The following essay is a chapter of the exhibition catalogue titled "Charles Sheeler in Doylestown: American Modernism and the Pennsylvania Tradition," ISBN 0-295-97643-8, Copyright 1997 by the Allentown Art Museum. The catalogue was published in connection with the exhibition "Charles Sheeler in Doylestown: American Modernism and the Pennsylvania Tradition," organized by the Allentown Art Museum and held at the Museum April 6 through June 22, 1997. The essays are reprinted, without illustrations, with permission of the Allentown Art Museum and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essays please contact the Allentown Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:

 



 

Bucks County Barns

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

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

by Karen Lucic

 



 

While Sheeler was in Doylestown, he created an important series of photographs, paintings, and drawings depicting Bucks County barns. These impressive structures were a prominent feature of the entire southeastern Pennsylvania region during the artist's time there. From the days of its earliest settlement by European immigrants, Bucks County had an economy based on agriculture, and farmers needed monumental barns to thresh grain, shelter animals, and store crops. First built during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these structures are obscure in origin. Most architectural historians believe they derived from Germany and Switzerland, but some research indicates precedents in the Lake District of England. Especially in areas around Philadelphia, a fusion of German and British traditions most likely occurred. [1]

Characteristically constructed of fieldstone, clapboard, or board-and-batten siding, the Pennsylvania barn is usually surrounded by a complex of buildings, including a perpendicular ell and smaller outbuildings that provide storage for tools, wood, and crops, as well as shelter for animals. The main barn is either banked against a preexisting hill or a bank is constructed on the north side. This allows a loaded hay 'wagon to enter from the banked side onto a second-story threshing floor. On the inside, two-story haymows provide for abundant grain storage. Often the barn's interior resembles a grandly proportioned English medieval hall, with a steeply pitched roof and complexly crafted ceiling of exposed tie beams and rafters. The building's main facade faces south, ensuring that cattle stalls on the lower floor and the barnyard receive maximum light and warmth. The barn's most distinctive regional feature is a cantilevered forebay opening out to the yard, which shelters the animals in bad weather.[2]

This subject matter may seem perfectly appropriate to us today, but when Sheeler first engaged it in the mid-1910s some observers dismissed it as ill-placed in a "fine arts" context. Conversely, sympathetic viewers judged the subject highly suitable for modernist experimentation; they also claimed that Sheeler's Bucks County barn series revived the spirit of American folk art and preindustrial vernacular crafts. Early commentators often linked modernism and tradition in Sheeler's art as if they were inevitably connected. But from our retrospective position, we can identify such a linkage as an "invented tradition" that served those trying to establish an independent identity for the American vanguard. [3] And indeed these works, along with his images of New York skyscrapers, helped the artist solidify his position as a leading modernist in this country.

 

THE PHOTOGRAPHS

Sheeler's photographs of Bucks County barns closely parallel those of the Worthington house in the artist's formal and thematic concerns.[4] Like the house photographs, they fix the subjects in symbolic permanence while simultaneously advancing a modernist agenda. By representing rural architecture in a vanguard context, the artist also contributed to a reevaluation of its meaning.

According to Charles Millard, one of the earliest scholars of Sheeler's photographs, the artist began the series in 1915.[5] However, scanty documentation hinders the precise dating of the images. On stylistic grounds, Stebbins and Keyes believe that he produced them somewhat later-during 1916 and 1917.[6] The photographs most likely predate slightly or appeared contemporaneously with a series of drawings Sheeler made of identical subjects, which commenced in 1917.

As with the Doylestown house series, the original number of barn photographs also remains a mystery. At least seven views survive, but evidence from works in other media suggests that Sheeler originally produced several more. A few are well known: Bucks County Barn (Vertical) (cat. 25), Buggy (Interior, Bucks County Barn) (cat. 26), and Side of a White Barn (cat. 27).[7] These photographs have been frequently published, and many prints exist in private collections and public institutions. Others, such as Bucks County Barn (with Chickens) (cat. 28), are much less familiar. Bucks County Barn (with Wall) (cat. 29), Bucks County Barn (with Tree) (cat. 30), and Bucks County Barn (with Gable) (cat. 31) have been rarely, if ever, published or exhibited.

Ingeniously built, highly textured, and interestingly variegated, Bucks County barns obviously fascinated Sheeler during his years in Doylestown, but his approach to depicting this subject covered a wide range. Two of the photographs, Side of a White Barn and Buggy, resemble the interior shots of the Doylestown house. The other more comprehensive views recall the exterior shots of Sheeler's home (cat. 8) -- not surprisingly, given the necessity of working in natural daylight. Most of the images are sharply focused, carefully detailed, and illustrative of rural life in Bucks County. But close study reveals them to be far more than mere documents.

