PRINT May 1971

The Panama Canal and Some Other Works of Work

IN APRIL OF 1882 Oscar Wilde visited Leadville, Colorado, then at the peak of its silver boom. He was taken down into the mine, opened a new lode—which the men named “The Oscar”—and presented with the silver drill he had used. The whole affair must have had a charming mutual irony for audience and V. I. P. alike. At the time the French were making a frantic but fruitless attempt to build a Panama Canal. The Transcontinental Railroad had been in operation for thirteen years: Wilde surely used it. Civil engineering in general was going strong, although it still had a walnut-panelled tweediness about it that recalls, for instance, Whistler’s father “building” the Moscow-St. Petersburg railway and bringing the family along.

Indeed, one suspects that it was largely because “Silver Dollar,” Tabor’s Matchless Mine was a silver mine that Wilde revelled in it; an iron mine would probably not have done. His whole account has a tone of offhand, cavalier richness, like Tiffany’s sterling silver boatswain’s whistles. Wilde described the visit in a letter:

. . . I have been to a wonderful place, to Colorado, which is like the Tyrol a little, and has great canons of red sandstone, and pine trees, and the tops of the mountains all snow-covered, and up a narrow-gauge railway did I rush to the top of a mountain 15,000 feet high, to the great mining city of Leadville, and lectured the miners on the old workers in metal—Cellini and others. All I told them about Cellini and how he cast his Perseus interested them very much, and they were a most courteous audience; typical too—large blond-bearded, yellow-haired men in red shirts, with the beautiful clear complexions of people who work in silver-mines.

After my lecture I went down in a silver-mine, about a mile outside the little settlement, the miners carrying torches before us, as it was night. After being dressed in miner’s dress I was hurled in a bucket down into the heart of the earth, long galleries of silver-ore, the miners all at work, looking so picturesque in the dim light as they swung the hammers and cleft the stone, beautiful motives for etching everywhere, and for Walter’s [i. e. Walter Sickert’s] impressionist sketches.1

Thirty years later the Matchless Mine had run dry, but the United States was in a period of development and expansion on so vast a scale that it was taking the world out of the hands of Europe. An American Empire was being built up (much more than “carved out,” like European empires), and the men who helped bring it about were saved by a now amazing idealism from many of the vices that we describe as “imperialism” today.2 What they shared was a veritably, and sometimes consciously, Roman notion of empire as the natural radiation of law, prosperity, and culture. Also Roman was their quasi-esthetic admiration for works of engineering, no longer—as with Wilde—for their occasional charm, but as grandiloquent instruments for the overcoming of stupendous obstacles in the wider and wider ordering of the chaos of the world.

Surely the greatest single work of human effort of the time was the Panama Canal. When the American lithographer Joseph Pennell (1857–1926) visited the Isthmus of Panama to observe the works and to capture graphically what he called the “Wonder of Work,” his imagery recalls Oscar Wilde’s, but the whole mood is quite different:

As I looked a whistle blew. Everyone instantly dropped their tools, and long lines of little figures marched away or climbed wooden stairs and iron ladders to the top; and as I looked, from the depths a long chain rose and clinging to the end of it, grouped as Cellini would have loved to group them, were a dozen men swinging up to the surface—the most decorative, yet real, motive in the Wonder of Work that I had ever seen.3

As far as culture proper goes, the attitude of Europe toward America in the early years of this century was becoming as anxious and patronizing as that of the jealous piano teacher of an amazingly precocious child. Whistler’s eminence was still manageable because it was idiosyncratic and because he himself had a very Menckenesque intolerance for American mediocrity; besides, if all else failed he could be considered European. In short, the prevailing European attitude was like that of the New York Athletic Club: you couldn’t really join, but they would let you play and win, for them, if you wanted to.

