Thursday, April 5, 2018

Art I'm Looking At: The Cult of the Machine at the De Young

Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, 1930
Museum of modern Art, New York
The Cult of the Machine, now on view at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, although promoted as a look at Precisionism in general (and it is that), is a veritable Charles Sheeler retrospective. It includes some of his most important works—photographs, paintings, and drawings. It was a pleasure to see in person so many Sheelers I've long admired in reproduction, particularly the paintings he made from some of his well known photographs of Ford's River Rouge plant, and his Upper Deck (1929) and Rolling Power (1939)*.

Installation view:
Shadows cast by Shaker furniture
There is less familiar work here, too—by Sheeler, by other familiar names, and by names new to me. Besides paintings, photographs, and objects of design from the period during which the Precisionist style flourished in the United States (roughly 1915 to 1945), there is a display of Shaker-designed household items that echo in their simplicity the stylized geometries of Precisionism. The venue is also showing the brief 1921 film Sheeler made with Paul Strand, Manhatta, that looks at a day in Manhattan, inspired by Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and a looping clip from Chaplin's Modern Times (1936). The Shaker items are artfully backlit, their shadows projected onto a screen. When viewed from behind, the shadows look like one of Sheeler's cityscapes.

Strand is represented by several well-known images such as Wall Street (1915) and The Court (1924). Several of Sheeler's photographs of the Doylestown Quaker meeting house are here, as are painted and drawn versions of views he photographed there, allowing side-by-side comparisons. There are a couple of good Paul Outerbridge photos and work from photographers less familiar, such as Anton Bruehl. His Untitled, a 1929 shot of part of a Cadillac engine is striking. Some of the photographs of my grandfather, Warren R. Laity, would have been right at home here.

Anton Bruehl, Untitled, 1929
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Warren R. Laity, Mail Plane, circa 1930
(Not in show), Private collection

Gerald Murphy, Razor, 1924
Dallas Museum of Art                               
Also striking is a 1924 painting entitled Razor by Gerald Murphy that immediately brings to mind paintings from the same period by Stuart Davis that draw on advertising imagery and bright colors for their impact, works that anticipate Pop Art. There is nothing by Davis in the show and I was surprised to see only one piece by Charles Demuth—the name, along with Sheeler's, that comes to mind most readily when thinking of Precisonism. But most of the artists associated with Precisionism are here, including Joseph Stella, George Ault, Niles Spencer, Morton Shamberg, and Edmund Lewandowski. George Ault's Bright Light at Russell's Corners (1946, Smithsonian American Art Museum), a moody night scene dominated by eerily lit barns, and Lewandowski's small Furnace No. 5, are particularly attractive.

Francis Criss, Waterfront, c. 1940
Detroit Institute of Art
New to me were the painters Francis Criss, Elsie Driggs, Bumpei Usui, and Peter Blume. Criss's highly stylized Waterfront (c. 1940) reduces a waterfront industrial scene to its geometrical essence, using starkly contrasting saturated colors, a lamppost vestige of an earlier age, and a bold yellow-gold frame to heighten the effect. The frame is one of many in the show that are beautiful in their own right. Usui's 1924 New York cityscape 14th Street is a strong piece, with its cubes, cylinders, and pyramidal forms in a style reminiscent of some of the WPA frescoes of the period (and the show includes a painting by John Langley Howard, among those who contributed to the 1934 Coit Tower murals, a WPA project). There are also a couple of paintings by Georgia O'Keefe likely to seem surprisingly unlike her to most viewers. They differ markedly from the style she's best known for. One is a view of barns at Lake George. Another is a New York cityscape done from an elevated perspective—from the window of a high-rise apartment she shared there with husband Alfred Stieglitz.

Charles Sheeler, Upper Deck, 1929
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum
Precisionism was an extension of cubism in its attention to the underlying geometry of things, in its interest in architectonic form, an extension of Futurism in its obsession with the modern and with machinery, but I'm not sure how coherent it was—if it was recognized at the time as a movement at all. Perhaps underscoring that is the fact that "precisionism" was only one of several contemporary terms used to describe the style. The painters were sometimes known as "the immaculates" or they were referred to as "modern classicists." "Precisionism" is the name that has stuck. Names aside, the work on display is quintessentially of its time.

Bumpei Usui, 14th Street, 1924
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
"Precisionism" was a label given to the American expression of anxieties common between the world wars in rapidly industrializing societies globally. The paintings and photographs of the period reflect a fascination with machinery, with scale, with industrial might, but they also betray a deep, veiled fear. The clean lines, the simplified forms, and the tendency to eliminate human beings from angular cityscapes all suggest a need to slow things down, to examine reality in an artificial, controlled way, to tame things before they spin out of control. As the Cult of the Machine wall texts point out, these anxieties are familiar today, with technology rapidly outpacing our ability to adjust to it. To express the angst caused by forward leaps of technology, artists of the early twentieth century turned to depicting the physical manifestations of rapid change—to depicting bridges, dams, turbines, factories, propellers, ocean liners—large, tangible objects that overwhelm, things built not on a human scale. Artists of the early twenty-first century perhaps have a right to feel even more overwhelmed and anxious, handicapped as they are by the seemingly insubstantial nature of the technology that today drives so much change. Our technological marvels do not have an oppressive physical presence. They are not built on a grand scale. They are miniaturized and hidden behind sleek, portable steel and glass packages, hidden inside phones and tablets. They are barely visible. There is nothing to see.

The Cult of the Machine is on view at the De Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118) through August 12, 2018.

*It's worth noting that, in addition to the River Rouge pieces, both Upper Deck and Rolling Power were originally done as photographs (the Upper Deck photo is in the De Young show). There are many other examples of Sheeler working in a highly realistic style from photographs. I'm not aware of Sheeler being considered anticipatory to Photorealism, but surely he was, even if he usually took stylistic liberties a strict photorealist might not have.

Charles Sheeler, Rolling Power (1939)
Smith College Museum of Art

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails