One of the most important and influential early American modernists, Charles Sheeler (1883–1965) was an innovative visionary who excelled in a number of media. The unusual manner in which he utilized painting, drawing, photography and film as central elements in his art is the subject of this fascinating, first-of-its-kind exhibition. The show especially explores how Sheeler, equally gifted as painter and photographer, used both skills in creating iconic artworks.
“Charles Sheeler: Across Media” is curated by Charles Brock, assistant curator of American and British paintings at the National Gallery, where the exhibition was seen earlier this year. It is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago thru January 7, and then travels to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young, February 10–May 6.
Comprising some 50 paintings, photographs, works on paper and a film, the show is organized chronologically and by themes, enabling viewers to compare works of the same subject rendered in a variety of media. “At first glance,” says Brock, “some of these works may seem identical, but closer inspection reveals their subtle and meaningful differences.”
Featured are Sheeler’s famous 1917 photographs of his house in Doylestown, Penn., the film Manhatta, made in collaboration with photographer Paul Strand, numerous photographs and a number of paintings, including iconic images of the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant. The key to his success, suggests Brock, was “Sheeler’s extraordinarily rigorous, varied and long apprenticeship.”
Born in Philadelphia, Sheeler studied there at the School of Industrial Art, receiving training in industrial drawing, decorative painting and applied art. At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under the redoubtable William Merritt Chase he was schooled in Impressionism and painterly techniques. He traveled to Europe twice with Chase to view the Old Masters, and exhibited paintings with the bravura brushwork of his mentor.
On his last trip, 1908–1910, with his classmate Morton Schamberg, Sheeler encountered and fell under the sway of the then-shocking, avant-garde art of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. He soon ditched his Chase-inspired conception of art for a more modernist point of view.
Around this time Sheeler purchased his first camera, and before long he was photographing art for galleries and dealers in New York. He exhibited six paintings in the 1913 Armory Show and attended the Manhattan salons of collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg, where he met Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and other avant-garde stars.
During this time Sheeler shared a studio in Philadelphia with Schamberg. They also rented an Eighteenth Century Quaker fieldstone house in Doylestown. Excursions into the nearby countryside enhanced Sheeler’s affinity for the simple, unadorned architecture of the area and for early American artifacts.
His celebrated photographs of the spare inside of the Doylestown house, taken over the course of many years, captured the plain, whitewashed interior at night, often lit dramatically by artificial light. Photographing the space in a series of views — across rooms, through doors and up stairways — he documented the surface textures of wood, plaster and metal in stark, vivid detail. The Doylestown images were much admired by avant-garde champion Alfred Stieglitz, who favored focused, objective photography over the painterly, blurry style of earlier practitioners.
“Art begat art,” as Brock puts it, when a Sheeler photograph like “Doylestown House, Open Door with Dark Mirror,” 1917, later segued into a Conte crayon study, “The Open Door,” 1932. Some photographs, such as “Doylestown House — Stairway with Chair,” 1917, were used as the basis for later paintings, “The Upstairs,” 1938, in this case.
Sheeler left the Doylestown house in 1926, but he revisited the subject in paintings and drawings for two decades. Today, the picturesque stone structure is still standing, while “nearly all of Sheeler’s Doylestown photographs, paintings and drawings have come to reside within the aesthetic world for which they were so ingeniously constructed: the art museum,” notes Brock.
In 1920, Sheeler collaborated with photographer Strand on a short film depicting a day in the life of New York City. Now recognized as a highlight of avant-garde filmmaking, Manhatta consists of some 65 views organized in a loose narrative format that includes the Staten Island Ferry disgorging passengers in lower Manhattan, the docking of a huge liner, views of the skyline crowded with buildings and a sunset shot taken from a downtown skyscraper. Exploring the relationship between still photography and motion pictures, camera movement is kept to a minimum and carefully composed abstract images appear. Shown during the current exhibition, Manhatta remains a wonderful viewing experience.
Sheeler drew on film stills from Manhatta for paintings, such as “Church Street El,” 1920, an abstract rendering of skyscrapers, tracks and a train coming into view. He said the extreme perspective was inspired by Oriental art. “Totems in Steel,” a 1935 tempera, grew out of a Manhatta still.
Sheeler soon abandoned filmmaking, but the idea of serial views of a subject had a lasting impact on his work in other media. Thus, he would return to favorite subjects after decades, employing different media. “This unusually versatile, open-ended approach allows Sheeler’s various works to be appreciated both as individual autonomous objects and as related to each other across time and space,” writes Brock in the catalog.
In the 1920s Sheeler was in demand for commercial photography work, receiving lucrative commissions to photograph Champion spark plugs, Firestone tires, Kodak cameras, and, in 1927, the Ford Motor Company’s huge River Rouge plant near Dearborn, Mich. Drawing on his experiences in recording the vast, complex architecture of New York City, he spent some six weeks enthusiastically photographing the largest industrial complex in the world, recording exteriors and interiors and depicting numerous buildings and machines in 32 prints. He wrote Arensberg that “the subject matter is undeniably the most thrilling I have had to work with.”
