The Strange Case of Charles Sheeler

Was photographer and painter Charles Sheeler a fan of the machine age, or did he hate it?

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GOLDEN GATE Charles Sheeler  1955, Metropolitan Museum of Art

At first glance, Sheeler’s work looks like a celebration of all things modern and shiny.  How can that not be the case when you look at something like STEEL CROTON from 1953:

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STEEL CROTON Charles Sheeler 1953, source unknown

Which, btw, was probably a distant influence on my own even more abstract work, STRUCTURE from 2013:

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STRUCTURE Gregory Fedchak 2013  http://www.greggfedchak.com

Wanda Corn pretty much makes the case for the straightforwardness of Sheeler’s art in her book THE GREAT AMERICAN THING:  Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935.  To be honest, I think Corn is correct.  On a gut level, I think Sheeler is in love with all things modern and mechanical.

But . . . then things get darker.  In his VIEW OF NEW YORK from 1931, we are looking out from a very mechanical place, a typesetting shop, and through an open window seeing clouds, clouds of freedom from . . . the mechanical, the technological, the 9 to 5.

1931 Charles Sheeler (American artist, 1883-1965) View of New York, 1931

Karen Lucic talks about Sheeler’s ambiguous feelings about modernity and the changing scene of early and mid-20th century America in her book CHARLES SHEELER AND THE CULT OF THE MACHINE.  Like most people, he felt a tug toward the traditional, and often painted or photographed early American objects and architecture.  Also like most people, he was comfortable with his powerful new cars and the financial rewards of 20th century life.  He could go either way.

Mark Rawlinson, in his CHARLES SHEELER:  Modernism, Precisionism and the Borders of Abstraction, goes all the way to the extreme and makes the argument that Sheeler may  have been a covert critic of the machine age that he lived in.

Little things in his work are “wrong” in that objects/subjects are inaccurately portrayed in terms of lines, shadows, and perspective.  Everything is odd or edgy, “not right” as in a “Twilight Zone” episode.  But it’s subtle.

Look at STEEL CROTON and GOLDEN GATE.  wtf?  It’s so precise, so realistic, and yet . . . so wrong.  Which is, of course, why Rawlinson titles his book ” . . . and the Borders of Abstraction”.

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I know how I feel about technology in my painting, STRUCTURE.  Tech is broken, shadowy, incomplete, weak, sketchy, dangerous, hidden, evil, ironic.

As I write this, my wi-fi has gone out several times, thwarting the saving of my work.  I don’t know why.  Neither does AT&T or Apple.  I live with it.  My work could die at any moment, for no good reason except that I am working with high tech.

I no longer feel wonder toward tech.  I feel a deep sense of alienation.

We aren’t sure exactly how Sheeler felt.  I’m sure he felt good/bad/ambiguous, but, back in that more optimistic time of the 1939 World’s Fair, it’s the good that (mostly) shines through.

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A Burned-Out Society

Want to read some modern philosophy?  Of course you don’t.

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But if you feel compelled to, try some Byung-Chul Han.  If you want to read someone who is arguably the “hottest” thing in philosophy today AND writes simply (for a philosopher) AND writes really, really short bite-sized books, he’s the only game in town.

The downside is that Byung-Chul Han is a Korean-born philosopher who writes philosophy in his second language, German, which is then translated into English.  To me, this makes his pithy style rather robotic, disembodied and humorless.  Trust me, this is a good thing; it makes him far more readable than philosophers who are pressing to impress.

To do the impossible, I’m going to try to summarize his books in the most concise possible way.  This does not do them justice.  But it sure makes my life – and yours – easier.

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THE BURNOUT SOCIETY is about how “achievement society creates depressives and losers”.  “In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside”.  Contemplation fades; multitasking is the norm.  We are reduced to bare survival amidst riches too vast to chose among.

THE TRANSPARENT SOCIETY says that in our voluntary vomiting-forth of private data, information, and photos on social media we have lost all hope of finding the trail through the useless muck.  We leave our personal breadcrumbs scattered behind us, but they have gotten intermingled with the crumbs of other digital wanderers.  What is important?  What is the point?  The forest has been trampled beyond recognition.

THE AGONY OF EROS is Byung-Chul Han’s call to arms against the impersonal forces of what he calls “pornography” – far more than what we usually think the word means – and how “higher expectations . . . are responsible for the mounting disappointment experienced in contemporary society”.

We expect our lovers to be brain-dead perform-all-night porn stars at the same time we expect them to be world-class fantasists capable of touching our deepest nerves.  Can’t be done.  Can’t have both.  But porn isn’t just sex.

Porn is sport utility vehicles, information, strip highways, the internet, fast food, and if our burger is too dry, we are . . . depressed.  The objects and experiences are sold as erotic, sensual goods.  We soon discover that they are cold, dead steel, meat, and data.  And we have forgotten how to inject our love into them to make them come back to the life they had when we were younger.

Byung-Chul Han’s PSYCHO-POLITICS:  Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power

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attempts to convince us that we are self-Panopticons, achievement machines that patrol ourselves looking for any misdeeds – eating or drinking too much, failing to run five miles a day, not reading enough, not progressing in a career.  Henry Fords used to stand over us, as Foucault pointed out.  Ford’s thugs physically beat us if we showed up to work late.  Now we beat ourselves up if we don’t meet our personal goals or if we don’t achieve.  And not just in work, but in love and leisure.  Leisure and love ARE work now.

This is the Protestant work ethic on steroids.

We can’t just open one restaurant, we have to open a second, then a third, and so on.  We can’t just get a high school degree and flip burgers, we have to get a college degree and flip burgers, or a doctorate and tell people how to flip burgers.  If we get up at 5 am to meditate, we have to move on to the greater achievement of getting up at 4 am and running before we meditate.

And if we fail at constant acceleration, at constant achievement of new goals, we get anxious and depressed.

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Philosophers are never good at giving helpful hints.  None of Byung-Chul Han’s books end with a list of Top Ten Things To Do To Be Happy.

But his books are bestsellers – honest to God – in Germany, and are being internationally translated, because he helps us to see that it is not us.

It is not our fault.  It is society’s fault.

And the old truism that “we help to create the society that we live in” is no longer true.  Technology has gotten away from us.

According to Byung-Chul Han, being an “idiot” is the best we can do, and the most powerful we can be.  Idiots are outsiders, the politically unallied, the heretical, figures who resist by virtue of being surprisingly uninformed news-bite-wise, and mostly silent.

The idiot is like J. D. Salinger in his last decades:  silent and brimming with life, despite the death camps he witnessed.  An antenna beyond trifling Big Data.

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I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For . . .

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THE SCREAM, Edvard Munch 1892, via Popular Science

. . . THE SCREAM!

This painting was revolutionary.  Munch, a Norwegian, went to Paris and got the spirit of a nascent modernism.  He became the father of Expressionism.

Influenced by Nietzsche, early Freud, and a society sopping wet with the thought of Darwin, THE SCREAM was the result:  the first major artistic expression of the sheer terror we all experience every morning when we wake up.

Why terror?  Why Valium and Xanax and Prozac and wine?

Freud took away certainty of mind and made our live-in devil, the unconscious, our master.  Darwin proved that we are elevated and self-important toads and monkeys, thereby killing God.  Nietzsche did the burial by telling us, the toads, that we were each gods, even though we did not know our own minds.

It didn’t help that Munch’s sister and mother died before his very eyes when he was a young child.  It didn’t help that his father was a religious zealot.  It didn’t help that Munch himself was very often seriously ill both mentally and physically.

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AT THE DEATHBED, Edvard Munch 1895, via San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

It is unfortunate that someone obsessed with anxiety and death lived to a ripe old 80.  He died in 1944.

