THERE is an American Art. Young, robust, energetic, naïve, immature, daring and big spirited. . . . It is not an illustration to a theory, it is an expression of life—a complicated life—American life.
In the early decades of the 20th century, the United States transformed from a predominantly agrarian to a mostly industrial economy, becoming a major political and economic world power. This was the height of an era of technological progress commonly referred to as the Machine Age. In response, artists produced compositions with a “machined” quality—incorporating smooth surfaces and geometric forms–which conveyed the beauty, coldness, and impersonality of this mechanized world. This body of work came to be known as Precisionism, a term coined in the 1920s to characterize the precise, hard-edged qualities of the style.
Charles Sheeler is one of the most prolific and best known of the artists associated with Precisionism. Over a career spanning almost 60 years, Sheeler created numerous series documenting the industrial achievements of the United States. For his Power series—shown here—Sheeler traveled across the country studying the nation’s “instruments of power.” These works capture the ambitious achievements of the period, including the harnessing of natural resources to generate electrical power, and the propulsion of a jet engine. Notably, Suspended Power is the only painting that includes humans. Their presence boldly underscores the awe-inspiring scale of a hydroelectric turbine, but it also raises disturbing implications. What risks do these workers—and others who labor amid massive, powerful machines—encounter on a daily basis?
As was the case during the Machine Age, technological innovation today carries a sense of potential and risk, creating both economic rewards and disruptions, and engendering excitement and concern. Contemporary headlines routinely proclaim both the benefits and the perils of technology. While offering us a dazzling array of conveniences, smartphones and other gadgets may also threaten our socialization, by disconnecting us from more meaningful in-person interactions. We live in an age of anxiety about our unchartered future as we stand on the cusp of what has been termed a fourth industrial revolution and the American economy is once again being transformed.
Genealogy of a Style
Since machinery is the soul of the modern world, and since the genius of machinery attains its highest expression in America, why is it not reasonable to believe that in America the art of the future will flower most brilliantly?
What caused such a drastic shift in American art in the early 20th century?
Less than 15 years after Robert Henri’s Ice Floe was painted, Precisionist works such as Morton Schamberg’s Painting (formerly Machine)—while similarly focused on American subjects—presented a dramatically different aesthetic inspired by the ordered geometries of machines.
In Painting (formerly Machine), we can trace some of the influences that gave rise to Precisionism. In the mid-teens, European artists associated with the Dada movement such as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia immigrated to New York and became active members in the art scene, displaying their work and engaging in theoretical discussions. Their interest in mechanical objects and more conceptual artistic approaches provided Precisionists such as Schamberg and Charles Sheeler with a new visual language that could represent American modernity.
Interpreting the Machine Age
The whole of mankind is vitally affected by industrial development and if the artist can make his work clear in its intention, convincing in its reality, inevitable in its logic, his potential audience will be practically universal.
The artists associated with Precisionism never formally organized as a movement. They did not publish a manifesto, work together, or exhibit as a collective. Rather, critics, gallerists, and art historians connected them through their common subjects and aesthetic: minimized brushstrokes, an emphasis on geometric forms that abstracted reality, and a focus on revealing an American identity. The reception and interpretation of these works varies widely, and has changed over time. Initially critics lauded the formal beauty of these works and saw them as celebrating America’s modernity. More recently, scholars have suggested that these depopulated scenes offer a subtle commentary on the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and rapid urbanization. The varied interpretations these works have elicited over time contribute to their richness, and they can hold a mirror to our contemporary attitudes about modernization and technological progress.
Modernist photography’s sharp focus, dramatic contrasts in lighting, radical cropping, and unusual perspectives played an important role in the development of a Precisionist style. For Charles Sheeler photography was an essential tool. Working across media, Sheeler often based paintings, such as Upper Deck, on earlier photographs. His interest in using a machine—the camera—as a central component of his artistic process speaks to the modernity of his approach.
According to Sheeler, Upper Deck represents a “dividing line” in his artistic development, representing what the artist described as an “objective” method for rendering his subjects. In both the photograph and the painting, Sheeler decontextualized his industrial subjects—two of the ship’s electrical motors, ventilator stacks, and exhaust fans. By focusing on these elements, Sheeler captured the power and elegance of the ocean liner while also creating a composition dominated by geometric forms.
The man who builds a factory builds a temple . . . the man who works there worships there.
“Efficiency” was the reigning mantra of the Machine Age. Two figures embodied this philosophy above all others: industrialist Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, and mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, the “father of scientific management,” whose time studies led Ford to previously unthinkable levels of productivity. In 1913 Ford unveiled the first moving assembly line, which reduced the time it took to build an entire automobile from more than twelve hours to just two hours and thirty minutes. The introduction of the assembly line is viewed as the watershed moment when skilled craftsmanship was replaced by automation, mass production, and a deskilled workforce. Although this innovation made automobiles more affordable for average Americans, it also led to laborers’ increased detachment from, and dissatisfaction with, their work.