In a lecture at the University of Paris in the winter of 1908–09 Henry Van Dyke put his finger on the problem of the obvious, new, independent qualities of American culture, which Europe was trying to contain and to minimize by oversight or caricature:

Why is not the literature of America, not only in the beginning but also in its later development, more distinctly American? The answer is simple: It is distinctly American. But unfortunately the critics who are calling so persistently and looking so eagerly for “Americanisms” in literature, do not recognize it when they see it. . . . They expect something in the style of “Buffalo Bill.”4

Actually, a little more than two years later Picasso painted a “Buffalo Bill,”5 which, however, Clive Bell found “leave[s] me cold.”6 But the real reason why Europe had cause to be uneasy is that, while American art and culture were in themselves no immediate threat, it was obvious that the scales were tipping as far as the worldly circumstances which provide or allow for art at all were concerned. Moreover, nothing would upset the world of European art more than the development in America of tendencies completely oblivious to the socially divisive notion of the avant-garde.

But it was in just this spirit that Whistler’s disciple, Joseph Pennell, departed for Panama. “Work today is the greatest thing in the world, and the artist who records it will be best remembered.”7 “I went to Panama because I believed that, in the making of the greatest work of modern times, I should find my greatest inspiration. . . . So I started on a trip of 15,000 miles in search of the most wonderful Wonder of Work in the world.”8

Pennell, in an address to the Royal Society of Arts, which earned him a silver medal, supplied a pedigree for his art of work, citing Rembrandt’s fascination with his father’s mill, Claude’s harbors and lighthouses and pictures of Civita Vecchia and Genoa, Canaletto’s interest in Venetian building, and Piranesi’s Carceri. Quite surprisingly, he put down Turner as an unsuccessful disciple of Claude, finding Rain, Steam, and Speed (National Gallery, London) particularly pseudo-avante-garde and he singled out for particular praise the sculpture of Constantin Meunier.9 We can imagine what he was after in going to Panama easily enough in the titles of other of his works, etchings like The Newest New York: the Woolworth Building, Unfinished and The Unbelievable City: New York. One might, however, attempt to write this off by reference to Futurism. (Pennell actually departed for Panama from Rome, which explains his “15,000 miles.”) Futurism, there may be more to the story than

What is radically new is that once he got there he began to realize that the actual construction of the Canal was more than a mere motif capable of transformation into art: it was art. “. . . There are no architects, no designers, no decorators on the Panama Canal—just engineers and organizers—Goethals, Gaillard, Gorgas, Williamson, Bishop, and more. But the engineers at Panama are great designers, and great work is great decoration.”10 Pennell never considered himself there as anything more than an illustrator, and, as such, just another workman. His biggest thrill was when an engineering worker looked over his shoulder to watch him drawing and said that he liked the sketch because it “would work.”

The gung-ho enthusiasm of the entire enterprise may be difficult for us to imagine, but a few notes on the previous French attempt to cut through the Isthmus may help. Ferdinand De Lesseps, with the Suez Canal already behind him, was at the helm on the first of January, 1880, when opéra bouffe groundbreaking ceremonies worthy of Jacques Tati were performed; this attempt failed. Then there was a company with the marvelous name Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique. In 1886, at another celebration, no less a figure than the Bishop of Costa Rica rendered “homage to the Creator of Canals.”11 Actually, the French engineers were highly capable,12 and much of their equipment was useful to their American successors. But the French made a mess of the project by not grasping it in all its aspects (particularly medical and social) and by financial ineptitude and outright corruption.

Success came to the Americans because they faced staggering difficulties with relish and enthusiasm. The story of the victory over malaria is familiar; what is not so famous is that, because all the land was leased from a foreign country and all supplies had to be shipped in, a socialistic organization imposed itself (if a paternalistic one).13 This notion of efficient work, as apart from ideology as Pennell’s art is from the idea of an avant-garde, commanded so much respect that, we remember, a few years later Lenin brought Henry Ford to Moscow to help with the New Economic Policy. Here is Stalin’s characterization of the Russian attitude toward it:

American efficiency is an antidote to “revolutionary” Malinovism and fantastic scheme concocting [cf. the French in Panama]. American efficiency is that indomitable force which neither knows nor recognizes obstacles; which with its business-like perseverance brushes aside all obstacles; which continues at a task once started until it is finished, even if it is a minor task; and without which serious constructive work is inconceivable.14

If the boom-boom, heavy-industrial aspect of the Panama Canal seems suggestive of Italian that. One of the most famous of Pennell’s lithographs was Laying the Floor of Pedro Miguel Lock. The artist himself described the scene:

Here I went to the bottom and looked up between the huge walls outside the gates, spanned with arches and buttresses—one of the most stupendous, most decorative compositions I have ever seen. When I asked the engineer—Mr. Williamson—how he had come to make the splendid springing lines of his arches and buttresses, he said it was only done to save concrete.15

Now, the very arch in Pennell’s plate, and the obtuse-angled buttress at the right, and the plunging recession of the upper rim of the wall into the far distance beyond the gates of the lock, all contrive to suggest a relation between the Pennell (dated February 14, 1912) and an Antonio Sant’Elia Study for the “Città Nuova” (dated March 1, 1914). We already noted that Pennell went to Panama from Rome. Circumstantial evidence indicates that Antonio Sant’Elia might well have known Pennell’s plate. First, Sant’Elia would have been interested in canals anyway; when he took his Diploma di Capomastro in 1905 he worked in Milan for a short time and then got a job with the builders of the Canale Villoresi.l6 Secondly, as soon as Pennell’s suite of prints was published they immediately attracted the attention of the artist’s “country and countrymen, and others’ countries and countrymen”; several European governments bought one or more copies of the works for their national collections, including the Italian government for the Uffizi.17

None of the other published Sant’Elia projects is as closely related to Pennell’s Panama Canal plates as this one. However, even though the Italian may well have been directly influenced by this American lithograph, the real point here is not a question of influence. It is that Americans could arrive at a frame of mind comparable to, and compatible with, a European “avant-garde” movement but in no way responsible to it or limited by it.

Amid the universal optimism of the American Empire there was small need for avant-garde alignments of an exclusivist and European kind, simply because the establishment of the day was willing to listen to reason (as Theodore Roosevelt was at the Armory Show) and because it could also enjoy a lot of good art (like Joseph Pennell’s, but also much else) as readily as any hip art person. John Quinn’s memorandum to the Congress of the United States on the taxation of foreign art contains passages of such torrid “Futurism” that it would be necessary to turn to Italian art-world manifestos to equal them: “We want the art of today, charged with the radium, the vitality, the electricity, the virility of living things, as contrasted with the too often dead and faded-out art, no matter how old it is or what great name is attached to it.”18 Of course Quinn was arguing for the free importation of modernist European painting and sculpture, but the point is that his comment would not even have made sense to the Congress if Middle America had not been naturally and innocently in its own modernist frame of mind—as naturally and innocently as Walt Whitman, who, it is well known, had a tremendous impact upon the Italian Futurists.

Let us consider some of the ways in which Panama has occasioned art, and in which it promises to occasion it in the future.

Frederick Church’s landscape Isthmus of Panama gives a sense of what Panama evoked or implied as a locale in the middle of the 19th century, when the various controversial treaty arrangements for a canal had been carried out—that is, when an actual canal still seemed hopelessIy utopian, and before the French had made working attempts. Church shows a steamy, malarial jungle scene with a man paddling a canoe out from a primitive dwelling on the shore. Interestingly, both of these motifs already imply civilized enterprise in the landscape (this is not typical of Church’s jungle pictures). While the man navigating his boat may, in a subliminal way, suggest the projected canal, it also happens that the utilitarian (modern-primitive) housing erected for the Canal workers—plain wooden blocks boxed in with rectangles of black wire screening with white woodwork between—inevitably elicited praise from their occupants and visitors alike. In this light, the Church painting stands between the vision of Panama as impenetrable and even hostile jungle and swampland, and the recognition that it was to become the conquerable Pontine Marshes of the American Empire.

The Canal has also had a literary impact, not only upon American, but also upon European writers. Between June 1913 and June 1914 the great transatlanticist Blaise Cendrars wrote “Le Panama ou les aventures de mes Sept oncles,” in which he affirmed: “C’est le crach du Panama qui fit de moi un poète!19

