Bucks County Barns

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

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

by Karen Lucic




Sheeler's barn photographs stimulated and reinforced his development in other media, and cross-fertilization between his photographic and drawing practices began almost immediately. During 1917 and 1918, Sheeler produced at least seven conté crayon drawings (cats. 32-35; fig. 4) and about the same number of larger mixed-media works on paper (cats. 37-39, fig. 5).[23] Some of the drawings directly relate to contemporaneous photographs; others do not now have any surviving photographic analogues. Barns (Fence in Foreground), 1917 (cat. 34), and another Bucks County Barn, c. 1918,[24] fall into the latter category. These two works are unusual because they do not belong to a series of variant presentations of the same structure. More typical is Barns, 1917 (cat. 35), which relates to three other drawings that all represent an identifiable complex of buildings. This subseries includes two additional conté crayon works, Side of a Barn, 1917,[25] and Barns, c. 1917-18,[26] and a larger gouache, Bucks County Barn, 1918 (cat. 38). Another subseries consists of the famous Barn Abstraction, 1917 (fig. 4), which Sheeler replicated in a lithograph (cat. 36). The artist executed a more comprehensive view of the same building in 1918,[27] and yet another in the same year entitled Bucks County Barn (cat. 37).

The drawings with photographic analogues offer fascinating comparisons across media and shed special insight into the artist's creative thinking during this era. Sheeler's experiments in framing and stark tonal contrasts no doubt revealed the aesthetic possibilities in drawings of larger, more simplified shapes. The photographs Sheeler kept private in his later career were often the most useful models. Bucks County Barn.(with Wall) (cat. 29) relates to a mixed-media work, Bucks County Barn (cat. 39), done in 1918. Bucks County Barn (with Chickens) (cat. 28) inspired several paintings and drawings, most notably the oil painting Bucks County Barn (cat. 54) of 1932.

The barn represented in Bucks County Barn (with Gable) (cat. 31) similarly gave rise to a number of related drawings and paintings. Sheeler depicted it in at least three small conté crayon works of I917: two identically titled Barn (cats. 32-33), and another drawing named Barns. [28] Although no known photograph exactly corresponds to Barn Abstraction, 1918 (fig. 5), the building it portrays appears in Bucks County Barn (with Gable) but from a different angle. Two later oils, Bucks County Barn, 1940 (fig. 11), and Barn Abstraction, 1946 (cat. 55), also represent the same complex of buildings. In all likelihood, an identical photographic source once existed for these three works.

Such groups of interconnected imagery generated over decades indicate many features of Sheeler's artistry: the importance of serial experimentation throughout his career, the interdependence of various media in his creative projects, the periodic alternation of realism and abstraction as viable stylistic options, and the role of photography in preserving memories of the Doylestown period.

Rourke describes the images as "some eight works in tempera, oil, crayon, of Pennsylvania barns called 'Barn Red,' 'Barn Contrasts,' or bearing similar abstract titles." She elaborates:

Some of these are two-dimensional except as the third dimension is produced by the firm texture of stone or the curve of a silo. All of them are presented in space, without surrounding contexts, and they are extraordinarily beautiful in color, with reds of great clarity and depth, with the many colors of the limestone Playing their refractions; the blacks and whites are both positive and exquisite. These works are all partially abstract. In them all,... the basic concern is with form. Their secrets lie in the undiscoverable ways in which the oblongs and squares and cylinders containing stone or clapboarding or shingles are placed so as to result in a continuously flowing balance. [29]

In her interpretation of the series, Rourke above all emphasizes formal consideration.[30] Similarly, other scholars have evaluated the early Bucks County barn drawings as evidence of the artist's fascination with synthetic cubism and collage in the late 1910s.[31] For example, Buck.s County Barn (cat. 38) presents painted areas as if they were flat, pasted elements. Dense and opaque, the barn's colored planes resemble paper cutouts and raise formal issues that are also integral to the collage aesthetic.

The Bucks County barn series was in fact a milestone in Sheeler's lengthy project to absorb and adapt the principles of progressive European art. It followed a brief period of experimentation with virtually nonobjective compositions and then a return to minimally recognizable imagery. Landscape, Abstraction (cat. 4), for example, includes identifiable elements; yet in such works of 1915-16 the subject could be in Europe, America, almost anywhere where trees flourish and people erect buildings with gabled roofs. The depicted objects do not clearly manifest a national or local tradition.

Beginning with the barn series of 1917, Sheeler added specificity to his representations. Almost all the drawings subtly reveal the identity of the buildings as not only American but also as Pennsylvanian. For example, in Barns (cat. 35) the variegated strokes on the building's gable end evoke the fieldstone material characteristic of these regional barns. A cantilevered forebay appears prominently at the bottom right, a unique feature of these buildings, and the smaller outbuildings cluster around the larger structure in a way typical of Bucks County farmsteads.

The barns are still partially abstract, however. Most of the conté crayon drawings from 1917, such as Barn (cat. 32), float on the white paper with little indication of an environment. In the larger works of 1918, the artist similarly removes the barns from context; only one image, Bucks County Barn (cat. 39), extensively indicates sky and ground. All of the drawings lack human presence, even more acutely than in the corresponding photographs. No farm animals, tools, or crops appear. However, unlike the photographs, none of them conveys a sense of the buildings' obsolescence or decay.

The increased specificity of Sheeler's presentations therefore coexists with continued formal experimentation. For example, volume and three-dimensional space at first seem consistent in Barns (cat. 35), but on closer viewing, certain ambiguities emerge. In the main barn, Sheeler combines a fully frontal gable with side walls that recede in two opposite directions. The barn's eaves veer downward to the left and do not parallel those on the right. The building's shadow tilts inconsistently to the left, and the lack of a ridgepole on the roof defies the rules of realistic representation. The fence rail extending from the shed to the post falls short of its implied destination, and overall, the work displays a conscious disregard for polish and completeness. Areas are smudged, lines overextend their boundaries, false starts and subsequent erasures remain visible. The spatial inconsistencies and emphasis on drawing as a process rather than a finished product underscore Sheeler's evolving engagement with vanguard aesthetic issues in the barn series.


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