Charles Sheeler was a master of both painting and photography, and his work in each medium influenced and shaped his work in the other. But Sheeler also recognized that there was a fundamental difference in the creative processes of each activity. As he observed in 1937, "Photography is nature seen from the eyes outward, painting from the eyes inward. Photography records inalterably the single image while painting records a plurality of images willfully directed by the artist."
In 1927, Sheeler went to the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge plant near Detroit on a photographic commission. The sprawling facility, covering more than 2,000 acres and employing more than 75,000 workers, was at the time the largest and most technically advanced industrial complex in existence. The Detroit architect Albert Kahn, a pioneer of modern factory design, was responsible for most of the plant's structures. Virtually self-sufficient and self-contained, the Rouge brought together at one site all the operations necessary to assemble automobiles. It was there, beginning in 1927, that Ford produced its Model A, successor to the famed Model T, 15 million of which had been built since mass production had begun in 1913. Ford's investment in the Model A and the Rouge plant was enormous, and, facing increasing competition from General Motors, the company undertook an aggressive advertising campaign in support of the new vehicle and its corporate image. N. W. Ayer & Son of Philadelphia handled the campaign and Vaughn Flannery, the firm's art director, convinced Ford to commission a series of photographs of the Rouge that would stand as a creative portrait of American industry. It was Flannery who recommended Sheeler, already well known for his photographs of still lifes; New York buildings; Bucks County, Pennsylvania, interiors and exteriors; and fashion and portrait photography for Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Sheeler arrived at the River Rouge plant late in October 1927 and immediately declared the subject "incomparably the most thrilling I have had to work with." The photographs that he would complete over the next six weeks are justly considered among his greatest achievements in the medium. But his experiences at the plant had another result, one that was slower in developing, but that ultimately had a greater and more profound effect on his art. As Sheeler explained: "I was out there on a mission of photography. Period. And when I got there, I took a chance on opening the other eye and so then I thought maybe some pictures could be pulled out. But I had to come home, and it was several years later that they had really digested and they started coming out." The "other eye" Sheeler opened while working at the Rouge was that of the painter, and with that eye he was able to see the potential that the compositions he was framing photographically held for paintings. In 1928, he produced two small watercolors of Rouge subjects, River Rouge Industrial Plant [fig. 1], which reproduced the upper center of his photograph Salvage Ship—Ford Plant [fig. 2], and Classic Landscape [fig. 3], also presumably based on photographs, although none is known of this view today. Throughout his career, Sheeler made many fine works on paper, but his preferred media were pencil, conté crayon, gouache, or tempera rather than watercolor. If the two 1928 Rouge watercolors were based directly on photographs, perhaps the artist was experimenting with how best to "pull out" pictures from them. The following year, Sheeler used one of the photographs he shot in 1928 of the British ocean liner RMS Majestic as his "blueprint" in creating the oil Upper Deck (1929, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University). At this point, he believed he had found the means of fusing precise visual realism with powerful formal abstraction. As he said: "This is what I have been getting ready for. I had come to feel that a picture could have incorporated in it the structural design implied in abstraction and be presented in a wholly realistic manner."
With this newly won mastery of process came a new sense of purpose, and Sheeler returned to his River Rouge photographs. From 1930 to 1936, he created a stunning series of oil paintings of the plant: American Landscape [fig. 4], Classic Landscape (this work), River Rouge Plant [fig. 5], and City Interior [fig. 6]. In the latter, which depicts a scene in the area of the plant's huge blast furnaces, Sheeler portrayed a dense concentration of structures and forms evocative, as the title suggests, of an urban area. American Landscape and Classic Landscape are more openly composed and expansive. The area in the complex they—and River Rouge Plant—depict is near the cement plant, with its distinctive landmarks, a single, tall smokestack, and cement storage silos [fig. 7]. Cement, a by-product of the car manufacturing process, was created using slag—impurities skimmed off the top of molten iron—that was cooled and then screened and crushed.
Both versions of Classic Landscape show the cement plant from a vantage point on the High Line railroad track looking north. At the left and in the center distance are the large bins for storing coal, ore, and limestone. The multiroofed building at upper right is the slag screen house; beyond is the long, low roof of the cement plant, running across almost the entire background to its terminus at the boat slip (see fig. 5). In the center distance are the six stacks of powerhouse 3. Sheeler expanded the composition in all four directions for the oil painting, with significant results. In the watercolor, the right side of the slag screen house and the railroad tracks are cropped by the edge of the paper, the cement plant smokestack runs almost to the very top of the sheet, and the left side of the composition stops just before the stacks of the glass plant would be visible. In the oil, Sheeler moved the point of view back slightly, achieving a more spacious composition and diminishing the sense of photographic cropping evident in the watercolor. The watercolor seems a more literal record of a section of a specific place ("the single image," to use Sheeler's words), whereas the oil ("a plurality of images willfully directed by the artist") presents a self-contained and integral reality of its own, complete without any reference to the world outside its borders.
Although the enlargement of the composition was perhaps Sheeler's most significant alteration in translating the watercolor into the oil, the many other subtle changes, adjustments, and additions he made are evidence of a painstaking process. Among the additions are three rivet heads forming an inverted isosceles triangle on the second cross tie from the bottom; a board walkway extending from the bottom right corner; a second crossbar supporting the cables running parallel to the tracks; a loaded railcar stopped by the slag screen house; two small, cube-shaped structures at the bottom right of the silos; two support towers for the long projecting building in front of the silos; the two smokestacks of the glass plant; and additional windows at the top left of the silos and on the shadowed facade of the building at left center. In the painting's sky, Sheeler eliminated the smoke around the stacks of powerhouse 3, added a streaming cloud of smoke coming from the cement plant stack, and a great triangular wedge of billowing clouds. Sheeler also adjusted the shadows throughout the painting, changing the more rounded forms visible in the watercolor into crisply delineated straight edges.
Through these adjustments and changes, Sheeler tightened the already strong geometry evident in the watercolor into a world based on three simple shapes: triangle, rectangle, and cylinder. The only elements present that do not precisely conform to one of these shapes—the piles in the storage bins and the clouds in the sky—are organic rather than man-made. Yet they, too, are ultimately subsumed by geometry, for the group of bins in perspective and the swath of clouds form two great triangles that echo each other in reverse. In Classic Landscape, Sheeler created his most elegant proof of what he had asserted just two years earlier, "that a picture could have incorporated in it the structural design implied in abstraction and be presented in a wholly realistic manner."
Classic Landscape is, of course, more than simply an aesthetic demonstration piece, for its subject, the modern industrial landscape, embraced a number of meanings. Sheeler's photographs of the Rouge plant mainly centered on the manufacturing processes of the plant, on its functions and its purposes. That is hardly surprising given their origins in the commission from Ford. But in selecting subjects for paintings he was free to do as he wished, so it is significant that he chose not to depict scenes that had to do with the production of automobiles, the main purpose of the Rouge. Rather, he selected a more anonymous scene, not tied to a specific place or use, but representative generally of the landscape of industry. That, in part, explains his use in the painting's title of the word "classic," with its connotations of typical or standard. But "classic," of course, also evokes the culture of ancient Greece and Rome, and Sheeler surely intended that association as well. In that light, Classic Landscape, a world of clarity, precision, and order, could be seen as a modern equivalent of the highest achievements of the classical past. Indeed, as has often been pointed out, the silos of the cement plant suggest the forms of a Greek Doric temple. In this juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient (if only by implication), Classic Landscape reminds one of the early "metaphysical" cityscapes of the Italian surrealist Giorgio De Chirico (Italian, 1888 - 1978). Paintings by De Chirico like The Soothsayer's Recompense [fig. 8] and The Arrival (1912–1913, The Barnes Foundation), with their dramatically receding perspectives, stark shadows, sharply delineated forms, eerie emptiness, and smoking machines played off against classical buildings, may well have influenced Sheeler in the Rouge paintings. But whereas De Chirico's fantasies are tinged with nostalgia for the past and uneasiness about the potential inadequacies of the present, Sheeler's real American scene implies a more harmonious accommodation of past and present.
Indeed, for Sheeler the issue was clearly not that the silos looked like an ancient temple, but that their appearance was the result of similar principles of design that were attuned to form and function rather than to superficial style. In a 1925 essay, he observed that the foundation of Greek art lay in its "perfect adjustment of concrete form to abstract thought. . . . as great purity of plastic expression may be achieved through the medium of objective forms as has been thought to be obtainable by some of our present day artists, by means of a purely abstract presentation of forms."