In our own day Malcom Lowry’s story “Through the Panama”20 treats it with an inventiveness and enthusiasm that recall the Canal work itself. Lowry’s story is about sailing from San Francisco down the Mexican coast, through the Panama Canal and up. During the account of the actual passage through the waterway the text narrows—like the sides of the Canal itself—on the page, with Coleridgean glosses in the margins. There is an esthetic self-consciousness in the mention of other authors (“Astral body of Wallace Stevens writing his wonderful poem about Tehuantepec”), in particular of Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Polish author of Quo Vadis?, whose story “The Lighthouse-Keeper”21 deals with an old Polish wanderer who becomes keeper of Aspinwall Lighthouse, off the Atlantic (i.e. western) end of the Panama Canal, and whose sense of life is recharged by the almost magical appearance of a book of poetry in his native language. The enthusiasm of Lowry’s story shows in many passages describing aspects of the Canal, such as Miraflores Lock: “The first lock: Miraflores: 1913. Gigantic iron-studded gates very high but looking too narrow for a ship to steer into—but we do.”22

In describing Culebra Cut—“Blackest history of canal’s horror, failure, collapse, murder, suicide, fever, at Culebra Cut”23—Lowry may in fact help to explain some of the gloom which pervades Pennell’s The Cut—Looking Toward Culebra, or, even more, Jonas Lie’s painting The Conquerors: Culebra Cut, Panama Canal (1913; Metropolitan Museum of Art). Jonas Lie was probably not one of those “artists, architects, and decorators” whom Pennell described as flocking to Panama “almost before I left.” Lie, Norwegian born, had gone to Paris in 1892, and on to the United States in the following year; he had been in Panama since 1910. In Lie’s and Pennell’s view of the same motif each apparently portrays the other’s vantage point. Pennell seems more interested in the blasted-away, hacked-out rock, and in the steam shovel working in partnership with a locomotive, undifferentiated, miniscule workmen attending. In Lie’s work the landscape becomes almost a backdrop (if a dramatically spatial one) to an Anvil Chorus of workmen trudging away from the site. The dense black smoke which rises in steady funnels suggests unshifting heat. Lowry’s own apostrophe to the Canal is more Pennellean: ". . . It works, God how the whole thing beautifully and silently works, the celestial meccano—with its chains that rise sullenly from the water, and the great steel gates moving in perfect silence.24

Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty at the Great Salt Lake shares in a number of ways in the tradition stemming from the Panama Canal. It is categorically a work of sculpture (well, not too categorically) while the Panama Canal was a “Wonder of Work.” Both are projects involving earth-moving and bodies of water; both are constructive and also sublime. Both involve subtle ecological adjustments with the environment: while there is a confident human imperiousness in each case involving the imposition of the will upon the earth, we think of the Jetty’s gentle relation to the algae of the lake, and the fact that the Panama Canal does not—like the dangerous new canal now being planned across Central America—bring the two biologically quite different oceans in direct contact, for the Panama Canal is really a bridge of water above sea level (as may be seen in Smithson’s drawing of it). Both the Canal and the Spiral Jetty seem to flatter nature by adding to it, the landscape seeming to acquire a higher IQ. It is not irrelevant that while Smithson was building the Jetty he had no difficulty in getting ordinary folks to assist in and appreciate the task, to “dig” the “wonder” of the “work.”

Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, at Virgin River Mesa, Nevada, while perhaps more superficially like the Canal than is the Spiral Jetty, by its primarily excavatory nature (you never wonder where the Jetty rocks came from), and although strong in the dramatic interplay of volume and void, of space and span, is an altogether different matter. The man in the street can often not see the point of work like this. For one thing, it proceeds by marring the very land, which is what we have just learned to stop doing. (It always reminds me of the abandoned Columbia gymnasium site in Morningside Park.) It has already been observed that erosion will eventually efface Heizer’s piece.25 But the thought that nature in the end is even more destructive than the bulldozer does nothing to increase the “wonder” of this “work.” We cannot decide whether to be disappointed or reassured.

No such difficulties attend the Spiral Jetty. It was Smithson who put me onto Malcom Lowry’s Panama story. Now that I am familiar with it I see several passages where it is easy to imagine him deeply engaged, both in the actual sculpture and in his beautiful film about its construction. “Storm over Atlantis.” “Real-dream was preceded by a vision of a gigantic cinema.” “On top of this, and also at regular intervals, there was the noise that seemed to come out of the wall between myself and the wireless operator’s cabin, as of a jack being cranked up, which Sacheverell Sitwell has taught us to associate with the signing off or evening greeting of a poltergeist.” And so on.

