Charles Sheeler: Across Media is the first exhibition to focus exclusively on the complex, often paradoxical, relationships between photography, film, drawing, and painting that were so central to the art of American modernist Charles Sheeler (18831965). The exhibition features approximately 50 masterpieces, including magnificent paintings, masterful drawings, and striking examples of the artist’s photographs.
Trained in industrial drawing, decorative painting, and applied art at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia, Sheeler also attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he learned an impressionistic, painterly style from William Merritt Chase. He later embraced European modernism and taught himself photography. Sheeler fully absorbed the lessons of each discipline and forged his own approach. He explored the relationships between photography, film, and traditional media such as painting and drawing with more rigor and intellectual discipline than perhaps any other artist of his generation. Sheeler used his own photographs and film stills as the basis for paintings and drawings, thus crystallizing the differences and similarities between them. Works in one medium manage to function as independent objects while also being inextricably linked to works in other media. The complex dialogue Sheeler forged among various techniques early in the 20th century is one of his most innovative and important contributions to the history of American modernism.
Covering the major themes of Sheeler’s career, this exhibition allows viewers to compare the same subject in a variety of different media. At first glance these works may seem identical, but closer inspection reveals their subtle and meaningful differences. In presenting these relationships, the broader patterns of Sheeler’s works emerge.
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In 1909, Sheeler traveled to Paris, where he encountered the works of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and other European modernists. He returned to the United States determined to pursue a new direction in his work. Around this time, Sheeler took up photography as a way to support his painting, first documenting buildings for Philadelphia architects, and later photographing works of art for New York dealers. In 1913, Sheeler participated in the seminal Armory Show in New York, dedicated to European and American modernism in the United States. By 1917, Sheeler was recognized for both his cubist-inspired paintings and drawings and also his innovative photographs.
The exhibition opens with a small selection of Sheeler’s groundbreaking photographs, circa 1917, of the interior of his 18th-century Quaker fieldstone house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. These highly experimental, innovative night scenes represent Sheeler’s first major achievement as a photographer and later inspired several important paintings and drawings. Doylestown HouseThe Stove, exemplifies the sharply focused, more objective style that was then being promoted by Alfred Stieglitz as an alternative to the painterly aesthetic and blurred effects of photography earlier in the century. The lack of a distinct human presence in the work invites the viewers to project themselves into the photograph’s empty spaces.
Sheeler conceived this work as part of a series of twelve prints that would allow the viewer to experience the interior spaces of the house in a myriad of ways. He saw the Doylestown works as closer to drawings than photographs, and they served as the basis for crayon drawings such as Interior with Stove and paintings such as The Upstairs. Art begat art as the interior of the Doylestown house was successively captured in photographs, drawings, and paintings.
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Moving from the rural to the urban, the exhibition will feature Manhatta (1920), a fascinating short film montage of New York City’s metropolitan landscape. A collaboration between Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand, this piece is regarded as a landmark in the history of American cinema. It depicts a day in the life of New York City, beginning with the Staten Island ferry commuters and ending with a sunset view from a downtown skyscraper. Sheeler and Strand sought to bring their photographic knowledge to film, paying homage to cityscape photography. Camera movement is kept to a minimum and incidental motion is isolated within compositions.
While filming a section of the city in lower Manhattan, Sheeler also made a series of still photographs, surveying the area in a way that mimicked the panning motion of his movie camera. New York, Park Row Building, one of the photographs from this series, served as the basis for the pencil drawing New York. This work is in turn closely related to the painting Skyscrapers, which is almost identical in size to the pencil drawing. The film also inspired works on places from around the city, including the dramatic painting Church Street El.
As a sequence of images over time, film provided Sheeler with a flexible framework that he extended to other media; what begins as a movie becomes a photograph and ends as a drawing or a painting. Sheeler often revisited favorite subjects, producing series that often span decades, with many years routinely separating works in one medium from those in another.
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In 1927, Sheeler was hired by a prominent Philadelphia advertising firm to photograph the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge auto plant outside of Detroit as part of a promotional campaign for the new Model A. The immense facility covered 1100 acres and was heralded as the largest industrial complex in the world. Sheeler produced a series of 32 prints. While these photographs were initially used to publicize the Ford Motor Company, they eventually served as the basis for an assortment of works in other media. Criss-Crossed Conveyors was the first image to be published from this series, featured in Vanity Fair with an article about the exploits of Henry Ford.