Sheeler was not, of course, alone in such reasoning and in seeing its relevance to his own time. In 1927, Le Corbusier's Vers Une Architecture, first published in 1923 in French, appeared in an English edition as Towards a New Architecture. Sheeler very likely knew the book. Moreover, it may well have been influential in leading Vaughn Flannery to commission the Rouge photographs, for Le Corbusier's book was full of praise for American industrial architecture. Towards a New Architecture opens with a section entitled "The Engineer's Aesthetic and Architecture," in which Le Corbusier rejects the dominance of style in determining architectural form and stresses instead three essential principles: "MASS . . . the element by which our senses perceive and measure and are most fully affected. SURFACE . . . the envelope of the mass and which can diminish or enlarge the sensation the latter gives us. PLAN . . . the generator both of mass and surface and . . . that by which the whole is irrevocably fixed." He continued: "Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see forms in light; light and shade reveal these forms; cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage; the image of these is distinct and tangible within us and without ambiguity. It is for that reason that these are beautiful forms, the most beautiful forms." For Le Corbusier, history offered ample evidence to support his views: "Egyptian, Greek or Roman architecture is an architecture of prisms, cubes and cylinders, pyramids or spheres: the Pyramids, the Temple of Luxor, the Parthenon, the Coliseum, Hadrian's Villa." But when he surveyed the buildings of his own time Le Corbusier found that engineers, not architects, were the ones who understood these principles:
Not in the pursuit of an architectural idea, but simply guided by the results of calculation (derived from the principles which govern our universe) and the conception of A LIVING ORGANISM, the ENGINEERS of to-day make use of the primary elements and, by coordinating them in accordance with the rules, provoke in us architectural emotions and thus make the work of man ring in unison with the universal order.
Thus we have the American grain elevators and factories, the magnificent FIRST-FRUITS of the new age. THE AMERICAN ENGINEERS OVERWHELM WITH THEIR CALCULATIONS OUR EXPIRING ARCHITECTURE.
Le Corbusier's ideas were much influenced by the achievements of modernist painting in the first decades of the 20th century, and he recognized what he called "the vital change brought about by cubism and later researches." His identification of architecture's fundamental forms brings to mind not only the works of Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881 - 1973) and Georges Braque (French, 1882 - 1963), but also recalls Paul Cézanne's advice to "treat nature by the means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything brought into proper perspective." Cézanne, and later Picasso and Braque, were crucial catalysts for Sheeler as he moved away from the rather conventional manner of painting he learned from his teacher William Merritt Chase (American, 1849 - 1916), so Le Corbusier's thoughts must have had particular appeal for him. And it is likely, too, that Sheeler took special notice of the illustrations in Towards a New Architecture, several of which depicted structures remarkably similar to those he would paint in Classic Landscape [fig. 9]. This would suggest, then, that at the time he painted Classic Landscape Sheeler must have shared Le Corbusier's favorable and optimistic view of the potential such commercial structures held for inspiring the development of a new and more humane functional architecture. Sheeler also identified industrial scenes as the loci of a new kind of secular spirituality. As he said in an oft-quoted remark: "it may be true, as has been said, that our factories are our substitutes for religious expression."
The iconic power and special importance of Classic Landscape were recognized from the time of its first exhibition at Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery in New York in 1931. The following year it was purchased by Edsel Ford, making it the only one of Sheeler's Rouge paintings to be owned by the Ford family. As its exhibition record indicates, Classic Landscape in the years since has been one of the most widely shown of all American 20th-century paintings. It has also long been central to virtually every discussion of an American style known as precisionism, even though the definition and use of that term have been the subject of wide and continuous scholarly debate. Like so many other art historical labels, including impressionism and cubism, precisionism functions best as an umbrella term under which a number of artists (for example, George Ault (American, 1891 - 1948), Francis Criss, Charles Demuth (American, 1883 - 1935), Preston Dickinson, and Miklos Suba, in addition to Sheeler) with similar aesthetic sensibilities may be grouped. Attempts to hone the definition to the point where it can be used consistently to identify what is or is not a precisionist painting or who was or was not a precisionist inevitably become uselessly hobbled by restrictions, exceptions, and complications. Moreover, many of Sheeler's and other American artists' works have affinities with, and were doubtless influenced by, works from abroad, whether the paintings of the German Neue Sachlichkeit artists, the French purists, or even the Russian constructivists.
In the end, of course, the exceptional power and haunting beauty of Classic Landscape are due not to the sources and influences behind its creation or the meanings it may convey, important as all of those may be. Like so many truly great works of art it is perfect and complete in itself, requiring neither additions nor deletions, nor reference to anything but itself. And Sheeler knew perfectly well just how removed what he had created was from the actualities of the real world. This was art, not life. When asked why he had not included people in Classic Landscape, he tellingly replied: "Well, it’s my illustration of what a beautiful world it would be if there were no people in it." Sheeler's friend the poet William Carlos Williams also understood what he had achieved. Classic Landscape, in his words, was a "separate reality.”
September 29, 2016