My feeling that Joseph Pennell is an early precursor of Robert Smithson, by his own esthetics and by his obliviousness to false European notions of artistic progress, may expose a real identity of intent. Consider, for instance, both artists in their attitude toward colossal works of engineering which, once completed and put to use, have much of their sublimity literally sub- merged. In describing a “Dam Foundation Site” in Texas in 1966–67, Smithson, employed as a consultant to Tippetts-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton (Engineers and Architects), concerned himself with the poignant fact that when the splendid slab of the dam was at last functioning as a dam the visual grandeur which attended the last days of its realization would be effaced: “If viewed as a ‘discrete stage’ it becomes an abstract work of art that vanishes as it develops.”26 Pennell, for his part, felt precisely the same eclipse of pure plastic form in Panama:

I went to see and draw the Canal, and during ’ all the time I was there I was afforded every facility for seeing the Panama Canal, and from my point of view it is the most wonderful thing in the world; and I have tried to express this in my drawings at the moment before it was opened, for when it was opened, and the water turned in, half the amazing masses of masonry will be beneath the waters on one side and filled in with earth on the other, and the picturesqueness will have vanished.27

I discuss Smithson here not only because the building of the Panama Canal was a stupendous earthwork—the execution of which was understood at the time to be somehow artistic, and because of the parallels between him and Joseph Pennell, but also because Smithson has a project for using the Panama Canal for a work of his own. A drawing, entitled “Movie Treatment for Panama Passage,” dates from last year. It shows a longitudinal section of the Canal as constructed: Smithson is obviously intrigued by the fact that the Canal really is, as it was proudly described by the engineers and Canal commissioners, a “bridge of water,” since the very floor of its main stretch is well above sea level.

The projected film would consist of a barge loaded with sulphur moving from one ocean to the other. How beautiful the idea is in itself. The yellow of the sulphur against the water, with dense jungle at the edges. Or think of the very odor of sulphur, suggesting an almost medicinal treatment of the (naturally) unhealthy landscape. And the intellectual scale of the idea: the transport of tons of a pure element from one ocean to another. Or that it is “earth” moved over water above land above the sea level.

Notations on the drawing describe the plan of the projected film. The two “phases,” a continuous forty-mile tracking shot from an airplane of the towing, and close-ups of the barge and locks taken from a helicopter, are only discrete as production steps: in the finished film they would be intercut. The whole affair is refreshingly free of contemporary fine-art hang-ups, and at the same time it is amazingly easy for anybody at all to enjoy. If Joseph Pennell had a look at this drawing he would no doubt be happy to give it his own highest praise: it “would work.” Pennell also prophesied that although the great art of the past that did have something worthwhile to say would live on, much of what is called “art will disappear, and Post-Impressionism will be swallowed up in shopkeeping.”28



1. Letter to Helena Sickert from Fremont, Neb. April 25, 1882, in The Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (New York, 1962), 114.

2. For a history of the idea of an American Empire, see Richard W. Van Alstyne, The Rising American Empire (New York, 1960).

3. Joseph Pennell, “Joseph Pennell’s Lithographs of the Panama Canal,” The Print-Collector’s Quarterly, II (1912), 290–315; here, 299–300.

4. Henry Van Dyke, The Spirit of America (New York, 1910), 250–51. This volume comprises the first seven of 26 conferences given in the winter of 1908–09 at the University of Paris on the Heye Foundation. The lectures were written in the Savoy countryside and delivered in English but published afterwards as Le Génie de l’Amerique. George Santayana was exchanged in the same Heye Foundation program.

5. Illus., Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, II, Oeuvres de 1906 à 1912 (Paris, 1942), pl. 126, no. 255.

6. Clive Bell, “Post-Impressionism and Aesthetics,” The Burlington Magazine, XXII (1912–13), 227.

7. Joseph Pennell, “The Pictorial Possibilities of Work,” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, LXI (1912-13) 111–24; here, 111. The medal was awarded on June 27, 1913 for the lecture given on December 12, 1912; see p. 782 in the same volume.

