The Meaning of Charles Sheeler

I’m pretty excited about a small exhibit of works by Charles Sheeler that opened today at the National Gallery. Also interesting is some of the commentary surrounding his artwork. Both a noted photographer and painter Charles Sheeler is best known for a series of iconic photographs he produced on commission by the Ford Motor Company, and his serene paintings of industrial landscapes made in later years. I learned about Sheeler from a Marxist art history professor who had us read Karen Lucic’s Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine, which argues in intricate detail his pictures aren’t simply celebrations of industrialization but instead subtle commentary about the awesome and inhuman power and scale of the machine age. In her eyes, his later paintings reflect the reality of the great depression and growing unrest by workers over conditions and pay. Lucic compares Sheeler’s 1931 Classic Landscape (part of the National Gallery’s exhibit) and openly socialist muralist Diego Rivera’s massive Detroit Institute of Art mural about auto production, arguing Rivera celebrated the workers’ by placing them at center stage, while Sheeler’s “River Rouge paintings comment on the plight of workers by excluding or minimizing them; their diminished presence adumbrates a state of powerlessness in a dehumanized, technocratic environment.” (p. 103)

Thus I was quite shocked to read an article in Post claim that “Instead of abandoning the superb images he’d made as a photographer, Sheeler chose to convert them into labored drawings and finicky, half-dead paintings.” The Post’s ever-controversial Blake Gopnik argues Sheeler’s paintings mean he “capitulated to the conservative realities of the American art market, and of bourgeois art appreciation.” If Gopnik is aware of competing interpretations of Sheeler’s painting he doesn’t hint at it in his review. At the very end of his article Gopnik says the curator, Charles Brock, “argues convincingly that Sheeler wanted to make art for art’s sake, divorced from the social world he made it in … ” The National Gallery’s exhibit webpage doesn’t hint at this opinion, just explaining the exhibit focuses on the “complex, often paradoxical relationships between photography, film, drawing, printmaking” in Sheeler’s art.

When I attend I’m going to take the opportunity to decide for myself what I think, and keep my eye open at the exhibit for any mention the potential political meaning of Sheeler’s work.

Author: Rob Goodspeed