We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

“Charles Sheeler: Across Media”

Charles Sheeler’s stuff can seem awfully quaint these days. It’s almost hard to believe that the Philadelphia-born painter/photographer and Marcel Duchamp could’ve ever been linked in the public’s mind—and that they were mutual admirers to boot. Sheeler, after all, was one of the founding fathers of precisionism, a sort of cubism lite that took root in the United States in the ’20s and ’30s and appears, for him, to have been predicated mainly on making tidy little paintings of his own photos of the industrial landscape. Duchamp, as we all know, put aside the brush, invented the readymade, and ended art as we knew it. Surely these two couldn’t have been on the same team.

And yet here it is: The National Gallery of Art’s current “Charles Sheeler: Across Media” suggests not that Duchamp was less pre-postmodern than we thought but that Sheeler was more. It was Sheeler who not only saw photography as more or less interchangeable with drawing, painting, and film—even if his gallerist, Edith Halpert, didn’t—but who also happily shuttled back and forth between the worlds of commercial and fine art. Sheeler could turn such lowly assignments as documenting the Dearborn, Mich., factory where new Model As were turned out into the basis for some of his best artworks. The same set of images found its way into company newsletters, murals, and easel paintings.

This is part of what helped get Sheeler tagged as “the Raphael of the Fords”: He turned the dramatic changes industrialists had wrought on the American landscape into a rarefied aesthetic, one that had a special fondness for objects familiar to most of the non-museumgoing public. This might not sound all that different from what pop art did a few decades later, and some of Sheeler’s paintings and drawings do indeed look like smaller, older versions of Ed Ruscha’s early visions of cool L.A. But there’s something almost unrecoverable about a Sheeler painting. More so than the products of Duchamp’s dadaist contemporaries, who were preoccupied with speaking against the institutions of their particular moment, his work seems fundamentally attached to its time. It venerates machines and progress and, most important, some very unpostmodern ideas of artistic purity that tend to undercut all of Sheeler’s multimedia dabbling.

In the 50 works currently at the NGA—drawings, paintings, photographs, and one film, Manhatta (1920), made with photographer Paul Strand—Sheeler emerges as a man who tried to exist outside of human history, to remove art from life and life from art. His work typically offers views of empty factories, looming skyscrapers, and spare interiors. As far as what people might or might not do in those spaces—and how the viewer ought to feel about it—he was wholly unconcerned. As Sheeler put it, “sociology or propaganda of any sort are adulterants of the aesthetic content of a picture.”

This isn’t to say that Sheeler’s works are altogether devoid of human interest. The roughly 48-inch-by-36-inch painting that opens the exhibition, View of New York (1931) is often read as autobiographical. In it, a window opens onto a sky modeled in gray-violets and cool blues. The interior space is all rendered in warm grays, dull creams, and rich browns and blacks. In the lower left and upper right, we see, respectively, an empty chair and a lamp that’s been turned off; balancing these in the right-hand half of the picture is a large camera—the one Sheeler used in his 20 years of commercial practice—now covered and presumably neglected.

One does see in this image superficial correspondences with Duchamp. Sheeler’s use of muted local color is in keeping with Duchamp’s painting. The levers and handles in this picture look as if they could’ve wandered in from one of the European artist’s iconic chocolate grinders—Sheeler’s line, like Duchamp’s, is that of the mechanical draftsman, ruled and uninflected. But rather than presenting the disinterested contemplation of an object glimpsed through a shop window, this image offers itself as a sort of allegorical lament, marking Sheeler’s break from commercial photography as he embarked on a mission to remake himself mainly as a painter and draftsman for Halpert’s Greenwich Village gallery.

To be fair, aside from this implied narrative, Sheeler didn’t tend to attach too much sentiment to particular places. Take, for example, his 1917 photographs of the stone house in Doylestown, Pa., that he and artist Morton Schamberg rented together. In Doylestown House—The Stove (1917), the room has been emptied of furniture—of everything, in fact, save an incongruous paper circle tacked up on the far wall. The photo was taken at night, thereby allowing Sheeler complete control of light and shadow. He placed his light source directly behind the stove that sits squarely in the center of the picture’s lower half, reducing the appliance to a sharp, flattened silhouette and turning the rest of the room into a study in sympathetic angles and contrasting textures. As for the actual history of the house, Sheeler wasn’t interested. This was a man who collected Shaker furniture and American folk art not because of when and where they were made but because of the aesthetic experiences they offered. “I don’t like these things because they are old but in spite of it,” he said. “I’d like them still better if they were made yesterday.”

