Charles Sheeler

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The son of a streamer-line executive in Philadelphia, Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) took his first art classes under William Merritt Chase at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1903, and in the "Now Familiar pattern of other American modernists-to-be he experienced his conversion to CÚzanne, Picasso, Braque, and Matisse during a trip to Paris in 1908" (Hughes 382).

Shortly after the Armory Show, Sheeler abandoned his fauvist manner in order to experiment with cubism.  "Since Sheeler's studies reveal the underlying structure of objects, they are related to analytic Cubism.  But to the degree that their source remains CÚzanne, they miss the complex spatial ambiguities of Braue and Picasso, and are not genuinely analytic Cubist works" (Rose 83).  Sheeler himself once said, "I sought to reduce natural forms to the borderline of abstraction retaining only those forms which I believe to be indispensable to the design of the picture" (qtd. in Rose 83).  Ultimately, he was to render his work in the Precisionist style.  Precisionist painting has the quality common to photographs, a frozen moment.  "Sheeler in fact based specific compositions on photographs he had taken" (Rose 85).

Architectural Cadences

 

Sheeler is considered the archetypal Precisionist.  He had an affinity for high-definition photography and at the same time avoided figures in favor of near abstract geometric subjects.  His concept hinged on his belief in the "unseen soul" of the inanimate object, whether old barn or new industrial plant.  Art critic Robert Hughes's insight into Charles Sheeler's work is as precise as the artist's work:

The ungainly name of "Precisionism" was coined by the painter-photographer Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), mainly to denote what he himself did.  It indicated both style and subject.  In fact, the subject .  In fact, the subject was the style; exact hard, flat , big, industrial, and full of exchanges with photography.  Photography fed into painting and vice versa.  No expressive strokes of paint.  Anything live or organic, like trees or people, was kept out.  There was no such thing as a Precisionist pussycat.  Sheeler's work records the displacement of the Natural Sublime by the Industrial Sublime, but  his real subject was the Managerial Sublime, a thoroughly American notion.  And though Precisionism broadened into an American movement in the late twenties and early thirties, Sheeler's work defined its essential scope and meaning (382).

Hughes's observation perhaps explains the uneasy transition of Sheeler's foray into decorative Cubism away from his earlier artistic endeavors in photography.  In fact, Sheeler's work possibly reflects the basic Puritanism of American sensibility.  While his early work adapts Cubism's transparent planes to the architecture of America and expresses a utilitarian sense of order and permanence, his painting Architectural Cadences (1954), pervades a poetic spirit of overlapped planes of tangible shapes and intangible shadows.  The combination of the open and obscure creates a complex and ambiguous creation.  Although Sheeler often translates the American industrial environment into simple, sharply defined compositions of a machine-like clarity and precision, his living room works depict flat color, and the selection of light and shadow transforms the images into abstract patterns.  Sheeler's domestic interiors project a mood of idealism by eliminating all evidence of time's passage while conveying a certain mystery by its magical clarity.  In such works as Classic Landscape, the American industrial landscape is aseptic, sterile, and functionally perfect.  Yet, images seem isolated and completely insulated from the effects of environmental corrosion.  In the way,, Sheeler incorporates the industrial sublime with puritanical utility.

Classic Landscape

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