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To Be Precise

Precisionism, a style of art that embraced the mechanical, flourished in 1920s and ’30s America.

Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931

Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 81.9 cm

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While technological progress has always aided art, it was really only in the 20th century that it became a subject for art. During the early years of the Industrial Revolution in England, artists for the most part spurned the “dark Satanic mills,” as William Blake put it, opting instead for a range of escapist strategies from neo-Romantic landscape to neo-medieval Pre-Raphaelitism. But as the Industrial Revolution gave way to a true Machine Age and technology pervaded the lives of most people, artists began to engage seriously with it. In the United States between the two World Wars, a modernist style developed that came to be called Precisionism, not only for its portrayal of precision machines but for the machine-like precision that many of its proponents adopted in their technique. Although there was never a formal group by that name, and although the artists varied in their attitudes toward technology—some celebrated it, while others approached it with ambivalence—there is enough in common between them and their works for the term to make art-historical sense.

Precisionism in all its forms is on display in a massive exhibition that opened at the end of last month at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art” (through August 12), the first large-scale show devoted to the movement in 20 years, gathers together over 100 paintings by artists including Charles Sheeler, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Demuth, alongside related photographs, prints, industrial-design objects, and ephemera. The aggregated effect of this material is to show Precisionism’s connections not only to the urban and rural American scene but also to the Art Deco style and the European avant-garde. As a tour of the exhibition makes clear, the umbrella term Precisionism—which was originally used by the critic Louis Kalonyme in a New York Times piece in 1927 but didn’t really take hold until the 1940s, after the style itself had lapsed—covers a very wide range of artistic, cultural, and emotional responses to technology.

Of all the artists in the show, Sheeler is the one most closely identified with the label “Precisionism.” Born in Philadelphia in 1883, he studied painting with William Merritt Chase at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and then, during a stay in Europe in 1909, absorbed both Cubism and the dry, precise style of the Early Italian Renaissance. Back in the States, he found it impossible to earn a living as a painter and therefore took up commercial photography. In the late 1920s Sheeler got a commission, through a Philadelphia advertising agency, from the Ford Motor Company to take pictures of its River Rouge factory near Dearborn, Mich. The 32 photos that Sheeler ended up submitting frankly glorified Henry Ford’s industrial ideas, finding an almost timeless beauty in the relentlessly time-efficient assembly lines churning out the affordable Model Ts that put the nation on wheels. To his friend and patron Walter Arensberg, Sheeler wrote, “What wouldn’t I give for the pleasure of showing you through this unbelievable establishment. It defies description and even having seen it one doesn’t believe it possible that one man could be capable of realizing such a conception…the subject matter is undeniably the most thrilling I have had to work with.”

Off the clock, Sheeler was inspired to paint the same scenes he photographed, turning the black and white into color. The resulting works epitomize the Precisionist style, with their clean, straight lines, idealized atmosphere, and absence of human figures. Classic Landscape (1931) somewhat simplifies the forms in the corresponding photograph, giving them an abstract quality. The railroad tracks define a vanishing point and give the composition depth, while the vertical orange silos provide a center. With its cool light emanating from outside the frame, the picture has an almost De Chiricoesque feel. Like the Italian metaphysical painter, Sheeler is aiming for a 20th-century version of Greco-Roman classicism. In this Classic Landscape, there is no visible landscape, and no people, either; just architecture and sky, and the vapor from the smokestack blends into the clouds above. Instead of the air of Dearborn, we could be breathing the unattainably pure air of an imaginary Athens.

Classic Landscape was purchased by none other than Henry Ford’s son Edsel, in 1932, which was a clear indication that Sheeler’s work was experienced by viewers as an unmitigated celebration of American industry and its practices. Other paintings by the artist, if somewhat less rhapsodic than the River Rouge series, still revel in the machined surfaces of their subjects; for example, Rolling Power (1939) is an quasi-photorealist treatment of the wheels and undercarriage of a railroad car. Nearly monochrome, in shades of brown, it could almost be a technical illustration, except for the little puff of steam that emanates from one of the valves, representing, perhaps, the “ghost in the machine.” Clearly, this is a loving portrayal of the product of man’s ingenuity.

While Sheeler has been accused of whitewashing or at least glossing over the sins of Ford and other industrialists, it was not only pro-capitalist artists who fell for the allure of the machine. The photographer Paul Strand, a lifelong radical leftist, used an Akeley motion-picture camera for his filmmaking work (including the path-breaking imagist documentary Manhatta, on which he collaborated with his close friend Sheeler) and was so enthralled by the beauty of the camera itself that he exhaustively photographed its various parts with a still camera. Ralph Steiner, a socialist activist and a member of the left-oriented Film and Photo League in New York, paid a similar homage to a bank of high-voltage power switches in a 1930 photograph, which is in the de Young exhibition.