In 1927, Charles Sheeler received a commission from a Philadelphia advertising company to document the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant near Dearborn, Michigan—the headquarters for the production of the Model A car, and then the world’s largest and most self-sufficient industrial complex. Sheeler spent six weeks photographing the buildings and machines at the Ford plant, and in the end submitted 32 photographs. These images were not only used by the company for publicity purposes, they were also celebrated in art circles for their abstract, formal beauty.
What wouldn’t I give for the pleasure of showing you through this unbelievable establishment. It defies description and even having seen it one doesn’t believe it possible that one man could be capable of realizing such a conception. . . . The subject matter is undeniably the most thrilling I have had to work with.
Sheeler created Classic Landscape basing his painting on photographs he took on his visit to the Ford plant. In his representation of the factory’s cement plant, Sheeler emphasized the geometries and streamlined contours of the columnar forms of the silos and smokestack. Not pictured are the workers who faced harsh working conditions and labor practices, which came under increased scrutiny as the nation fell deeper into the Great Depression.
Recalling Sheeler’s assertion that “factories are our substitute for religious expression,” Incense of a New Church by Charles Demuth equates the swirling smoke of the Lukens Steel Company’s plant in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, with the burning of incense during religious worship. Demuth’s correlation of industry and religion may be an ironic allusion to the widespread idolization of the machine in 1920s America.
Replaced by Machines?
Many of the ambivalent attitudes toward industrialization in the early 20th century reverberate today, as we enter what has been termed a fourth industrial revolution. In the knowledge-based economy of the most advanced nations, the means of production are shifting from factories to computers; robots are replacing human labor for many functions; and—echoing the demands of efficiency experts and factory foremen from a century ago—humans are often expected to function like robots, as evidenced by the rigorous working conditions that have been exposed worldwide in fulfillment centers and corporate offices alike.
For a century, the machines have been enslaving the race. For a century, they have been impoverishing the experience of humanity. Like great Frankenstein monsters, invented by the brain of human beings to serve them, these vast creatures have suddenly turned on their masters, and made them their prey.
The psychological impact of mechanization on Machine Age Americans was widely noted during the period. Popular plays, books, and movies explored the relationship between man and machine—sometimes with apocalyptic outcomes. Perhaps influenced by the mechanomorphic compositions that Dadaists such as Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp pioneered in the 1910s, some Precisionist artists used machine imagery to evoke aspects of the human condition, reasserting their humanity in an automated age. Ralph Steiner’s Louis Lozowick with Gears seems to conflate human and mechanical imagery in a manner reminiscent of the Dadaists’ “machine portraits.” And while Gerald Murphy’s Watch is devoid of human imagery and seemingly of personal references, it may in fact contain veiled allusions to the artist’s own life.
Artists associated with Precisionism were not alone in their fascination with industrial subjects. Two seminal exhibitions during the period point to a larger cultural interest. In 1927, the landmark Machine-Age Exposition in New York sought to unite “the Engineer . . . the architect and the artist.” The organizers radically displayed fine art alongside industrial objects and machine parts.
Seven years later, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, opened Machine Art, an exhibition that went one step further by displaying only industrially manufactured objects. The show’s organizers saw these objects as the equals of fine art and celebrated them for their intrinsic aesthetic merit. A “beauty contest” was judged by aviator Amelia Earhart, philosopher and education reformer John Dewey, and museum professional Charles Richards, who awarded prizes on the basis of formal appeal. Following its presentation in New York, the exhibition traveled to museums across the country; the de Young hosted the show in 1935.
Precisionist artists were compelled to explore the exhilarating new experiences they were afforded by machines. Elsie Driggs’s Aeroplane was inspired by her first time flying, in 1928, when she traveled from Cleveland to Detroit in a Ford Tri-Motor airplane. Driggs’s composition emphasizes the sleek, lustrous surfaces and geometric contours of the plane’s body. The artist used diagonal black lines that crisscross the canvas to create a sense of movement and implied the whir of the propeller using a blurred gray line at left.
America is the country of the art of the future. . . . Look at the skyscrapers! Has Europe anything to show more beautiful than this?
Just as the American factory elicited mixed feelings about industrialization, ranging from admiration to anxiety, the modern metropolis, with its gravity-defying skyscrapers, represented both the fears and the aspirations of the nation. The construction of skyscrapers required multiple technological innovations, including increased safety features for elevators and powerful equipment to insure proper heating. These towering structures also provoked concerns that their massive forms would plunge city streets into perpetual darkness. As a result, New York City officials passed a zoning law in 1916 that required skyscrapers to be built with setbacks, to allow light to reach the streets below.
Margaret Bourke-White focused early in her photographic career on the industrial subjects that are associated with Precisionism, documenting a working steel mill in Cleveland in 1928. Upon moving to New York City in 1930 she established a studio in the upper reaches of the Chrysler Building. The photographer braved dizzying heights to capture the perfect image of this iconic building. Bourke-White would further put her fearlessness to the test by becoming the first American female war correspondent and photojournalist to work in a combat zone.
