Bucks County Barns

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

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

by Karen Lucic

 



 

The basis of such criticism undoubtedly stemmed from a worry about violating an essential principle of modernist practice -- the appearance of fundamental originality. Although modern art developed from a study of numerous traditions -- academic, popular, and "primitive" -- the most highly regarded modernists generally veiled their reliance on artistic precedents or radically transformed their models. To be an "antiquarian" (an artist who mimics folk forms too closely) compromised one's status as a self-sufficient modernist.

American modernism's quest for a usable past therefore contained contradictory aspirations. On the one hand, Sheeler and his contemporaries wanted to create a context-specific, recognizably national tradition for their stylistic experiments, while on the other, they maintained that modernist identity was fundamentally ahistorical, transcultural, and free of stylistic debts. Rourke sums up this contradiction in reflecting on the artist's wide-ranging sources: "All these forms, from the Aztec to the Pennsylvanian had what may be called structural truth, and a singular unity.... What [Sheeler] gained from this ancient or primitive art was reinforcement for choices he had already made." [58] Avoiding charges of antiquarianism, Sheeler for the most part synthesized modernism and tradition so skillfully that the appearance of originality remained.

His haunting Bucks County Barn of 1923 (cat. 46) demonstrates how Sheeler both used and distanced himself from traditional models. This somber, almost elegiac work harked his return to Bucks County subjects after a lengthy hiatus following Schamberg's death in 1918.[59] It shows the flanked side of a fieldstone barn with additions and outbuildings flanking its sides. The variegated stone walls, neat cedar shingled roofs, and gray sideboarding are delineated with thoroughgoing attention to detail, perhaps in homage to the earnest craftsmanship of folk art. But like the earlier drawings, the barn floats without an environmental context, and evidence of modernist formalism appears to the right of the barn door, where the complex polygonal shadow constitutes an independent abstract shape. However, unlike the earlier works, the forms here appear more resolutely volumetric, and the elegant silhouette is astonishingly precise. An aura of highly disciplined, almost classical authority pervades this drawing. Like Staircase, Doylestown (cat. 23), another major aesthetic achievement of the mid-1920s, this work seems more masterfully resolved than Sheeler's earlier treatments of the theme. The drawing impressively culminates the artist's early engagement with Bucks County barn imagery.

In this work, Sheeler achieved a delicate balance between aesthetic individuality and traditional associations. Produced contemporaneously with the Whitney folk art exhibition, the drawing displayed a synthesis of past and present that continued to please reviewers throughout the 1920s. In a review of the Whitney Studio Club annual member's exhibition in 1924, for example, Helen Appleton Read writes: ""Charles Sheeler continues to give us in his clear, clean painting a combination of the naivete of the American primitive and the sophistication of its modern version."[60] Another reviewer observed in 1926:

There is subtle sensibility in his ability to sense the underlying beauty concealed in the humble object, the forbidding exterior. Abstract as this tendency seems to be, no contemporary artist has more sharply expressed the essential spirit of that type of scene and object we accept today as "early American." His earlier drawings of the barns of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, directed attention to a type of authentic American architecture that long had been neglected and which nevertheless concealed an indigenous beauty as authentic as a folksong. Sheeler's pictures of these buildings transposed the simple lines and beautifully proportioned masses of these barns into a realm of cool abstraction. No artist has done more for the neglected native scene, the very spirit of early America, than has Charles Sheeler.

There seems to be an affinity between the mind of this artist and those builders and craftsmen of past centuries who created out of humble and neglected and spare materials a beauty at once expressive and enduring. [61]

"Affinity" is a key word in this passage.[62] Critics of the time posited an intangible but nevertheless identifiable relationship between Sheeler's work and the "spirit of early America." In both, they saw a preference for spare and coolly abstract forms. This relationship, because they judged it to be an almost mystical commonality rather than mere imitation on Sheeler's part, earned the artist a leading position as interpreter of the "neglected native scene."

When Sheeler discussed American folk art in the 1930s, he played down the influence it had on his stylistic development:

Simultaneously with my interest in American Crafts and Architecture has been an appreciation of our Folk Art. Not so much in the sense of being contributory to the direction of my work, but for the authentic record which it provides of the mentality and vision of the people at the time it was produced. Naiveté. .. carries conviction and an accompanying interest, but may not be arbitrarily reverted to with the anticipation of a similarly resulting conviction. Aside from the innocence of vision there is frequently found a considerable sensitiveness and originality in the use of the medium employed. Characteristics common to the most satisfying expressions of any period are to be found in American Folk. Art, simplicity of vision and directness of statement. [63]

 

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