8. Ibid:, 121.

9. Ibid., 115.

10. Ibid., 123.

11. Joseph Bucklin Bishop, The Panama Gateway (New York, 1913), 82. Bishop also notes (79n) that the legend that Sarah Bernhardt came from Paris to perform in honor of the 1880 groundbreaking is false; her only tour to Panama was in 1886.

12. Philippe Bunau-Varilla’s De Panama à Verdun; mes combats pour la France (Paris, 1937), was dedicated by the great engineer to his alma mater, the Ecole Polytechnique: "_Elle a guidé ma vie et c’est pour cela que j’ai dédie à la grande Ecole de la Patrie l’histoire des aventures et des combats que j’ai livrés pour la France, sa science et sa gloire." Pennell also made interesting prints of munitions works in allied plants during the First World War, which he thoroughly enjoyed, despite an opposition to war in general.

13. “One British sentimentalist, after seeing our system, said: ‘Why, Colonel, this is pure socialism!’ ‘Yes,’ was the answer, ‘socialism with the sentiment and politics left out.’” Pennell, “Lithographs” (Note 3), 296.

14. J. V. Stalin, “Style in Work,” in his The Foundations of Leninism; Lectures Delivered at the Sverdlov University (Peking, 1965), 118-21; here 120. Of course by the time of Stalin’s pronouncement, which appeared in Pravda, we are in the world of Le Corbusier’s admiration. for American industrial forms—itself not impossibly affected by such Pennell prints as “Flour Mills, Minneapolis”; illus. Joseph Pennell’s Pictures of the Wonder of Work; Reproductions of a Series of Drawings, Etchings, Lithographs made by him Around the World, 1881–1915, with Impressions and Notes by the Artist (Philadelphia and London, 1916), pl. XXV. Pennell’s note to the print remarks, “The mills of Minneapolis are as impressive as the cathedrals of France” and “The beauty of the flour mills is the beauty of use—they carry out William Morris’s theory that ‘everything useful should be beautiful’—but I don’t know what he would have said to them.” All of the Panama pictures were published as a book in the same series, Joseph Pennell’s Pictures of the Panama Canal; Reproductions of a Series of Lithographs made by him on the Isthmus of Panama, January–March 1912. Together with Impressions and Notes by the Artist (Philadelphia and London, 1912).

15. Pennell, “Lithographs” (Note 3), 308.

16. Luciano Caramel and Alberto Longatti, Antonio Sant’Elia; catalogo della mostra permanente (Como, 1962), Chronology, under 1905. The drawing discussed here is cat. 224, p. 99; it is in a Milan private collection.

17. Bishop, Panama Gateway (Note 11), 313 n. 2.

18. John Quinn, A Plea for Untaxed Contemporary Art; Memorandum in Regard to the Art Provisions of the Impending Tariff Bill (New York, 1913), 15.

19. Blaise Cendrars, “Le Panama ou les aventures de mes Sept oncles,” in his Du Monde entier au coeur du monde [et] anthologie nègre (Paris, n. d.), 34–49; here, 35.

20. Malcom Lowry, “Through the Panama,” in his Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (ed. New York, 1969), 29–98.

21. Henryk Sienkiewicz, “The Lighthouse-Keeper,” trans. Monica M. Gardner, in Tales From Henryk Sienkiewicz (London, Toronto, New York, 1931), 194–208. “Everything with which the lighthouse-keeper comes into contact is huge, without concrete or definite form. The sky is one element, water the other; and between those immensities one solitary human soul. It is a life in which a man’s thoughts are one continual dream, and nothing rouses the lighthouse-keeper from this dream, not even his tasks,” (p. 200).

22. Lowry, “Through the Panama” (Note 20), 57–58.

23. Ibid., 59.

24. Lowry, “Through the Panama” (Note 20), 63 (gloss).

25. Nan R. Piene, “Après l’Art minimal,” Chroniques de I’art vivant, No. 12 (July 1970), 9.

26. Robert Smithson, “Towards the Development of an Air Terminal Site,” Artforum, V/special issue (summer 1967), 36–40; here, 39 (caption).

27. Pennell, Panama Canal (Note 14), 14.

28. Pennell, “Pictorial Possibilities” (Note 7), 124.