Such a view was hardly out of step with the formalist ideas of Sheeler’s time. Like the collector Alfred Barnes, who hung his impressionist paintings and craft objects floor to ceiling without regard for chronology or content, Sheeler saw the world as a sort of playground of aesthetic pleasures. Context didn’t matter; appearances and arrangements did. This sort of mindset allowed Picasso to view African art not as the expression of a culture but as a storehouse of visual ideas to be plundered for whatever ends suited him. Similarly, it allowed Sheeler not to make any moral judgements about the rapid mechanization of human life that he so often took as his subject. Instead, he could just let himself be swept up in that tide, making a supposedly positivist art about the victory of universal culture and technology.

That subject is wonderfully expressed in Manhatta, considered by some to be the first American experimental film. The piece is a series of 65 shots of New York, taking the viewer through the arc of a typical day. Huge numbers of people disembark from ferries; streetcars pass through waves of human traffic; steel beams are raised; skyscrapers loom. The camera remains essentially static, making these scenes feel more like still photographs with motion added. There are references to shots of New York by Stieglitz and Strand, whose famous Wall Street (1915), depicting tiny figures moving along beneath an ominous row of giant black rectangular windows, was re-created here.

The film was championed by—you guessed it—Duchamp and shown in Paris as part of a dada program. But that movement’s disorienting experiments in cinema looked nothing like Manhatta, which, with its slow, stately procession of set pieces, can begin to seem a bit like an educational film—albeit an exquisitely framed one. Adding to this effect are titles offering the sometimes flowery lines of a Whitman poem: “Gorgeous clouds of sunset! Drench with your splendor me or the men and women generations after me.” Sheeler apparently didn’t want them but tolerated them anyway, after the distributor decided that the film required some kind of explanatory text.

If the film seems to strive for stillness, Sheeler eventually found a way to impose it: He took several single frames from Manhatta and turned them into hard-edged paintings and drawings. Church Street El (1920) removes people, windows, and other details from a shot of a distant train passing into the shadows of tall buildings. The painting is all planes, muted colors, and pencil lines, and it has an unnerving, dreamlike quality in its dramatic angles and seemingly distorted scale. In the catalog, curator Charles Brock writes that “the empty spaces and the historical void that characterize [Sheeler’s] art also reflect the dislocations and alienation of modern life. By reiterating American places and objects successively in photographs, drawings, and paintings, Sheeler attenuated the connections of his work with actual locales and objects.” In other words: Church Street El is a fine title, but that’s all it is.

Though the most memorable images here are probably in Sheeler’s photographs, the last room of the exhibition, filled with a late series of paintings based on photomontages, is arguably the most apt expression of this idea. Sheeler had taken numerous photos of shuttered New England textile mills while doing residencies in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in the late ’40s. In subsequent years, he printed layered, superimposed combinations of the negatives that result in strange collisions of shadows, shapes, and architectural fragments. In New England Irrelevancies (1953), the result is a composition of vertical stripes in shades of violet, blue, and an array of warm neutrals that here and there meets passages of brickwork. Sheeler clearly worked at this piece with the patience of a graphic designer—despite the cityscape at its heart, it’s really just a problem of composition, of balancing shapes and tones and filling space. This is what Sheeler was after all along: art about nothing other than itself.

The dadaists saw a civilization convulsing from the aftereffects of mass production and modern warfare. Their art exploited the possibilities of new media such as collage and film, but theirs was in many ways an act of refusal. They parodied the uses to which words and images were being put in their time, and in Duchamp’s case, explored the limits of what precisely art could or couldn’t be. Not so for Sheeler.

He saw the dislocation modernity provided as an opportunity simply to point his art toward other art, to treat everything in the world by the same equalizing aesthetic. These were two different poles of the modern presented in the same formal trappings: art that engaged and art that withdrew into its own self-contained sphere. If the dadaists were horrified by what the world was doing to the folks who lived in it, Sheeler didn’t mind. He could do without them. As he had put it when describing his Ford factory images: “[I]t’s my illustration of what a beautiful world it would be if there were no people in it.”CP