For eleven years, Georgia O’Keeffe lived in a high-rise hotel in Midtown Manhattan that afforded sweeping aerial views of the metropolis, which she incorporated into many of her city scenes. Yet in her composition City Night, O’Keeffe placed the viewer at street level, exposing the cavernous void created by the skyscrapers that line the street. Her bold, abstract forms evoke the melancholy beauty of Manhattan—reflecting her assertion that “one can’t paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt.” With a glimmering moon low on the horizon, the sliver of night sky wedged claustrophobically between the soaring columns of tall buildings is the only reference to nature in this aggressively vertical, man-made environment.
Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s short experimental film Manhatta (1920) offers glimpses of the urban populace so commonly removed in Precisionist scenes. The film describes a day in lower Manhattan, beginning with a ferry approaching the city in early morning and ending with a sunset view from a skyscraper. In addition to exploring the relationship between photography and film, Manhatta captures the dynamism of the metropolis and explores its diverse subjects, from towering “cathedrals of commerce” to the rhythms of daily working life on its docks or at construction sites.
Charles Sheeler mined stills from Manhatta as source material for a group of works—including this painting, in which he presented a bird’s-eye vantage on the Church Street Elevated railway from the Empire Building in lower Manhattan. Sheeler radically abstracted his urban subject matter, stripping the composition of details found in the still, such as the debris in the middle ground and the complexity of the interwoven subway tracks to the right. His Cubist-inspired planes of overlapping colors and forms emphasize the underlying geometries of the scene. In addition to conveying the formal beauty of the metropolis, such static and de-populated scenes also captured a key emotional facet of urban life—its capacity to instill in its inhabitants a sense of loneliness and alienation.
Both a testament to human ingenuity and a reminder of its moral limits, the 20th-century metropolis engendered ambivalence about modernization. Our similarly complex relationship to modernity is reflected in contemporary attitudes towards the technological devices that surround us and shape our daily existence. Smartphones and other gadgets connect us to a vast and constantly changing network of information, ideas, imagery, sensory experiences, and interpersonal communications. Yet amid the rush of endless opportunity is the potential for alienation—from one another and perhaps ourselves. That these inputs and innovations can be overwhelming is clear from the popularity of mindfulness workshops, “digital detox” retreats, and other stress-reducing mechanisms.
I don’t like these things because they are old, but in spite of it. I’d like them still better if they were made yesterday, because then they could afford proof that the same kind of creative power is continuing.
For many artists working in a Precisionist mode, a focus on rural subjects provided an alternative—or even an antidote—to the themes of industry, machines, and urbanization that pervaded their work. Artists such as Charles Sheeler, Georgia O’Keeffe, and George Ault found aesthetic inspiration in the geometry of a barn or the efficiency and functionalism of Shaker furniture. The prevalence of such subjects, which harked back to the nation’s agrarian past, reflected a larger national narrative that located roots for the industry and efficiency of the modern era in the colonial period. Projects such as Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum whose restoration began in 1927, reveal the widespread interest in the nation’s preindustrial past; they also can be interpreted as reflecting the nativist claims of cultural dominance and the calls for assimilation that accompanied the increased immigration of the period.
The establishment of Colonial Williamsburg marked the culmination of the American Colonial Revival movement. Sheeler’s depiction of a well-equipped kitchen from one of the site’s buildings encapsulates ways that past and present were merged during the period, representing in meticulous detail the utilitarian objects with which the reconstructed kitchen was furnished—antiques collected in the 1920s and 1930s to convey a 20th-century fantasy of colonial life.
George Ault’s surreally disquieting Bright Light at Russell’s Corners features a group of barns near the artist’s house in Woodstock, New York, where he moved from Manhattan in 1937. Illuminated by the harsh glare of a streetlight, the twisting road and sides of the barns have an otherworldly quality. From the leaning pole at the center of the painting, wires carve vertical and diagonal lines of light into the starry night sky. In a 1944 letter to his wife, Ault described his rustic environs as “completely spoiled”; his startling juxtapositions of quaint older buildings with more modern infrastructure in scenes such as this seem to register a sense of unease about the encroachment of technological change on the rural landscape.
The current vogue among young city dwellers for trends from the past—such as waxed handlebar mustaches, locally sourced produce, specialty butcher shops, artisanal cocktails, and a folksy “DIY” ethos—has been hilariously parodied in the television series Portlandia (2011–2018), which caricatures an urban utopia where “the dream of the 1890s is alive.” Such trends may reflect nostalgia for the handcrafted aesthetic and perceived simplicity of bygone eras, as well as a yearning to temper the frenetic pace of our technology-driven world.
Whether machines are good or bad, interesting or offensive, helpful or inimical depends on the purpose for which they are used.
A century after the emergence of a Machine Age aesthetic, we face questions that are surprisingly similar to the ones that the Precisionists addressed with such nuance and intelligence. Their works ask us to consider the fundamental relationship between humans and machines—the ways in which we relate to, benefit from, resist, and learn to live with technology. While our absorption with and dependence upon technology deepens, we grapple with questions about its ethical limits and effects on our socialization, and on economic structures and workers. Ultimately, despite the recurrent concerns—now with us for more than a century—about machine dominance and usurpation, we are left with the perhaps more burdensome realization that it is up to us to use technology in a manner that benefits society and positively contributes to human progress.