Bucks County Barn (with Chickens) (cat. 28), for example, renders its subject clearly and comprehensively. We see the entire three-building complex situated on hilly land with barren trees on either side. A typical Pennsylvania barn dominates the complex, with fieldstone walls and unpainted wood siding. This photograph straightforwardly depicts a working agricultural setting in rural Bucks County, with the plowed land and flock of chickens placidly feeding in the foreground surrounded by a silo, outbuildings, tractor, and other farm implements. But the composition also emphasizes distinct formal elements. The angle of view accentuates the blocky, asymmetrical relationship between the buildings and the repeated forms of their triangular gables. Similarly, the contrast of dark roofs to white siding creates a rhythmical pattern, uniting one building to another. The photograph also highlights the contrasting masonry
walls, shingled roofs, and unpainted wood. The modernist emphasis on textures and forms presents the barn as worthy of aesthetic contemplation.

Bucks County Barn (with Wall) ( cat. 29) also seems primarily descriptive at first glance but grows more formally and thematically complex with sustained viewing. Sheeler shows this barn frontally, but again, smaller outbuildings flank the central fieldstone structure. A plastered wall surrounds the barnyard; lacking a gate, it binds all the structures into one unit. Aged board-and-batten siding covers the second story of the barn, but the roof looks surprisingly new, undoubtedly recently repaired with a smooth industrially produced material that contrasts with the irregular cedar shingles on surrounding buildings. Small, asymmetrically placed windows and doors on the facade provide light to the interior and ventilation for the hay and animals housed within. Other doors open to cattle stalls in the dark recess below the cantilevered forebay.

Probably taken during the harvest season, the photograph shows trees in full foliage and mows filled to the brim with hay. This suggests the natural fruitfulness of the Bucks County farmland and a seemingly viable way of life based on cultivating its resources. The building's self-enclosure denies the viewer's access to such bounty, however. A gateless fieldstone wall and barbed-wire fence doubly bar us from entry into the protected space of the barnyard. The barn's facade offers access in its numerous open doors and windows, but the insurmountable impediments in the picture's middle ground complicate the possibility of actual entry. Quite subtly, this photograph thematizes the same conflicts we first encountered in considering images of the Doylestown house. Here, as earlier, an imaginative possibility beckons while, simultaneously, an impediment looms before us.

Yet threshold anxiety is easily overlooked in this photograph, and the presentation does not surprise or disorient us aesthetically. In fact, the buildings in Bucks County Barn (with Chickens) and Bucks County Barn (with Wall), although showing signs of age, give comforting evidence of human use and care. Chickens peck in the yards; roofs stand in good repair; and although no human actors appear, the gathered hay indicates work recently done. In contrast, Bucks County Barn (with Tree) (cat. 30) shows signs of complete neglect and decay.

This view of the building deceives those unfamiliar with Bucks County barns into thinking that the structure is a long, low shed. But we actually see the top floor of a two-story barn banked against a hill. The building's ramshackle facade exhibits various textures, with board-and-batten siding to the right, smooth white plaster in the middle, and coarse rubble masonry at the left. Behind a wooden gate, large doors once admitted loaded hay wagons into the interior, but tall grass in the foreground covers the path that formerly brought them into the barn. No chickens, tools, or other evidence of human presence appear. The decayed barn's abandonment seems long-standing, and the building appears on the verge of extinction.

Bucks County Barn (Vertical) (cat. 25) also shows a neglected structure. The tall barn is banked against a grassy hill, flanked by leafless trees. A dirt road fills the foreground, curves in front of the barn's ell, and disappears to the right. The barn faces a more ornate fieldstone house across the road. We see only a small portion of this foreground building, with sash windows and scalloped woodwork on the gable end. In comparison to this house, the barn looks especially disheveled, with its doors hanging open, its roof missing several shingles, and its fence in the foreground lacking a gate.

The building's profile, crisply delineated against the sky, encloses a large, empty space in the center of the composition. Within that darkness, we only dimly perceive the details of the building's facade. Virtually every door hangs open, yet these thresholds do not invite access into the barn's interior; they merely frame dark holes in the barn's outer shell. Although the road in the foreground leads us directly to the barn, once there, we are confronted by a black void that discourages further movement within.

The environment depicted in Bucks County Barn (Vertical) is almost unnaturally still. No livestock or stored crops appear; nothing suggests the earthy smells and sounds of farm life. In fact, the shabby pen in the foreground is incapable of retaining animals. It contains only dry, dead plants. The barn's numerous open doors are especially haunting. As they hang precariously from their hinges, they belie the intended purpose of the barn to protect livestock and crops. This intimates the imminent eclipse of the agrarian life that once flourished in the region.

