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Charles Sheeler from Doylestown to Detroit features thirty-eight outstanding gelatin silver photographs and “Manhatta”, the groundbreaking 10-minute silent film Sheeler made with Paul Strand in 1920. A companion exhibit to the MFA, Boston’s Alfred Stieglitz show, together they commemorate the establishment of the museum’s newly independent Department of Photography. Whereas the 1924 donation of Stieglitz prints made the MFA one of the first museums in the US to collect photography as fine art, the Sheeler exhibit celebrates its 2012 acquisition of the Lane Collection, an unparalleled representation of 20th century American art that includes Sheeler’s entire photographic estate of over 2,500 works. Karen Haas, Lane Collection Curator of Photographs, highlights three significant series from Sheeler’s photographic career that established him as a key figure in American Modernism, on view until November 5th, 2017.
Charles Sheeler (1883 – 1965) started his professional career as a painter, studying under renowned American Impressionist William Merritt Chase in Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century. Like Stieglitz, a visit to Europe early in his career introduced Sheeler to the avant-garde works of Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Braque. Unfortunately, their influence on his painting style didn’t translate into stateside success for Sheeler and he pursued commercial photography as “nice, clean work” that would help him earn a living.
In a surprise twist, Sheeler’s experiments with the camera began to define his entire artistic practice. Three of Sheeler’s career-defining photographic series are on view: Doylestown, Pennsylvania (1915 – 1917), New York City (1920) and the Ford Motor Company plant near Detroit (1927). In capturing the modern geometry of typical American architectural forms – the barn, the factory, the skyscraper – Sheeler asserted that “Cubism exists in nature and photography can prove it.” To Sheeler, photography became such a precise and pleasing artistic expression that eventually nearly all of his paintings and drawings could trace their source to one of his photographs.
Sheeler’s embrace of modernism originated in perhaps its most radical form, with his highly experimental photographs taken in the unlikeliest of settings: Doylestown, Pennsylvania, the rural, bucolic heart of Bucks County. From the overtly textural study of sharply focused horizontal and vertical lines in “Side of White Barn, 1915” (feature image) to his shadowy, steep farmhouse staircase with purposefully confounding perspectives in “Doylestown House – Stairs from Below, 1916-17”, Sheeler enthralls with his extreme abstractions.
Next we see Sheeler scale photographic heights in New York City, where he is mentored by Alfred Stieglitz and collaborates on the short film “Manhatta” with his contemporary Paul Strand. In production for almost a year, their ten-minute pioneering paean to the modern city traces a day in the life of lower Manhattan, beginning with the docking of a commuter-filled Staten Island Ferry and ending with the sun setting over the Hudson River. An MFA-commissioned digital re-mastering of “Manhatta” is mesmerizing: steep camera angles and deliberately absent horizon lines render skyscrapers as dizzying geometric abstractions. Quote-lines from Walt Whitman’s epic poem “Leaves of Grass” inspire the film’s title and clinch its reputation as the first avant-garde film produced in America. A group of stills unique to the Lane Collection is arranged in the order that they appear in the film on the wall next to the continuously running loop.
In 1927, Ford Motors commissioned Sheeler to photograph its factory outside Detroit to commemorate the rollout of their Model A car, a job that could hardly be more perfect for the devotee to functionally designed objects of all kinds. Nonetheless, Sheeler found the enormous jobsite challenging, ultimately spending about six weeks creating roughly forty views that focused mainly on “details of the plants and portraits of machinery” rather than actual cars or the thousands of employees on Ford’s famous assembly lines. It turned out to be an ingenious approach, one that draws visual analogies between America’s thriving factories and its cathedrals and altars, Sheeler’s ultra modern assertion that industrial centers were “our substitutes for religious expression.”
For more information about this exhibit, go to: http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/charles-sheeler-from-doylestown-to-detroit
To read my review of the MFA, Boston’s companion exhibit, Alfred Stieglitz and Modern America, go to: http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/alfred-stieglitz-and-modern-america