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Charles Sheeler

Industrial Series # 1, 1928
Lithograph

8 1/8 x 11 1/16 in.
Edition size circa 25
Signed, dated & titled in pencil  
Printed by George C. Miller

Museum purchase, 1977

 

 

“Every age manifests itself by some external evidence. In a period such as ours when only a comparatively few individuals seem to be given to religion, some form or other than the Gothic cathedral must be found. Industry concerns the greatest numbers—it may be true, as has been said, that our factories are our substitute for religious expression.”

~ Charles Sheeler in Constance Rourke’s Charles Sheeler, Artist in the American Tradition. New York, 1938.

 

[Transcript]

While it might not look like much, this small, unassuming lithograph played a key role in the development of its creator, Charles Sheeler (1883–1965), and thus with the larger thrust of American modernism. And while it might not possess the usual avant-garde traits of modernism as seen in several other contemporaneous works held in the WFMA’s permanent collection—the angular overlappings and flatness of Lyonel Feininger’s Street in Treptow (1931), say; the dynamism and immediacy of John Marin’s Downtown, The El (1921); or the utter uniqueness of Stuart Davis’s brand of American cubism in Figures and El (1932)—it does bring something new to the table: Precisionism.    

Sheeler’s Precisionist aesthetic embraced simplification and the elimination of the extraneous. Like much of modernism, including its various iterations in the visual arts, music, literature, and the then-burgeoning new media of film and photography (both of which Sheeler also as engaged with as an avant-garde artist), Precisionism was about breaking free from the superfluousness of the overwrought Victorian era. 

By way of comparison, a few words on poetry might help illuminate. Sheeler met American poet William Carlos Williams in 1923. That same year, Williams published a slim volume of prose and poetry titled Spring and All, which was a response to the previous year’s publication of T.S. Eliot’s somewhat constipated “The Wasteland,” which, according to Williams, set poetry back fifty years, while painting ran headlong into the future. Poetry should be about, as Williams says five lines into Spring and All, “immediate contact.” Later in the book we get Williams most famous poem—and the one which best encapsulates his stripped-down aesthetic of immediacy—“The Red Wheelbarrow.”

 

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

 

Much like Sheeler’s Precisionist aesthetic to come, Williams’s Imagism, which had its short-lived but hugely-influential heyday around 1912-1913, called for brief and incisive poems written in everyday American vernacular and speech rhythms about concrete objects rather than vague abstractions. As Williams saw it, the poem should engage in the “direct treatment of the thing.” Poems like “The Red Wheelbarrow” don’t hem-&-haw; they don’t build up deep images with impasto brush strokes; rather, they (as Gertrude Stein called for in her famous dictum “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”) strip away the patina of centuries of symbolic weight and engage directly with the object world. A rose is a rose, plain and simple. It’s not love. It’s not beauty. It’s a flower. You want a poem about America? Here’s a wheelbarrow and some chickens. Oh, and by the way, “I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox.”

Sheeler was already interested in removing the clutter before meeting Williams, as evidenced by the photographs he took of his home with its simple Shaker furniture and unadorned architecture. He was also interested in the play of light and shade and contrasts between white and black. His early photographs are an aesthetic exercise in the beauty of simplicity.

In 1927, Sheeler was commissioned by the Ford Motor Company to photograph its new River Rogue Plant outside of Detroit, Michigan. Sheeler spent six weeks on the project, not once having access to the actual assembly lines. His charge was not to take pictures of the cars and their production, but rather to encapsulate the awesomeness of the world’s largest production plant to help document the majesty of American industry, and, as a bonus, to help sell the new Model As which hit the streets in December of that year.

Sheeler produced thirty-two photographs, many of which were printed in popular magazines and were highlighted at the time on covers of the car company’s bimonthly publication, Ford News. For Sheeler, who had been earning a living recently as a commercial photographer, River Rogue was a life-changing opportunity. In a 1958 interview with Bartlett Cowdrey, Sheeler said, “‘I was there on a mission of photography. . . . And when I got there, I took a chance on opening the other eye and so then I thought maybe some pictures could be pulled out’” (qtd. in Brock 79).

Industrial Series # 1 (1928) should be considered not just in terms of the cross-fertilization of the poetic and visual arts, but also in conjunction with Sheeler’s own photography and painting. When discussing the lithograph, we must also consider the 1927 photograph which inspired it (Ford Plant, River Rouge, Canal with Salvage Ship), the two watercolor studies which preceded it, and the two oil paintings which were the culmination of the Sheeler’s “opening the other eye” of the imagination, American Landscape (1930, left) and Classic Landscape (1931, right).

 

Sheeler produced only six prints during his rich and varied career—five lithographs (1918-1928) and one screenprint (1954). All but one of these was printed at George C. Miller’s studio in New York between 1924 and 1928. Mabel Dwight, George Bellows, Stuart Davis are some of the other artists represented in the WFMA’s collection who also worked with Miller. Industrial Series # 1 was first exhibited in Whitney’s “First Annual Black and White Exhibition” in 1928. Sheeler sold the prints for around $20 (as well as gave several away to friends). Considering it is estimated that he only printed twenty-five of them, not to mention the scant number of lithographs he produced overall, Industrial Series # 1 is certainly one of the gems in the WFMA’s collection.

 


Works Consulted

Adams, Clinton. American Lithographers, 1920s-1960s: The Artists and their Printers. U of New Mexico P, 1983.

Brock, Charles. Charles Sheeler across Media. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2006.

Brown, Milton W. American Painting: From the Armory Shot to the Depression.     Princeton UP, 1970.

Bryce, Kristy. Charles Sheeler Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné. Craig F. Starr Gallery, 2008.

Fern, Alan and Ellen S. Jacobowitz, et al. American Graphics: Selected from the Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1982.

Koenhauser, Elizabeth Mankin. American Moderns on Paper: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art. Yale UP, 2010.

Troyen, Carol and Erica E. Hirsher. Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings. Little Brown and Co., 1987.

Venn, Beth and Adam D. Weinberg. Frames of Reference: Looking at American Art, 1900-1950. Whitney Museum of Art, 1990.


Industrial Series # 1 from the Permanent Collection of the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas

 
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