point I do not insist upon) and its expression in purely plastic terms (this point I absolutely insist upon). . . . One, two or three dimensional space, color, light and dark,. . . .all qualities capable of visual communication, are materials to the plastic artist; and he is free to use as many or as few as at the moment concern him. To oppose or relate these so as to communicate his sensations of some particular manifestation of cosmic order -- this I believe to be the business of the artist. [55]

Although Sheeler seems on the surface to be an unlikely metaphysician, this statement uncovers an almost mystical strain in his creative thought. He drew inspiration during these years from wide-ranging sources: Wassily Kandinsky, Lao-tzu, and Plato,[56] In the 1930s, Sheeler confided his early metaphysical inclinations to Constance Rourke. She queried him further, mentioning specifically his photograph of an African mask made about the same time as the Worthington house series.[57] Rourke reminded the artist of his intention to convey through this image "a concentration of the idea that the universe is a void."[58] Like other modernists of his generation, Sheeler embraced ahistorical philosophical concerns that united disparate subjects in the artist's mind, such as ceremonial sculpture from Africa and vernacular buildings of preindustrial America.

Considered in light of Sheeler's 1916 statement, the Doylestown imagery suggests new possibilities of interpretation. The photographs' eccentric lighting makes the architectural forms -- old, worn, and specifically local -- emerge mysteriously from a timeless and undifferentiated black void. This all-encompassing void exists as the house's metaphysical backdrop; out of it, all potential forms emerge. Sheeler selects and gives each form life by casting light in its direction. In this way, the photographs demonstrate how things manifest out of an unseen context and how an artist creates a world through a parallel process. In short, they express Sheeler's notion of "the profound scheme, system or order underlying the universe," This perspective also fundamentally reconceives the subject's identity -- from the time-bound and locally specific to the timeless and universal.

 

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