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Wednesday, 4 June 2014

CHARLES SHEELER (1883–1965) - American painter and photographer of industrial subjects

Charles SheelerRiver Rouge Plant, 1932. Oil on canvas, 20 × 24 1/8 in. (50.8 × 61.3 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
American painter and photographer of industrial subjects

By Alexandra A. Jopp

Charles Sheeler, one of America’s leading Modernists, found formal beauty in machinery, the principal emblem of modernity

Charles Sheeler, a central figure in American Realism and one of the most interesting and ambitious American artists, was known for producing compelling images of the Machine Age. During his prolific career, Sheeler employed machines, factory complexes near Detroit, New York skyscrapers, locomotive engines, power plants and barns as subjects for his pictures and used painting, drawing, and photography in his works, often in combination. Trained in Impressionist approaches to landscape themes, he experimented with painterly compositions before finding and mastering his outwardly depopulated landscape style, now often called precisionism. In this manner, Sheeler illustrated the beauty objects, even in the absence of people.

[Doylestown House—The Stove], 1917
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Gelatin silver print; 9 1/16 x 6 7/16 in. (23.1 x 16.3 cm)
Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1933 
© The Lane Collection

Water, 1945
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Oil on canvas; 24 x 29 1/8 in. (61 x 74 cm)
Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1949 

Golden Gate, 1955
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Oil on canvas
H. 25 1/8 in. (63.8 cm), W. 34 7/8 in. (88.5 cm)
George A. Hearn Fund, 1955 

Delmonico Building, 1926
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Image: 9 3/4 x 6 3/4 in. (24.7 x 17.1 cm); sheet: 15 9/16 x 11 7/16 in. (39.5 x 29 cm)
John B. Turner, 1968.

Criss–Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company, 1927
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Gelatin silver print; 9 1/4 x 7 3/8 in. (23.5 x 18.8 cm)
Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987 
© The Lane Collection

The Open Door, 1932
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Conté crayon on paper, mounted on cardboard; H. 23 3/4 in. (60.3 cm), W. 18 in. (45.7 cm)
Edith and Milton Lowenthal Collection, Bequest of Edith Abrahamson Lowenthal, 1991 

Americana, 1931
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Oil on canvas; 48 x 35 in. (121.9 x 91.4 cm)
Edith and Milton Lowenthal Collection, Bequest of Edith Abrahamson Lowenthal, 1991 

Upper Deck, ca. 1928
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Gelatin silver print
Image: 25.3 x 20.2 cm (9 15/16 x 7 15/16 in.)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, Anonymous Gift and The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2005.
A native of Philadelphia, Charles Sheeler was born on July 16, 1883, the only child of Charles Rettew and Mary Cunningham Sheeler. He began his artistic training from 1900 to 1903 at the Philadelphia School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts), where he was introduced “to the various orders of ornament, Greek, Egyptian, Romanesque and others, and the application of them as designs for carpets, wall-papers and other two-dimensional surfaces.”1 Sheeler spent the next three years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied with William Merritt Chase, who taught Sheeler a fluid, Impressionistic style. He spent two summers in England while studying with Chase, then visited Holland in 1904 and Spain in 1905. During his visits to Europe, Sheeler acquired an admiration for Spanish motifs, in particular those of Velazquez, Goya and the Dutch painters whom the artist saw exhibited at the National Gallery of London. In 1908, accompanied by artist and friend Morton Schamberg, Sheeler traveled through northern Italy, where he saw works by the Italian masters. On a trip to Paris, he was drawn to the works of Matisse and the Cubists, particularly Picasso and Cézanne, finding in them a new direction for his art. He had a Cubist period in 1913, but his involvement with abstract forms was brief. From 1913 to 1916, he focused on painting landscapes.

Following his return from Paris, Sheeler shared a studio with Schamberg while also renting a house in Doylestown, Penn., where he turned to commercial photography as a way to support his attempts at Modern painting. For the next several years, he concentrated on photographs of buildings, taking pictures of farmhouses around Doylestown while continuing his experiments with Modernism.

After the untimely death of Schamberg in 1918, Sheeler moved to New York. The next year, he joined with Paul Strand, a photographer and filmmaker, on a novel short film, Manhatta, which interpreted the urban environment as a demonstration of human power and vision. The film focused on functionalism and industrial forms and is considered the first avant-garde film made in America. During the next decade, Sheeler continued working in his Manhattan studio as a freelance illustrator and advertising photographer. In 1927, he was commissioned to photograph the Ford Motor Company’s new River Rouge plant outside Detroit. He produced 20 photographs, two drawings and four oil paintings of the plant, helping to build his reputation as a machinery artist.

