Bucks County Barns

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

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

by Karen Lucic





No contemporaneous letters or statements have surfaced to give evidence of Sheeler's original thoughts about his barn subjects. In the 1930s, the artist made his first extended comment on their significance:

Forms created for the best realization of their practical use may in turn claim attention of the artist who considers an efficient working of the parts toward the consummation of the whole of primary importance in the building of a picture. Evidence of this accomplishment aroused my interest in the early barns. .. in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Their shapes were determined by their practical use and by the combination of materials, wood, stone, plaster,. .. their construction anticipated by a considerable time the interest of the contemporary artist in the relation of contrasting surfaces as an important contribution to the design of a picture. [12]

Sheeler elaborated on these ideas in a later interview:

[T]he community built the barns for the individual and they always had first of all its utility in mind; and that wasn't accidental because they knew. .. how the barn had to function for their purpose; they weren't building a work of art. If it's beautiful to some of us afterwards it's beautiful because it functioned -- the functional intention was very beautifully realized. [13]

In the first statement, Sheeler's appreciation of the barns' contrasting surfaces helps explain his original attraction to the material. Also, the equivalence of the historic vernacular and contemporary art characterized his thinking during his early career. But Sheeler's analysis of the barns' "beautifully realized functional intention" requires further analysis.

At the time Sheeler first photographed Bucks County barns, architects and design theoreticians often expressed the idea that beauty necessarily results when form derives from function.[14] But none of the artist's statements from the 1910s indicates an interest in functionalist theory. Furthermore, his photographs do little to demonstrate how the forms of the barns express their function. We seldom see the storage areas within the barns; no humans demonstrate how these structures work. Instead, most of the barns appear abandoned, reflecting a loss of usefulness. A newly manufactured automobile or an operating grain elevator would have demonstrated functionalist principles better than an old-fashioned buggy in a decrepit barn. The artist did subsequently embrace functionalism, however. His factories and skyscrapers of the 1920s and 1930s reflect this later enthusiasm, which undoubtedly colored his retrospective explanations for his interest in Bucks County barns. But his art suggests that his major concerns in the 1910s were simultaneously with formal experimentation and symbolic preservation.

Pennsylvania barns had once been ingeniously functional, with their cantilevered forebays and two-story haymows. But efficiency was a relative, rather than absolute, feature of their design. Innovations in farming, such as mechanized threshing, automatic hay bailing, and silo storage, had rendered these monumental buildings considerably less practical in Sheeler's time than when originally built. In addition, farmers increasingly abandoned the time-consuming handcraft necessary to maintain the buildings. Bucks County farmland gave way to tract housing similar to the development that engulfed the Worthington house. As a result, these barns rapidly disappeared from the Bucks County countryside during Sheeler's time there. [15] The dilapidated condition of these buildings in his photographs conveys their endangered status at the turn of the century.

In their transition towards obsolescence, these unpretentious barns revealed themselves to Sheeler as subjects worthy of artistic presentation. This involved an aesthetic reevaluation common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Marshall McLuhan writes:

When machine production was new, it gradually created an environment whose content was the old environment of agrarian life and the arts and crafts. The older environment was elevated to an artform by the new mechanical environment.. .. Each new technology creates an environment that is itself regarded as corrupt and degrading. Yet the new one turns its predecessor into an art form. [16]

Helwin Schaefer elaborates on McLuhan's insight: "A functioning environment is invisible and is perceived as an art form only after it has become obsolete and ceased being a viable, practically functioning entity.. . . "[17]

According to McLuhan and Schaefer, truly functional artifacts are invisible aesthetically. To ignore or discard them is therefore of little consequence. But the reevaluation of utilitarian artifacts as art separates them from this invisible environment. They are then collected, photographed, recorded, put in museums, or in the case of Bucks County barns, converted into artists' studios or fashionable housing for elite professionals who commute to Philadelphia. [18] This aestheticization process usually results in the preservation of such artifacts on some level. As newly defined works of art, many examples survive that would not otherwise, but with their meanings irreversibly altered.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, artists used barns as picturesque country studios; some even depicted them as artistic subjects.[19] But few before Sheeler saw the potential of this material for modernist experimentation.[20] When Sheeler's barn photographs appeared at the De Zayas Gallery in 1920, a critic sneered at the artist's "uninteresting models."[21] Artifacts of agricultural life were popular symbols, but before the 1910s they represented historical (as we saw in Mercer's case) rather than aesthetic concerns. In contrast, Sheeler's photographs present "the combination of materials" in Bucks County barns -- wood, stone, plaster -- as inherently beautiful and artfully arranged. These images therefore made visible a previously ignored environment through the kind of aesthetic reevaluation McLuhan and Schaefer describe. Thus aestheticized, the subject received a new, if decontextualized, life. And after seeing Sheeler's images in galleries and in avant-garde journals, [22] an initiated group of art viewers eventually came to appreciate these structures as Sheeler did -- as "found" art objects and appropriate models for modernist experimentation.

In the associational drift from the utilitarian to the aesthetic, the object survives primarily in the symbolic realm. Sheeler no doubt recognized that the antiquated artifacts of Bucks County would soon pass away, and his photographs seem to acknowledge the limits of such a metaphorical gesture in the face of actual loss. The void at the center of Bucks County Barn (Vertical), the barrier in Buggy, the contorted chicken in Side of a White Barn, all seem to confess a sense of incomplete resolution to a situation in which an image substitutes for a once vital and sustaining way of life.


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