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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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.