A similar artist, the Belgian James Ensor, made it to over 90 years of age, and he lived when Munch did.  Ensor was just as obsessed with death as Munch, but there is a sense in his work that he enjoyed the subject rather than dreaded it.  Witness:

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SKELETONS FIGHTING OVER A PICKLED HERRING, James Ensor 1891, via The Royal Academy of Arts

Skeletons, masks, emaciated and diseased figures, pockmarked faces, distorted features – Ensor painted a carnival of the grotesque.  Like “Twin Peaks”, he believed that evil is fully embedded in this life.  The grotesque faces us every day.  Sometimes that can be humorous.

You have to realize how progressive and out-of-place these paintings by Ensor and Munch were.  Not just when they were completed (and I mean completed for the first time, because both Ensor and Munch fiddled with completed works and made many versions of many works), but until well after the men passed into what most intrigued and horrified them.

ROBERT MOTHERWELL In The Studio

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This brief memoir of the equally brief time that author/artist/designer/builder John Scofield spent with abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell as his studio assistant in Connecticut is similar to the Salinger books that I looked at previously.  It comes at its subject indirectly, mildly, sideways, and is as much about the author as it is about the author’s subject.

Scofield is maddeningly “protestant” is how he only hints at potentially hot subjects.  Was Motherwell an alcoholic?  Did he partake of the marijuana that his friend, sculptor David Smith, apparently favored as an aid in getting through the long Adirondack winters?

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THE HOMELY PROTESTANT, Robert Motherwell 1948 via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

We get the idea that Motherwell was worse for wear in the years 1975 – 1978, when Scofield was one of his studio assistants.  About 60, just out of heart surgery, he needed Scofield, and we see a little bit here, a little bit there of Motherwell that we hadn’t seen before.

Like the Salinger books, this is for real Motherwell fans.  I’m one of them.  The most intellectual of the abstract expressionists – Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, and so on – his work is cooler than that of many other painters of his generation.  His images are the most abstract of all, and while you can easily read the lyricism of a Pollock drip painting or the manic writing/rewriting of a de Kooning, a Motherwell takes more imagination.

When you see a Pollock, you can feel how “in the groove” he was.  When you see one of de Kooning’s classic women, on “bicycles” or otherwise, you can feel how ambivalent he was about women.

But what of Motherwell’s THE HOMELY PROTESTANT above?  That’s tough to crack.

His colleagues and rivals not-so-secretly thought that he was a lightweight, not very talented, and shielded by trust funds.  History says otherwise.

But then you see:

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in beige with charcoal, Robert Motherwell 1973, via Minimal Exposition

We are left with many, many questions.  Even more, I think, than with my own sort-of-similar painting below, PISTON:

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PISTON is an abstract notion of an engine piston.  But what is an “in beige with charcoal”?

Motherwell insisted that his art always had a subject.  I think there’s one there, and I think that Motherwell – and Scofield – respect that viewers can dig out meaning, even if the meaning varies from viewer to viewer and from time to time.

Two on Salinger

current reading –

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J. D. SALINGER:  The Last Interview and Other Conversations

The book that Streitfeld has edited isn’t really full of interviews of J. D. Salinger, because Salinger never willingly gave interviews.

Some of these pieces are encounters milked out of him when he felt wronged and wanted to set the record straight.  Some touch on legal matters, as in his deposition when he was suing to have a biography aborted.  Some came from reporters both savvy and sane, and some from reporters and writers who were having . . . issues.  Issues that came from being obsessed with Salinger and his remarkable works.

The book is interesting if you, too, are obsessed with J. D. Salinger and his writing and life.

You have to be even more obsessed with Salinger to read

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J. D. SALINGER:  The Escape Artist

Beller has written an odd one.  And a self-indulgent one.  It’s not a biography, but a random walk through Salinger’s life.  That could be interesting, if only the reader was Thomas Beller and not me or you.

The problem is that J. D. Salinger’s work feels like it’s uniquely yours.  It belongs to you, the reader.  Your relationship to Holden or Franny is special.  Beller can’t speak for you.  No one can.  Not even Salinger would.

So the book is kind of voyeuristic.  Beller is a fine writer – he is a Tulane professor and has worked at Salinger’s old haunt, The New Yorker.  It’s not an essential read.

Unless you’re a Salinger obsessive.  You know who you are.