In 1929, Sheeler produced one of his best known works, Upper Deck, a portrayal of shipboard architecture, which, with its pristine, geometrical surfaces, launched the artist’s architectural phase. This phase continued for the rest of his career, with the artist focusing on conceptual contrasts such as “figure/ground, dark/light, object/void, inside/outside, personal/impersonal, and realism/abstraction … animated by a rich interplay of media.”2 Sheeler liked black, especially when it appeared next to white, as in Winter Window (1941) and The Open Door (1932).
In the mid-1940s, Sheeler’s style changed dramatically. He moved from detailed realism toward more abstract compositions, and his later oil paintings became considerably larger in scale. He worked mostly from images of architecture that were seen as overlapping and transparent forms, as from photographic double exposures. He moved away from soft, iridescent tones toward dazzling paint, and his favorite hues in these years were blues, maroon, rose and lavender, often used in subtle shades so that a barn or a factory wall would appear almost translucent.
The highlights of Sheeler’s oeuvre, both early and late in his career, combine silhouette and matter, the reminiscent and the newly seen. His paintings, with their photographic foundations, reflect “nature seen from the eyes outward [and] comprise nothing less than a fifty-year exploration of his understanding of reality.” 3

Sheeler died on May 7, 1965.

The following text comes from "The Black Book," a bound notebook in which artist, late in life, set down with characteristic economy his distilled ideas. 

The Miracle of Spring - the first leaf buds and with them the reassurance of the life making a new beginning. The trees in mid-summer with their opulence of celebration. This unbelievable swan-song of Autumn - the fragrance of burning leaves in the air. The man-made architecture inlaid in these environments to serve its several purposes. The look on the faces of human beings in accord with circumstance. 
These are among the experiences of artists from which their work derives.
Somewhere near the beginning of my career it was a practice to make excursions into the countryside, with a sketch-box, to record in the paint the thing seen. On one of these excursions, seated by the roadside before my subject, I was accosted by a man who, with permission asked, seated himself beside me. Some would designate his as a tramp, a convenient word for the dismissal of further consideration of him.
His occupation was that of an umbrella mender, a drop of solder on the pot of farmer's wife, in exchange for a bit of food and lodging for the night in the hayloft. As our conversation developed he quoted passages from Pope's "Essay on Man." Within my knowledge only the author understood it well. 
He also informed me in case I did not know. and I did not, that it was an especial experience to sleep among the cattle in an open field and to witness the arrival of a new day. Food must enter into the life of everyone. He had a basket on his arm, bread, tomatoes, scallions, and salt. All with the cares of the sun upon them. He invited me to share with him. It was a privilege. I do not have a name for him but I like to think of him as Adam. I also like to think of him, as well as the oak, as having come out of the earth, and that is reassuring. 
My work has continuously been based on a clue seen in Nature from which the subject of a picture may be projected. Nature, with its profound order, is an inexhaustible source of supply. Its many facets lend themselves freely to all who would help themselves for the particular needs. Each one may filter out for himself that which is essential to him. Our chief objective is to increase our capacity for perception. The degree of accomplishment determines the calibre of the Artist.
It is known that the amoeba is indispensable to the welfare of man. It is a hope that man is indispensable to the welfare of the amoeba. 
Old Zen Saying: To a man who knows nothing, Mountains are Mountains, Waters are Waters, and Trees are Trees. But when he has studied and knows a little, Mountains are no longer Mountains, Water are no longer Waters, and Trees are no longer Trees. But when he has thoroughly understood, Mountains are again Mountains, Waters are Waters, and Trees and Trees. 


Sheeler, Charles, The Black Book, reprinted in Charles Sheeler, published for the National Collection of Fine Arts by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. , 1968. 

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815) - America's First Old Master


John Singleton Copley was America's foremost painter of the 18th century. He was born in Boston, the son of Richard and Mary Copley, who had recently immigrated from Ireland. The death of young Copley's father and his mother's subsequent marriage to the English-trained engraver Peter Pelham in 1748 introduced the youth to an atmosphere where prints, paintings, and artist's supplies were familiar household accessories. Copley certainly receive dome training from his stepfather. The copies of old masters remaining in the studio at one time occupied by John Smibert gave him some idea of the traditions of European painting. 