In fact, enthusiasm for the machine was very much a part of anti-capitalist culture. In the Soviet Union, the Constructivists, such as El Lissitsky and Alexander Rodchenko, extolled technology as a means of bringing about better conditions for the proletariat, while happily incorporating mechanical imagery into their artworks. The “New Objectivity” (Neue Sachlichkeit) movement in Weimar Germany also adopted a somewhat machine-like approach, which embodies, if not a starry-eyed view of technology, then at least a desire for order and rationality after the chaos of World War I.

One of the most interesting things about this exhibition is the way it relates Precisionism to Dada—not a movement that one normally associates with American boosterism. In 1915, the Franco-Spanish artist Francis Picabia made a portrait of Alfred Stieglitz, titled Here, This Is Stieglitz Here, in which he depicted the perfectionistic photographer and art impresario as a bellows camera and tripod with the word “ideal” perched on top. While partaking of the typical waggish humor of the Dadaists, the portrait is also a meticulously, indeed precisely, rendered image of a piece of modern technology, and the idea of identifying a human being with a machine is very characteristic of a number of different strains of social thought at the time. For the Dadaists, the dehumanizing effect of machines on society was something to be viewed with the gimlet eye of satire, to be accepted with philosophical ambivalence rather than embraced.

Marcel Duchamp comes into the equation here; residing in the U.S. in 1917 and participating in the New York Dada group, he was part of the Arensberg circle and friendly with Sheeler. As early as 1911, he had adopted a “machine aesthetic” that is on full display in Nine Malic Moulds (1914–15), a replica of which is in the de Young show. This piece, a study for his magisterial The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–23), melds human and mechanical traits in its nine enigmatic figures. Duchamp’s readymades, most of which were originally industrial objects, also can be considered within the artistic climate which gave rise to Precisionism. With Duchamp, the emphasis is on irony and an almost fatalistic acceptance, amounting to embrace, of man being subsumed by the machines he has invented. Duchamp’s machine aesthetic involves a preference for cold, rational precision over emotive art and for what he called “an-art” (or non-art) over art.

Another important early Precisionist is Morton Livingston Schamberg, an under-recognized Philadelphia-based artist who produced some strikingly original work. He and Sheeler were best friends, and his premature death in the flu pandemic of 1918 was a terrible blow to Sheeler. Schamberg’s Painting (Formerly Machine) (1916) is a diagrammatic-looking cross-section of an imaginary machine, which the artist apparently found interesting more for graphic reasons than because of any real-world functionality. It could even be seen, like Picabia’s camera, as a portrait. Schamberg, who was also friends with Duchamp, participated in some Dada experiments, including photographing the readymade God (1917), a curved length of plumbing pipe, in collaboration with Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

There is plenty of wonderful work in this exhibition, much of which is more noteworthy for its sheer graphic power than for any sociopolitical subtext. Gerald Murphy, who after an intense and short-lived artistic career became the general manager of the Mark Cross luxury goods store, painted striking works that portray ordinary domestic mechanical objects. His Watch (1925) looks like an exploded view of a pocket watch, except that the works seem to overflow the bounds of the watch case to penetrate to the corners of the composition, and according to horological experts, the mainspring is depicted as broken. Elsie Driggs’ Queensboro Bridge (1927) is reminiscent of Futurist painting, using shafts of light to make the bridge look like it is in motion and vibrating with energy. Driggs, one of the few women Precisionists (O’Keeffe also experimented briefly with the style), apparently also shared the Futurists’ passion for aeronautics. Her 1928 Aeroplane is a portrayal of a Ford Tri-Motor, an all-metal plane that made Ford the biggest manufacturer of commercial aircraft in the world.

With one foot in the avant-garde world of Dada, Futurism, and Cubism, Precisionism had the other one firmly planted in the American Scene. The forward-looking attitude had a way of shading over into a more nostalgic point of view, as if the artists were tiring of the relentless pace of modernization. Or perhaps it was just that precision could be found in older things as well as newer ones. In Kitchen, Williamsburg (1937), Sheeler lavishes the same kind of attention on the pots and pans and furniture of a 19th-century rural interior that he gave to the industrial design products of his own time. George Ault started out working in a hard Precisionist mode; in 1937, fleeing personal demons, he left New York City and settled in Woodstock, N.Y., where he painted what he saw there in a style that is more classic American realist. In his January Full Moon (1941), there are elements of Precisionism that carry over into this timeless country scene. The barn, shown as a black silhouette, is reduced to the most basic modernist geometric shapes, its sharp edges bounded and defined by the snow and the electric-blue sky.

In its own time, Precisionism met with mixed reviews from art critics. Some praised it, either for its “technical refinement” or its “true, American, Puritan” qualities, while others called it “soul-less” and “afflicted with anemia.” Almost 80 years after the movement came to a close, we can appreciate Precisionism with fresh eyes, not least because we live in an era that is equally obsessed with new technology and its effects on society—albeit a kind of technology that is far harder to depict in oil on canvas.

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: March 2018

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