In a MoMA hallway — a kind of ante-room really — and on the other side of a sliding glass door from The Great March Through Our History of Modern Art, you can usually find MoMA’s great Charles Sheeler painting, American Landscape. The placement of the painting irks me: Sheeler has been excluded from the MoMA March, cast into the kind of nether-place MoMA puts American moderns with whom it knows not what to do. (In another nearby hallway are Gerald Murphy, Stuart Davis and Georgia O’Keeffe.)
Woe are the American moderns: Sheeler, O’Keeffe, Murphy, Davis, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and more. The conventional wisdom is that they didn’t do anything new enough to join the Euro-centric canon, but they did enough to be, well, ackowledgable. A new exhibition at the National Gallery, Charles Sheeler: Across Media, demonstrates the greatness of one American modern, and makes the argument for Sheeler’s canonization: He was a pioneering multi-media artist before there was such a thing.
The show, curated by Charles Brock, shows Sheeler’s photographs, drawings, paintings and one film collaboration with Paul Strand to demonstrate how all of Sheeler’s output contributed to all of his other output. (The complete Manhatta is viewable here.) Brock’s exhibition shows that Sheeler’s paintings would not have been possible without Sheeler’s photography.
And that is where Sheeler did something new. Several French moderns experimented with photographs. Degas took pictures of his bathers, Bonnard snapped his wife posing coyly in their garden. But for them photographs were merely experimentation. They took photographs to check out the new medium and then sometimes made painterly paintings strictly derived from them, paintings focused on composition, light, form, and other elements that had concerned painters for centuries. (Furthermore, it’s not clear if Bonnard ever really saw prints of all the pictures he took.)
Sheeler didn’t do that. In works such as New England Irrelevancies (above) Sheeler used photographs to do something different with painting. Instead of basing a painting on a photograph the way, say, Degas did, Sheeler used multiple photographs to build a painting that challenged the medium’s history. He toys with color. He plays with multiple perspectives. Light sources are solid shafts that exist not to illuminate anything, but just to be light.
Other American moderns took photography-based lessons further than their European counterparts. The way O’Keeffe cropped her compositions in ways that were influenced by Alfred Stieglitz and their photographer friends has been well-chronicled. (Especially in Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s Full Bloom.) In her book The Great American Thing, art historian Wanda Corn suggested that Charles Demuth’s portrait of William Carlos Williams, The Figure 5 in Gold, seems influenced by photography too: The fives, “much like a zoom lens, push and pull our eyes in and out of the center of the painting.” (And in keeping with the American moderns’ focus on things American, the zoom lens was an American invention.)
Brock’s exhibition is a walk through Sheeler’s process. It is not a full retrospective, but it points to the approach the next Sheeler retrospective should pursue.
Related: Exhibition catalogue.