Each of these four photographs evokes a different empathic response, and despite their apparent straightforwardness, all depict their subjects in a subtly unconventional way. Sheeler's focus on voids, textured surfaces, and asymmetrical planes reveals an understated but rigorous formalism underlying the images. The four pictures are also all strangely depopulated -- no people ever appear in proximity to these buildings. Every tool is abandoned, and all the doors -- whether open or shut-discourage access. Even Bucks County Barn (with Chickens) and Bucks County Barn (with Wall), which depict working farms, convey the sense that the farmers have suddenly vanished in the midst of their seasonal work. As with the Worthington house, these photographs indicate Sheeler's fascination with indigenous artifactual traditions, but an unsettling absence complicates the deepest significance of the images.

Side of a White Barn (cat. 27) exhibits many of the same qualities found in the other photographs -- human absence, decaying materials, and denied access to the barn's interior. But this image is also audaciously modern stylistically, which Sheeler achieved through proximity and framing. The photograph brings the viewer extremely close to the building's facade. From this intimate distance, the highly textured surfaces -- irregular, crumbling plaster, knotted and cracked board-and-batten siding, patterned cedar shingles -- dominate the composition. Three door openings and one small window appear asymmetrically on the flat, planar facade. The eaves of the roof emerge just below the composition's upper edge, casting a long horizontal shadow below. On ground level, a wooden fence with three tall posts extends back diagonally toward the barn. A pile of hay rests below the double doors. Easily overlooked, a chicken perches on top of this pile, its tiny body contorted as if pressured by the monolithic wall behind it. The truncated head of another chicken is barely visible to the left.

In its boldly minimal composition, this photograph, like Stairwell or Stairs from Below (cats. 9-10), resulted from Sheeler's investigation of new approaches to the photographic medium. The flattened space and unconventional framing make the highly textured, rectilinear forms -- doors, windows, siding -- seem pasted on the picture plane, accentuating the inherent two-dimensionality of the supporting medium. Two recent scholars of Sheeler's work, Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler, underscore his stylistic achievement in Side of a White Barn by observing, "This is perhaps the first photograph in which the subject is absolutely identified with the picture plane.. . ."[8] Such claims to originality are hard to verify; nevertheless, the image well deserves its status as a landmark in the development of modernist photography.

Like the blocked windows and blank mirrors in the Worthington house photographs, the monolithic facade in Side of a White Barn seems to posit modernist aesthetic practice as an end in itself. Its impenetrability, and the subject's nearly complete congruence with the picture plane, embody modern art's concern with "how" a picture comes into being rather than "what" it depicts. It undercuts photography's traditional role of describing its subjects. The image's apparent refusal to gesture beyond itself invites us to think of formal issues over associated meanings, of surface, texture, and pictorial structure over the farmers and animals for whom this building was made.

As we have come to expect in Sheeler's work, however, a deep psychological investment in the subject mediates the artist's modernist experiments. Here the two chickens are curiously anecdotal in the context of the artist's rigorous formalism. In fact, they are virtually forced out of the image, yet -- as if contrary to the artist's will -- they remain liminal signs of something beyond purely formal concerns. Their presence obliquely suggests that the barn does indeed have a function, that the photograph in the end has something to say about agricultural life in Bucks County.

Side of a White Barn therefore contains two seemingly contradictory impulses: self-reflexive formalism and extrapictorial reference. Some early critics recognized this duality in Sheeler's barn photographs. In 1920, Henry McBride praised their modernity, distinguishing Sheeler's work from that of the pictorialist photographers:

Mr. Sheeler is an out and out modernist.... It is of course possible that the artist may win some applause from totally uninstructed persons, who will see that Mr. Sheeler's barns are genuine Bucks County' barns in spite of something in the work that the instructed will call "cubism," but these same uninstructed persons, while admitting that Mr. Sheeler's barns are barns, will doubtless sigh for a few more vulgar details.... He has a relentless eye, it seems, when it comes to focussing; a personal feeling toward textures and values.... All who look on photography as a means of expression should see these Photographs of barns. They rank among the most interesting production of the kind that have been seen here, and are all the more important as this artist never forgets for a moment that the camera is a machine, and he emphasizes the things a machine can do better than hands, instead of blurring them into so-called artistic effects, as so many photographers do. [9]

In this passage, McBride emphasizes Sheeler's understanding of a cubist aesthetic while asserting that the artist remains truthful to the photographic medium because the sharply focused images look machine produced, not handmade. On these two points, he can celebrate the artist's work as "out and out modernist."

