Was photographer and painter Charles Sheeler a fan of the machine age, or did he hate it?
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:
Which, btw, was probably a distant influence on my own even more abstract work, STRUCTURE from 2013:
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.
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”.
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.