Bucks County Barns

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

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

by Karen Lucic



Barn Abstraction, 1917 (fig. 4; see cat. 36), best represents the experimentalism of the series. It shows the banked side of a Bucks County barn. The main building stands to the right, with an opaque void suggesting open doors at the center of the facade. Two perpendicular lines sketchily indicate the roof, but to the right, the structure disappears. A shadow falls under the eaves, one of the few conventions employed to indicate volume. Attenuated, overlapping, and interpenetrating forms to the left of the barn represent outbuildings. They adumbrate a low shed with three asymmetrically placed windows, a long ell, and the roofs of two other buildings in the background. A mysterious dark rectangle and shaded triangle float inside the ell. Do they indicate that the ell is transparent, showing another building behind? Or does Sheeler's drawing present multiple structures occupying the same space simultaneously?

Flatness clearly predominates in this composition. Lines lie parallel or perpendicular to each other, denoting forms that are sketchy, incomplete, and seemingly provisional. The work is in fact the most abstract of the drawings, analogous to the contemporaneous photograph Side of a White Barn (cat. 27).

John Driscoll, a scholar of Sheeler's work, identifies this drawing as the "classic expression" of the Bucks County barn series:

Sheeler worked through a series of drawings . .. in 1917 and 1918, and arrived at the classic expression of it in Barn Abstraction.. . . With a few simple lines, a massive "black hole," and some elementary shading he has given a bare bones analysis of what can clearly be seen as a "universal" barn form. [32]

But Barn Abstraction did not culminate Sheeler's experimentation with the subject. The many barns that followed it (with the possible exception of Barn Abstraction, 1918 [fig. 5]) all move toward greater realism. Because of its extreme minimalism, authors like Driscoll have identified it as the most significant of Sheeler's barns, but in fact, its relative lack of local specificity makes it the least characteristic of the series.

Barn Abstraction's starkly modernist composition also won the approval of Sheeler's patrons, such as Walter Arensberg and Constance Rourke. Despite the attention the work attracted, the artist nevertheless turned away from such pictorial experiments in his paintings and drawings and developed a more descriptive style. Various factors affected Sheeler's project during this period, and some of them discouraged working in nonrepresentational modes. During and immediately after World War I, native modernists were encouraged to emphasize the "Americanness" of their subjects and minimize their aesthetic dependency on Europe. Most likely, Barn Abstraction remained a singular work in Sheeler's series for this reason.

Like Robert Coady, Sheeler wanted to forge an alliance between modernist aesthetics and indigenous material previously unincorporated into the fine arts. By depicting a recognizable Bucks County farmhouse or barn, he simultaneously created an alternative to European-derived subjects and negated the dominant values of the artistic establishment in America. Indeed, Sheeler's depictions of Bucks County architecture highlight the nonacademic aspects of the structures -- the rough handcrafted timbers, the irregular woodwork, the earthy material, the disregard for symmetry. These features contrast dramatically with the elite architecture of the Gilded Age and the early twentieth century -- the grandiose mansions and public buildings based on Renaissance palaces and Roman temples. To Sheeler, rural Bucks County farm buildings must have seemed more authentically American than European-inspired Beaux-Arts architecture.[33]

Sheeler's appropriation of this material still followed the model of Europe, however. Modernists abroad did not depict Bucks County barns, of course, but they frequently looked to similar sources outside the high art tradition to inspire and reinforce their stylistic innovations. A diverse body of folk, popular, and non-Western artifacts -- including Japanese, Peruvian, Polynesian, and African -- served as "primitive" alternatives to bourgeois turn-of-the-century taste.[34] Modernist painters and sculptors viewed many disparate traditions almost as one phenomenon. Their aesthetic qualities seemed to transcend historical circumstances and specific contexts. As Meyer Schapiro observes, "The art of the whole world was now available on a single unhistorical and universal plane as a panorama of the formalizing energies of man."[35] .

Rourke recounts that Sheeler's awareness of European modernism fostered his appreciation of such "primitive" artifacts:

Medieval in their nearer origins, the tracings, scratchings, and cuttings, or the designs in slip of the [Pennsylvania German] ceramics, showed patterns that seemed akin to some of those he had been seeing in Paris. Matisse, going back to primary Asiatic sources, had restated designs not widely' removed from those of this homely provincial art. [36]

This assessment of Pennsylvania German ceramics as equivalent to Matisse's Asiatic sources well illustrates Schapiro's observation about the ahistorical and universalizing tendencies in the modernist appropriation of noncanonical sources.

As in Europe, American modernists often used aesthetic material outside the fine art tradition to buttress their departures from academic norms. For example, when Marius de Zayas opened the Modern Gallery in New York in 1915, his press release declared: "To the products of modernity we shall add the work of such primitive races as the Mexican Indians and African Negroes because we wish to illustrate the relationship between these things and the art of today."[37] But in America, modernist appropriations often sought to assert a specific national lineage. Feeling their tenuous position in this country, the American vanguard not only needed to establish itself as modernist per se but was also compelled to construct a native heritage to validate its pictorial innovations.

Sheeler's series of Bucks County barns specifically addressed the artist's national and regional identity, unlike Picasso's collection of tribal sculpture or Matisse's admiration for Persian drawings. Furthermore, Sheeler turned to local resources for new ideas about how to represent his subjects. The American folk art tradition especially captured his imagination.


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