To most viewers, the fragmentary Side of a White Barn could depict a barn almost anywhere. McBride, however, recognized die "genuine" Bucks County elements in the imagery. Born in the rural outskirts of Philadelphia, the critic knew this type of building well, and therefore the fragments possessed local specificity. On this basis, he understood Sheeler's art as a synthesis of Bucks County tradition and modernist aesthetic expression.

The remaining photograph in the series, Buggy (cat. 26), embodies a similar synthesis. But in contrast to the others, this image reveals the habitually hidden interior of Sheeler's farm buildings. Instead of an impenetrable facade, Buggy shows us the deep, recessive, but still mysterious space within the barn.

A horse-drawn vehicle, the "buggy" of the photograph's title, occupies the center of the composition. Sheeler placed an artificial light behind it, endowing the vehicle with a numinous glow.[10] As in Interior with Stove (cat. 15), a kerosene or photographer's lamp masquerades as natural light, intensifying the tonal contrasts in the scene and creating an assertive silhouette. But despite the dramatic backlighting, we can partially discern the buggy's complicated structure -- its large spoked wheels, numerous axles, and the interior of the cab. To the left, heavy clothing hangs from a coatrack. Two horizontal planks bar entrance to the stall; splattered paint or bird droppings mark the topmost board. [11]

Obscure, truncated forms bracket the central stall. To the left is another vehicle -- perhaps a hay wagon -- with a rack on top and chains below; Farm implements rest in a dark recess behind the wagon. An empty loft hovers to the upper left, and at the composition's far edge, shafts of bright sunlight penetrate the wooden frame of the barn. To the right are a ladder and a spoked wheel, perhaps a spare for the buggy. Between two of the ladder's rungs, a window on the far side of the barn forms a tiny rectangle of light. This small area of intense natural illumination presents a visual counterpart to the bright, artificial light shining through the peephole in the buggy's hood.

The objects in Buggy seem at first glance haphazardly arranged, as if the artist merely stumbled upon the scene and photographed it as he found it. But the lighting makes clear that the photograph is not an automatic imprint of a preexisting world. As in the Worthington house series, the purposely obscure relationship between artificial and natural light sources confronts us with an unstable boundary between the world as passively perceived and as artistically constructed. A fusion and confusion of nature and culture results from this thematically suggestive and formally compelling dualism.

Furthermore, the rough-hewn wooden planks surrounding the entrance to the stall demarcate a "picture within a picture," like a frame around a painting. This "found" frame serves a twofold purpose. Yet another surrogate for the picture itself, it also emphasizes how the photograph elevates the unpretentious, utilitarian subject into the realm of high art. But the metaphorical frame around the stall also prevents our full empathic entry into the area of greatest fascination. The mysterious light beckons us closer, but the wooden timbers halt us at the threshold. Immediate, concrete contact with the subject remains just beyond our grasp.

This enforced distance between viewer and subject encourages thoughts about the disappearing way of life that these objects represent. The artifacts once served human needs, yet as in Bucks County Barn (Vertical), their anonymous users seem long absent. Who knows how long the coats have hung on this rack? How many years has this buggy remained in its stall, abandoned perhaps for a new Model T? After this photograph was taken, the neglected environment undoubtedly continued to disintegrate. Sometimes preserved in a museum or private collection, these types of outmoded objects seldom survived in their intended context. In a new setting, they acquired meanings never imagined by their original makers and users.

In the face of its subject's certain decay or dislocation, Sheeler's photograph endows it not only with artistic status, but with symbolic permanence as well. The image will remain long after the depicted objects have passed away. Yet such a gesture of preservation has its limits, which the photographer himself seems to acknowledge. By placing an artistic frame around a formerly utilitarian environment, Sheeler instills consciousness of an unbridgeable gap between the viewer and the things viewed. The aesthetic transformation preserves an imprint of forms but does nothing to protect the context that generated and sustained these objects.

Of all the images in the barn series, Buggy most resembles the formal structure of the Doylestown house photographs. The barn's interior is much more cluttered, but the photograph exhibits the same dramatic contrasts of light and dark. It also closely relates to the house series in its themes of denied access and self-referentiality. But other barn photographs similarly echo and reformulate the thematic concerns of the Worthington house images. In Bucks County Barn (Vertical), for example, virtually every threshold is carelessly open. Like Open Door (cat. 11), these dark portals induce anxiety, but whereas in the Worthington house photograph, we fear to step outside, in the barn images, we hesitate to move within. Side of a White Barn, like Downstairs Window (cat.17), inverts the problem of the threshold by aggressively asserting closure. Both series therefore represent an investigation into indigenous tradition molded by an unconventional modernist sensibility. And both contributed to Sheeler's private archive of Bucks County imagery that preserved memories while sustaining his creative imagination.

 

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