Charles Sheeler: Across Media

When Through 1/7

Where Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan and Adams

Info 312-443-3600

The Art Institute’s superb exhibit of works by Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) reveals that he was a far more expressive artist than most have thought. This painter, photographer, filmmaker, and textile designer is best known for precisionist paintings of American industrial landscapes, which some critics of his time dismissed as “tinted photographs”; one writer called them “septic” and “bloodless.” This show originated at the National Gallery in Washington, where it was curated by Charles Brock, but Sarah E. Kelly’s installation for the Art Institute, divided into six focused sections, is organized more thematically and better illuminates the surprising emotion of Sheeler’s work.

Trained first in industrial drawing and other applied arts, then at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Sheeler began as a painter but in about 1910 started doing commercial photography too, such as commissioned shots of buildings and artwork. The exhibit’s first room includes three 1917 photographs of his rural Pennsylvania home, built in 1768, plus a drawing and a painting he made from two of them later. As Brock points out in the excellent catalog, Doylestown House–The Stove doesn’t document an ordinary domestic interior: Brock calls the meticulously arranged scene a “self-conscious exercise in cubist collage,” with such objects as a paper disk on the wall seemingly placed with great care. Taken at night, the photo is backlit and centered on the stove. But the image also registers as more than a formal study. The warmly lit wall behind the stove and the essentially symmetrical composition suggest the home is a place of refuge. Doylestown House–Stairway With Chair is even more evocative, though the house is pictured in a less benign way: a stairway behind a door twists up to darkness. Sheeler’s painting from this photo, The Upstairs (1938), adds blue to the door’s shadow, which contrasts sharply with the glowing tan of the stairwell wall.

In 1927 Ford Motor Company commissioned Sheeler to photograph its new River Rouge complex. The resulting images, with their almost sculptural treatment of industrial forms and smoke, also served as the bases for later paintings, such as American Landscape (1930). Though its buildings look clean and white and their gigantic scale is indicated by a tiny human figure, the image is hardly cold. Scholar Leo Marx wrote that there’s a “strangely soft, tender” feeling to this work, which he called “the industrial landscape pastoralized.” Indeed the figure dwarfed by his surroundings recalls the 19th-century Hudson River school painters, while the gently, almost sensually painted surfaces suggest skin despite the buildings’ monumentality and distance from the viewer.

Sheeler seemed to want to transcend the viewpoint of any one individual; he once said that the world would be beautiful if “there were no people in it.” He also appears to have had a sense of humor about the limits of his own point of view. In a 1943 painting, The Artist Looks at Nature, he shows himself drawing while seated on the high point of a strange landscape that includes stairways and walls. But he’s not depicting the land–he’s re-creating an earlier drawing of his based in turn on the photograph of the stove in his Doylestown house. Confronted with the outdoors, he retreats into memories of his earlier home and earlier art, in a self-directed joke revealing how difficult it is to get outside yourself.

Some of Sheeler’s later works, dating from around 1948 and after, are painted or drawn from photographic multiple exposures, created by placing two or more negatives together in an enlarger. These paintings and drawings aren’t as highly regarded as Sheeler’s earlier projects, Kelly says, but for me they’re his finest, most distinctive works. Sheeler said that he regarded them as “combining the memory and the present”; they can also be interpreted as suggesting that no single image of a scene is sufficient since the viewer’s constantly moving eyes provide shifting perspectives. A jumble of windows and more abstract planes and lines in Ballardvale Revisited (1949), depicting an abandoned 19th-century textile mill, suggests but is far less unified than the classic cubist paintings that influenced Sheeler in his youth. The viewer is divided against himself, never coming to rest, the image never resolving.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): American Landscape/Museum of Modern Art, New York, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.