PRINT January 1969

Charles Sheeler, American Pastoral

THE CAREER OF CHARLES SHEELER traces a complex course—more complex, in fact, than the art that resulted from it. In his life as an artist, Sheeler touched most of the major points on the compass. He was, first and last, a convert to Cubism. He was deeply responsive to the esthetics of machine technology. Early on, he was in touch with Duchamp and Dada and the whole Arensberg circle. He had a keen appreciation of folk art, particularly folk architecture, and understood their relevance to modern art. He was an accomplished photographer—even more accomplished as a photographer than as a painter—and did not hesitate, from the beginning of his work in that medium, to make audacious use of photographic form for purely pictorial ends. He moved a good deal in the worlds of commerce (including art commerce) and industry, and he was a very successful illustrator. He had been quick to grasp the significance of the Paris avant-garde, and he succeeded in making something very American out of what he borrowed from the canon of Parisian modernism. From these advanced interests and variegated skills he forged a style unmistakably his own.

Yet the art he produced was never as large as the vision which animated it. No doubt this discrepancy—a familiar one in the American art of his generation—owes much to the practical circumstances in which Sheeler worked. Disinclined to bohemianism, he was never the sort of artist who sacrificed the material comforts of life to the service of an impossible artistic ideal. He did what he had to do—art dealing, photography, commercial art—to make a living. There is a caution in Sheeler’s work—a taste for the respectable—that may be traceable precisely to the kind of living and to the style of life he chose for himself. But the sources of the discrepancy lie even deeper, I think. They lie in the very nature of his vision. There was something about this vision—a fundamental innocence, a refusal to be difficult—which inhibited some ultimate accommodation of all the impulses and contradictions of which it was composed.

Sheeler was born in Philadelphia in 1883. He was trained first in the School of Industrial Art (1900–1903) and then in the classes of William Merritt Chase at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1903–1906). He was thus disposed, from the outset, to function both as a commercial artist and as a fine artist. This was a common situation for many American artists of the period. What was uncommon, in Sheeler’s case, was the degree to which this division of esthetic labor persisted. Indeed, it more than persisted—it presided. It determined much of the subject matter—no small issue for Sheeler—to be found in his “serious” art. It determined his reliance on illustration. In the end, it sealed his allegiance to a certain mode of visual romance.

For Sheeler was a romantic in the American grain. Those Bucks County barns were yet another, up-to-date avowal of the pastoral ideal. Cubism helped strip the subject of stale associations, facile emotions, the old conventions. The romantic trappings of an earlier generation—all those virtuoso painterly effects so patiently mastered in the classes of William Merritt Chase—were displaced by an immaculate geometry imported from Paris. But Sheeler’s Cubism is not a language of pictorial invention. It is an aid to illustration. The picturesque is not abandoned, it is only revitalized. It is adjusted to a new vocabulary. It is made palatable to the modern sensibility, but does not make any new demands on that sensibility. Sheeler was a master at domesticating the hard conceptual core of Cubist form to the specifications of a softer, more parochial vein of taste. The taste is folkloric. The appeal is to sentiments and standards of a simpler world than our own—in other words, to a myth. What is modern in Sheeler’s art is made to serve the interests of what is traditional, homely, and cozy.

The folk architecture of Bucks County, with its simple lines and muted colors and its own very gentle geometry perfectly attuned to a very gentle landscape, was an ideal subject for a native son whose eyes had been instructed by the esthetics of Cubism. These structures—particularly their interiors—were themselves a kind of folk Cubism. Sheeler seized the opportunity to synthesize these disparate but harmonious materials, and made something memorable of it—though less for its high pictorial quality, perhaps, than for the quality of its feeling. An element of nostalgia was combined with an element of modernity. The past was discreetly, even poetically, evoked in the name of an esthetic grammar that seemed, in Sheeler’s hands, only an extension of the old verities. Cubism was made to serve an almost antiquarian function.

This may seem to us an ironical aspiration, but Sheeler’s art is itself devoid of irony. The pastoral sensibility shuns the ironical—everything in Sheeler is “straight.” He thus stands at the farthest possible remove from Dada. No doubt the very conception of a picture like Staircase, Doylestown (1925) owes a great deal to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, but the borrowed structure answers to another order of fantasy. All the sentiments are changed. The nude would be as unthinkable as a joke, and jokes about nudes would be as shattering as an act of violence. Indeed, they would be an act of violence. We are on Puritan terrain. There is a history to be written of the influence of the Protestant mind on Cubist esthetics—on what happened to Cubism when it was removed from Paris to the colder climates—and Sheeler would have a place in that history.

For Sheeler, the city is as innocent as the countryside. Skyscrapers too are a version of pastoral. The machine is assimilated to the folkloric sensibility. Not even the massive impedimenta of modern industry can break the precious thread of continuity with the emotions of the past, but the result is a decided increase in the fantasy quotient. Railway sidings, locomotives, factories are rendered with the fastidious tact and precision one had supposed were developed for the more intimate forms of early American houses and their artifacts. But for Sheeler the differences do not matter. The barn and the factory, the hearth rug and the skyscraper, the still life and the smokestack—they are all figments of the same dream. In the end, they are all still life. They are all immaculate and innocent. They are all acquitted of having any difficult or complex relation to experience. In fact, they are depicted as existing outside the realm of experience—untouched and inviolable.

The purity of it all nags after a while. It ceases to be a discipline, and becomes a formula, an indulgence, a form of artifice. The paintings decline, so to speak, into design. The response to every subject is too well-practiced, the fantasy too susceptible to sentimental solutions. Sheeler was very responsive to historical currents. In the beginning, when Cubism was a challenge, this responsiveness was a source of strength. The problem of adjusting modernist vocabularies to American subjects, the very newness of the enterprise and the seriousness with which the problem dominated every advanced quarter of the arts in this country—all this brought out the best in Sheeler. He was, fundamentally, an artist of the teens and the twenties—every accomplishment of his later years (he died in 1965) looked back to the period of the First World War and the decade that followed. The thirties weakened his art considerably. The outlook of the American Scene painters, the general air of nativism, the taste for regional evocations—these and other currents of the period tempted him into self-parody. He began then, and continued after, to underscore what was meretricious in his art. Only his photographs remained immune to the general decline. As a photographer, Sheeler kept faith with the values of the Stieglitz era. The quality of his photographs continued to be consistent—and consistently high—to the end. It is a paradox of Sheeler’s career that photography freed him from the excesses of illustration. It vouchsafed the purity of his vocation. Generations hence, it will be the photographs, together with the early pictures, that will guarantee his reputation.

Hilton Kramer