In addition to Ford using these photographs in promotional publications, Sheeler also sent them to European and American avant-garde photography exhibitions. These photographs functioned both as commercial images of the factory, portraying it as a smoothly operating machine, as well as works of art. Sheeler then used these photographs to inspire other works, such as the great painting American Landscape. In this and other paintings such as Classic Landscape, Sheeler pictured the factory devoid of the thousands of workers employed there. Described in general terms such as “American” or “classic” in their titles, the paintings are abstracted and distanced from the hard realities of the factory in order to highlight the subject’s aesthetic qualities.
In the early 1930s Sheeler also produced a series of drawings based on the Rouge photographs, including Ballet Mechanique. Sheeler spent almost as much time on these drawings as his paintings, keeping the point of the crayon razor sharp and moving methodically from top left to the bottom right of the paper. In the Rouge commission, Sheeler successfully navigated the boundaries between applied, commercial, and fine art. For the rest of his career he would continue to depict American industry with a crisp, geometric style dubbed “precisionism.” While other artists associated with precisionism, including Georgia O’Keefe and Charles Demuth, explored industrial subjects, few could match the variety of approaches and techniques Sheeler brought to the task.
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Sheeler’s affinity for mixing media is encapsulated in the Art Institute’s enigmatic masterpiece The Artist Looks at Nature. This work suggests his awareness of how his mastery of various techniques shaped his identity as an artist. The scene on the lower right is based on his 1932 photograph Self-Portrait at Easel, which depicts Sheeler in the process of making the large Conté crayon drawing Interior with Stove, which in turn was based on his 1917 photograph Doylestown HouseThe Stove. The Artist Looks at Nature combines overlapping fragments of Sheeler’s artistic past into a surreal landscape, which may incorporate views of his home in Connecticut and the monumental Boulder Dam (now known as the Hoover Dam). Such fanciful blending of disparate scenery would explain some of the painting’s visual puzzlesfor example, the discrepancies in scale between the figure of the artist, the red-roofed house in the upper left, and the moat framed by steep walls and stairs. The Artist Looks at Nature conflates painting, drawing, and photography; genres such as landscape, self-portraiture, and still life; and themes such as the artist in his studio and the artist in nature. The painting can be understood as autobiographical, recording how his explorations across media defined and complicated his artistic identity.
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During the 1940s, Sheeler began depicting abandoned 19th-century steel mills using photomontage. While Dada artists in the early 20th century developed photomontage as a variation of collage, pasting together actual photographs or photographic reproductions, Sheeler created his montages in the darkroom by sandwiching two or three negatives into his enlarger. He then exposed the composite image and printed the results, as seen in the photograph Millyard Passage. The painting Manchester also displays a complex layering of imagery in both the upper and lower register. Manchester transforms the ethereal, layered photomontage of Millyard Passage into an abstracted composition of solid shapes. The photograph’s distinct parts merge in the painting, obscuring their legibility.
By the 1940s photomontage was a fairly common technique in both commercial and fine-art photography. What distinguished Sheeler’s use of the medium was that he employed it not as an end in itself but as a basis for works in other media, including oil painting and crayon drawings and also works on glass and tempera studies.
The layering of various media that characterized Sheeler’s earlier efforts culminates in the montage found in his carefully orchestrated series on the theme of a New England mill. New England Irrelevancies features an overlay of scenes from two sites in Andover, Massachusetts and Manchester, New Hampshire, merging abstract form and realistic detail in new, complex ways. Carefully composed, abstract, layered designs of deserted spaces, the inactive, “irrelevant” New England mills invite the viewer to contemplate the elusive relationship between presence and absence, permanence and transience.
THE ARTIST IN THE MODERN WORLD
Throughout the course of his career, Sheeler addressed his own presence as an artist of the modern era. He sought to reconcile the mechanical and the artistic, exploring the implications that modern media such as film and montage had for traditional art forms. In search of formal beauty, he ultimately achieved a synthesis of machine and mind, of industry and aesthetics. It is the sense of a fleeting, yet meaningful, human presence in the midst of the forces of industry, technology, and art itself that haunts Sheeler’s works and makes them so poignant. As Sheeler’s friend, poet William Carlos Williams, wrote, “Charles Sheeler has lived in a mechanical age . . . [with] a realization on the part of the artist, of man’s pitiful weakness and at the same time his fate in the world. These themes are for the major artist. These are the themes which under the cover of his art Sheeler has celebrated.”
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