The only trace of humanity in Charles Sheeler’s austere American Landscape is a tiny figure scurrying across the railroad tracks. With one arm outstretched, he appears frozen in action, as if in a snapshot, precisely halfway between two uncoupled freight cars. The calculated placement of this anonymous person suggests that he was included in the composition only to lend scale to the enormous factories, which dwarf even the train and displace every other living thing. Sheeler coined the term “Precisionism” to describe this emotionally detached approach to the modern world. Influenced by the mechanisms of modern technology, Precisionist art employs sharply defined, largely geometric forms, and often gauges the landscape’s transformation in the wake of industrial progress.
American Landscape toys with our expectations. In a painting of that title, we hope to find a peaceful view of mountains and trees, or perhaps cottages and crops, in the manner of Thomas Cole or Albert Bierstadt. Instead, Sheeler gives us factories, silos, and smokestacks. The work expresses the artist’s view that the forces of human culture, propelled by industrialism, have overtaken the forces of nature that once laid claim to American landscape painting. Here, all that’s left of the natural world is the sky, and not even that escapes the effects of mass production: the smoke rising from a smokestack blends into the clouds, making them just another by-product of industry. Like many traditional American landscapes, this one is organized around a body of water. Yet here, the water is contained in a canal, an artificial channel that controls its flow.
Sheeler earned his living as a professional photographer. In 1927, he spent six weeks taking pictures of the Ford Motor Company’s enormous auto plant west of Detroit. The company commissioned the project as a testament to Ford’s preeminence: the plant at River Rouge was a marvel of mechanical efficiency—with miles of canals, conveyor belts,
and railroad tracks connecting steel mills, blast furnaces, glass plants, and the famed assembly line. Henry Ford himself had invented the term “mass production” to describe his innovation of making workers on a movable production line part of the machinery. If the belt-driven process dehumanized workers, it helped to democratize capitalism by making manufactured goods affordable to a wider public. “There is but one rule for
the industrialist,” Ford declared, “and that is: Make the highest quality goods possible at the lowest cost possible.” To twentyfirst century viewers, American Landscape may appear as an indictment of the machine age, but to Sheeler’s contemporaries, it would have stood for the triumph of American ingenuity.
Sheeler derived American Landscape from the background of one of his River Rouge photographs. To achieve the impersonal effect of the mechanical image, he eliminated every sign of brushwork and any other indication that the painting had been conceived by a distinct artistic personality and made by hand. In this way, Sheeler downplays his own presence, as if he were just as anonymous as the faceless figure stranded on the train tracks. After his time at River Rouge, Sheeler observed that factories had become a “substitute for religious expression.” The stillness and silence of the scene impart an air
of reverence traditionally associated with a place of worship— or, in American painting, some awe-inspiring view of nature. But nature as a divine presence is absent; it is industry, with its cold and indifferent factories, that prevails.
March 28, 2014 PowerPoint Charles Sheeler American Landscape 1930
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