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Charles Sheeler: Across Media

May 7 - August 27, 2006


The complex relationships between photography, film, painting, and drawing that were so central to the art of American modernist Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) are highlighted in Charles Sheeler: Across Media. On view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, from May 7 through August 27, 2006, the show will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago October 7, 2006, through January 7, 2007, and to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young, February 10 through May 6, 2007.

The exhibition features many of the artist's greatest achievements, including striking examples from his famous 1917 series of photographs made in Doylestown, Pennsylvania; the film "Manhatta," made in collaboration with Paul Strand in 1920; and two of Sheeler's best-known paintings, the iconic images of the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Plant Classic Landscape (1931) and American Landscape (1930).

"A celebration of the formal clarity and beauty of the artist's works, this exhibition draws upon a core of masterpieces recently added to the Gallery's collection. We are proud to present these new holdings as well as loans from public and private collections to the American public," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "The National Gallery of Art is delighted to premiere this survey of art by an important American original and is grateful to Altria Group, Inc., for their sponsorship."


The Exhibition

Charles Sheeler: Across Media showcases 52 works: 14 paintings, 17 photographs, 18 drawings, one print, one photomural, and one film. Organized chronologically and covering the major themes of Sheeler's career, the exhibition will enable viewers to compare works of the same subject rendered in a variety of media.

The exhibition opens with a small selection of Sheeler's seminal c. 1917 photographs of the interior of an 18th-century Quaker fieldstone house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. In these highly experimental night scenes, such as The Stove and Stairway with Chair, Sheeler took a familiar antiquarian subject and translated it into a modernist abstraction. Sheeler's first major achievement as a photographer, these works were immediately championed by Alfred Stieglitz and later inspired the drawing, The Open Door (1932), and the painting, The Upstairs (1938).

In 1920 Sheeler collaborated with Paul Strand on "Manhatta," widely regarded as the first avant-garde film made in the United States. A DVD transfer from a vintage print of this fascinating ten-minute montage of New York City's urban landscape, with titles and captions from poems by Walt Whitman, will be projected continuously in close proximity to a number of related photographs and paintings from the early 1920s, including Church Street El (1920) and Skyscapers (1922).

Moving from the rural to the urban to the industrial, the second room of the exhibition highlights Sheeler's finest works from the series of iconic paintings and drawings inspired by the commercial photographs of the River Rouge Plant that the Ford Motor Company commissioned him to do in 1927. Including watercolor studies for both Classic Landscape (1928) and American Landscape (1930) and a magnificent group of Conté crayon drawings, they make clear how Sheeler's name became virtually synonymous with depictions of the American industrial landscape. Also featured here will be a seven-by-twelve foot photomontage mural based on Sheeler's study Industry (1932). Murals were a popular medium in the 1930s and Sheeler, along with Georgia O'Keeffe, Ben Shahn, Berenice Abbott, and others, was invited to submit his design as part of the exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers, organized in 1932 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Summarizing Sheeler's ongoing practice of revisiting subjects in different media will be the enigmatic masterpiece The Artist Looks at Nature (1943) in which Sheeler paints himself in the process of sketching the 1932 drawing Interior with Stove that was in turn based on the 1917 Doylestown photograph The Stove . he show brings together the painting and its related works together for the first time.

Across Media concludes with a select group of images of New England mills inspired by Sheeler's experiments with photomontage in the 1940s and 1950s, such as the Conté crayon work Counterpoint (1949) and the oil New England Irrelevancies (1953), which are among the most complex and intriguing achievements of his entire career.


Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)

Born in Philadelphia, Sheeler was trained there in industrial drawing, decorative painting, and applied art at the School of Industrial Art from 1900 to 1902. He then attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1903 to 1906, where he studied under William Merritt Chase and learned an impressionistic style of painting. In early 1909, on a trip to Paris, he encountered the revolutionary works of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and other European modernists. Recognizing the break with the past that these artists represented, he returned to the United States determined to pursue a new direction in his work. (right: Charles Sheeler, Self-Portrait at Easel, 1931, gelatin silver print on paper. The Art Institute of Chicago, Ada Turnbull Hertle Endowment)

Around 1910 Sheeler took up photography as a way to support his painting and in 1913 participated in the first display of European and American modernism in the United States, the Armory Show in New York, where he greatly admiredworks by the iconoclastic French artist Marcel Duchamp. By 1917 Sheeler was being recognized not only for his cubist-inspired paintings, but also for his innovative photographs. During the 1920s Sheeler found further success and recognition as a commercial photographer working for Edward Steichen at Condé Nast. In the early 1930s he also designed fabrics, tableware, and glassware.

After receiving the Ford River Rouge commission in 1927, Sheeler continued to pursue industrial themes. His career was effectively ended by a debilitating stroke in 1959. Sheeler's many depictions of American industry secured his reputation during and after his lifetime.


Curator, Catalogue, and Related Activities

The curator of Charles Sheeler: Across Media is Charles Brock, assistant curator of American and British paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. He is also the author of Charles Sheeler: Across Media , produced by the National Gallery of Art and published in association with University of California Press. The 238-page, hardcover catalogue includes 50 color illustrations and 80 black-and-white reproductions and is available from the Shops at the National Gallery of Art.

On May 7 at 2:00 p.m., Brock will present the lecture "Charles Sheeler: An Introduction to the Exhibition." On Sunday, June 11, from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., noted scholars Michele H. Bogart, Jan-Christopher Horak, Patricia Johnston, and Laura R. Katzman will present illustrated lectures on Sheeler followed by a panel discussion. At 4:30 p.m., composer and pianist Donald Sosin will perform his original score for Sheeler's film "Manhatta" (1920). All programs will be held in the East Building Auditorium. For the duration of the exhibition, Gallery talks will be given by staff lecturers Sally Shelburne in the East Building, dates and times to be announced.


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