I find it hard to believe that I haven’t mentioned the work of Charles Sheeler here, outside of a mention of his collaboration with Paul Strand on the film Manhatta, a landmark American art film from 1921. Sheeler (1883-1965) is one of my favorite artists who as a pioneer in photography and painting in the early decades of the 20th century is often called the father of Modernism. Oddly enough, I am particularly drawn to his industrial imagery which replaces almost all evidence of things natural in completely man-made factoryscapes. This might seem to be the antithesis of my own work, which often omits all evidence of human intervention in my landscapes.
Some of his most potent work came from an assignment where Henry Ford hired Sheeler to photograph his factories, wanting him to glorify them in an almost religious manner, as though they were cathedrals for the new age. As Ford had said at the time, “The man who builds a factory builds a temple. The man who works there, worships there.” Sheeler was impressed with the factory complexes and felt that, indeed, they represented a modern form of religious expression. His painted work from this time glorified the machine of industry in glowing forms and color.
He saw the factory as a continuation of the American idea of work as religion, one that was rooted in the sense of reverence and importance of the barns and structures of the farms of the earlier pre-industrial age. He painted many scenes of farms and barns, abstracting the forms as he had with the factory scenes.
I don’t know that I completely agree with Sheeler on his idea of the factory as cathedral but I do have to admit to being awestruck in the presence of large factory structures. I remember working in the old A&P factory, a huge building that was said to have the capability to produce enough product each day to feed everyone east of the Mississippi. It no longer exists. Some of the huge rooms in the building were amazing to stand in, as the machines hummed and throbbed while workers hustled about servicing their needs. I particularly remember the tea room which was a huge ca cavernous space with row after row of steampunk looking machines that bagged the tea then sewed it shut. I cleaned these machines for several weeks and, standing in the grand space in silence after most of the workers had gone and the machines turned off, felt that feeling of awe. I would sometime walk around from area to area, just taking it in. I didn’t necessarily adore it in the manner of a religious zealot but there was no denying the power in its magnitude and the power of the machine.
Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to Sheeler. Maybe its his use of form and color. I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t really matter. I just like his work. Period.
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I thought I had mentioned the work of photographer Paul Strand here before but can’t seem to locate it. Strand lived from 1890 until 1976 and was part of the Modernist era of the early 2oth century, using his camera to capture the urban landscape’s abstracted forms in a way that no photographer had to that time. The image shown here, Wall Street, is perhaps one of his most famous.
His portraiture is also quite striking. Doing a Google image search, the page is immediately filled with multiple fairly closely cropped images of faces in black and white. They’re shot in a way that might make you think it would be difficult to discern any particular photographer’s eye but seeing them altogether shows clearly how he saw his subjects and show the continuity in his work. Strand was a student of the great Lewis Hine and carried on Hine’s use of the camera as a tool for social reform. His photos of the inhabitants of the city streets are powerful and gritty.
One of his projects was a film, Manhatta, with the great Modernist painter/photographer Charles Sheeler, another of my favorites. It is a really interesting view of the bustling, swelling city from 1921 taken from Strand’s and Sheeler’s unique perspectives. Just great imagery.
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I’ve been a fan of Charles Demuth since the first time I saw his work. He was considered a part of the Precisionist movement of the 20′s, along with painters such as Charles Sheeler and Joseph Stella among many others, with his paintings of buildings and poster-like graphics such as this painting, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold. He was also one of the prominent watercolorists of his time and while they are beautiful and deserve praise in their own right, it’s his buildings that draw me in.
Demuth’s work has a tight graphic quality but still feels painterly to me. There’s still the feel of the artist’s hand in his work which to me is a great quality. There are photorealist painters out there whose craftsmanship I can really admire but who are so precise that they lose that feel of having the artist’s hand in the work. I like seeing the imperfection of the artist. The first time I saw one of the Ocean Park paintings from artist Richard Diebenkorn, it wasn’t the composition or color that excited me. It was the sight of several bristles from his brush embedded in the surface. To me, that was a thrill, seeing a part of the process. The imperfect hand of the artist. I get that feeling from Demuth.
He also had a great sense of color and the harmony and interplay of colors. His colors are often soft yet strong, a result of his work with watercolors. His whites are never fully white and there are subtle shades everywhere, all contributing to the overall feel of the piece. His work always seems to achieve that sense of rightness I often mention.
His works, especially his paintings of buildings, have a very signature look, marked by a repeated viewpoint where he views the buildings above him. His paintings are usually fragments of the building’s upper reaches. There’s a sense of formality in this view, almost reverence. I don’t really know if he was merely entranced by the forms of industrial buildings or if he was making social commentary.
Whatever the case, do yourself a favor and take a look at the work of Charles Demuth. It’s plain and simple good stuff…
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