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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Charles Sheeler

One of the surprise results of World War I was the fact that American Artists, exposed to the art influences of Europe and especially France, rather than embracing them, firmly rejected them instead.  From 1920 until Pearl Harbor in 1941, America fell into a period of isolationism politically from the rest of the world, and in the process, took with her the foreign interests and influences with regards to art as well.  Dada never made much of an impression in this country, neither did surrealism nor expressionism during this period.  Abstraction had to wait until after the next war to make a hit in this country, and even a force as volcanic as Picasso made only minor siesmic shocks outside the influence of Stieglitz and company.        
Typical of the artists of this era was Pennsylvania artist, Charles Sheeler.  Born in 1883, he attended the Pennsylvaian Academy after having studied for two years at the School of Industrial Art, in Philadephia.  Although partial to the cold precision of industrial design, Sheeler experiment with Fauvist color in some early still-lifes, landscapes inspired by Cezanne, and even played for a while with Analytical Cubism.  But by the 1920's, Sheeler found himself drawn back to the reality of his earlier art instruction and especially photographic influences.  Having supported himself as a photographer since 1912, it was only natural that he found in his own work, not in that of artists thousands of miles across the sea, the inspiration that was to guide him in his painting for the rest of his life.       
Criss-crossed Conveyers, 1927,
Photo by Charles Sheeler

In 1927, Sheeler was hired by the Ford Motor Company to photograph their new industrial complex, the River Rouge Plant, where Henry Ford had created what was virtually a car-making machine, capable of receiving raw iron ore at one end and wheeling out Model "A" Fords at the other.  It was a vision of America in the future and it captured Sheeler's imagination.  His 1930 American Landscape glorifies the pragmatic simplicity of American industrial might like no painter ever had before. All the horrors of the Industrial Revolution are there, cold steel, pollution, a dull gray, undoubtedly toxic river, a landscape devoid of human habitation or even human presence, but yet, the effect is one of optimism in the face of Great Depression reality, clean, no-nonsense lines triumphant over European artistic neurosis, and power over poverty.  Charles Sheeler was to Detroit what Grant Wood was to Iowa.     

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