Largely devoid of people and infused with stillness, Sheeler’s River Rouge photographs reflect timeless, abstract forms that he associated with classical beauty. Among the standouts is “Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company,” 1927, whose wide range of tones and crisp, linear elements convey a graphic quality, while paying homage to the austere beauty of industrial design. This and other River Rouge photographs were used as commercial images of the factory, but were also published as works of art. Later they stimulated Sheeler paintings, watercolors and drawings.
A hard-edged watercolor, “River Rouge Industrial Plant,” 1928, and a crisp, Precisionist oil painting, “American Landscape,” 1930, were based on the boat slip and cement plant silos in the background of Sheeler’s 1927 photograph, “Ford Plant, River Rouge, Canal with Salvage Ship.”
Another memorable oil, “Classic Landscape,” 1931, depicting the cement plant and slag screen house, was probably drawn from another photograph, now lost. The artist was known in his lifetime as the “Raphael of the Fords.”
While other important American artists, such as Charles Demuth, Georgia O’Keeffe and Joseph Stella, created Precisionist views of industrial subjects, none matched the diversity of approaches and techniques employed by Sheeler.
Sheeler’s predilection for revisiting subjects in different media is encapsulated in three works: a photograph, “Self-Portrait at Easel,” 1931, which shows the artist making a Conte crayon drawing of a Doylestown interior, and “Interior with Stove,” 1932, which is repeated in an enigmatic painting, “The Artist Looks at Nature,” 1943.
As Brock observes, “Visual puzzles abound here.” The photograph is basically a straightforward depiction of Sheeler at work, but the oil, contrary to its title, shows him ignoring the bright, expansive landscape around him in favor of doing a sketch of the Doylestown stove. The setting for “The Artist Looks at Nature” is said to incorporate views of Sheeler’s home in Ridgefield, Conn. (recently demolished), and the monumental Boulder (now Hoover) Dam. This mixing of disparate scenery, in a work that brings together painting, drawing and photography, suggests how Sheeler’s “explorations across various media defined and complicated his artistic identity,” says Brock.
Although photography continued to be integral to his work for the rest of his career, in the early 1930s, at the urging of his dealer, Edith Halpert, Sheeler began to downplay his work as a photographer in order to promote his reputation as a painter. “View of New York,” a 1931 oil painting based on a photograph, shows his photography studio with an empty chair, switched-off lamp and unused camera on a stand, suggesting that the space is now dormant.
In the 1940s, while serving as an artist-in-residence at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass., and later at the Currier Gallery in Manchester, N.H., Sheeler began using photomontage to depict the stark, spare lines of abandoned, Nineteenth Century New England textile mills. The technique, in which multiple photographs are combined into a composite image, served as starting points for further explorations in oil, tempera and Conte crayon.
Thus, all in 1946, a small, stark black and white photograph, “Ballardville Mill,” begat a good-sized oil painting, “Ballardville” and a smaller tempera, “The Mill — Ballardville.” Each depicts a red brick building that was part of an inactive 1836 mill along the Shawsheen River in the Ballardville section of Andover. A brilliant palette animates these and later canvases.
Departing from these realistic views, Sheeler later offered colorful, flattened patterns of interlocking surface textures in abstract images of the Ballardville mills in oil paintings, such as “Architectural Planes,” 1947, and “Variations in Red,” 1949.
In Manchester, the Currier Gallery trustees commissioned Sheeler to paint the abandoned Amoskeag textile mills, once the largest textile plant in the world. As in the Ballardville series, he first photographed the site extensively and then returned to his studio in Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y., to complete two straightforward temperas of the mill.
He built on these to create montage images, such as “Amoskeag Mills #2,” 1948, and “Manchester,” 1949, both fascinating, Precisionist, oil paintings of the site. Several of those views were blended in a photographic enlarger to create a composite image in “Study for Improvisation on a Mill Town,” 1948.
Culminating his explorations of the mill theme a few years later, Sheeler combined reversed images of the Ballardville and Amoskeag Mills in a grand oil painting, “New England Irrelevancies,” 1953. “Carefully cropped, abstract, layered designs of deserted places, the inactive, ‘irrelevant’ Ballardville and Amoskeag mills invite the viewer to contemplate the elusive relationship between presence and absence, permanence and transience,” observes Brock.
This rewarding exhibition offers documentation and insights into the manner in which one talented modernist — a genius in a variety of media — melded abstract forms and realistic details to create new, complex images of lasting interest. Charles Sheeler’s special contributions to American art can now be better understood and appreciated.
Brock’s 225-page catalog, with insightful chapters on Sheeler’s multifaceted work, is augmented with 50 color and 80 black and white illustrations. Published by the National Gallery in association with the University of California Press, it sells for $45 (hardcover).
The National Gallery of Art is on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW. For information: 202-737-4215 or www.nga.gov.