Copley's earliest works, some of them copies after allegorical prints, date from 1753 and 1754; by 1755 he had established himself as a professional painter in Boston, turning out stiff but competent likeness in the manner of John Greenwood and Joseph Badger. The appearance of Joseph Blackburn in New England  in 1754 had an immediate effect on his style, and within a few years Copley had surprassed Blackburn's repetitive rococo formulas, probably causing the visiting foreigner to seek his fortune elsewhere. Like virtually all the colonial portraitists, Copley was influenced by the stock compositions readily available in the form of British mezzotints, but gradually he developed a personal and penetrating style, in which he effectively captured the character of the mercantile aristocracy of the pre-Revolutionary Boston.

From the outset of his career, despite his isolation in provincial Boston, Copley had been intensely interested in improving his work to meet international standards. Writing to West and Reynolds in London, he complained bitterly about the lack of interest in painting in America. "Was it not for preserving the resemblance of particular persons," he wrote, "painting would not be known in this place." Repeatedly, he sought advice from his English contemporaries, and, finally, in 1766, he nervously submitted his Boy with the Squirrel, a portrait of his half-brother Henry Pelham (private collection), to the Society of Artists in London, where, a friend of his reported , "it was universally allowed to be the best Picture of its kind that appeared on that occasion." With such evidence of Copley's ability, West and Reynolds urged him to study England before his "Manner and Taste were corrupted or fixed by working in...[his] little way at Boston."

Boy With a Squirrel by John Singleton Copley 1765.

Meanwhile, however, Copley's marriage in 1769 to the daughter of a prominent Boston merchant and his increasing prosperity in the provincial capital discouraged him from giving up the security of his well-planted roots in favor of the uncertain benefits of international study and travel. He temporarily abandoned plans to go to Europe, and with expanding reputation throughout the colonies, made arrangements for a painting trip to New York in 1771. A list of subscribers awaited his arrival and the enthusiasm with which he was greeted detained him in the city for six months.

 After several more years of feverish activity in Boston, Copley finally sailed for Europe in 1774. On the Continent he followed the traditional pilgrimage route of the traveling artist, visiting the great galleries to see the old masters and pausing briefly to execute an original painting or a copy. 

The Death of the Earl of Chatham by John Singleton Copley. c. 1779-1781.

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar. c.1782-83.

The Tribute Money, 1782.

The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781. c 1783.

Returning to England, where he was reunited with his family, who had fled from the Revolution at home, Copley soon became an important figure in the London art world. In 1776 he was elected an Associate for the Royal Academy, and in 1783 he became interested in history painting. To meet the increasing artistic demands of such projects as The Death of Chatham, The Siege of Gibraltar, The Tribute Money, and The Death of Major Pierson, he began to make a large number of preparatory drawings and oil sketches. His style of painting changed, too, and in place of the "liney" technique of his Boston portraits, he adopted a bolder and more vigorous brushstroke in the manner of his English and continental contemporaries. Although many of his later works have been severely criticized, some of them are of excellent quality and should not be condemned because of their departure from the more familiar and more intimate style of Copley's American portraits. Although always considered an American painter, Copley spent more than half his career in England working as a member of the British School. He died in London. 

The Return of Neptune, ca. 1754
The Return of Neptune

Three of Copley's earliest surviving works have mythological subjects derived from prints that he undoubtedly obtained from the shop of his painter-engraver stepfather, Peter Pelham. The Return of Neptune was based on an engraving of 1749 by Simon Francois Ravenet after a design by the Italian painter Andrea Casali. The subject is a stock cliche of Italian painting. The god of the sea, a bearded old man, moves over the waves of his watery domain in triumphal shallop drawn by a quadriga of sea horses. Neptune is attended by mermaids, tritons, and marine amorini all bearing the proper attributes - kelp, conch, trident globe, and crown - or at the very least, as in the case of the mermaids, wearing suitable expressions of satisfaction and marine prepotency. One triton is winding a blast of foghorn notes upon a conch shell to herald the approach of Neptune. These classic elements are all composed to make a correct and grandiose of trite scheme.

A comparison of this painting with a copy of the engraving shows how closely and correctly Copley followed the print, and where he used his own ideas to modify the picture. The sea horses' heads, for instance, look blocky and strange in the painting, but this is the result of his having copied the forms exactly as the engraver showed them. On the other hand, Copley supplied a horizon line and left our one or two touches that were unclear in the engraving. His main contribution, however, was in the color (presumably not indicated on the engraving), which is, even at this early stage, typical of much of his later work. Its stark primitive style, depending heavenly upon silhouette, suggests that this painting is probably earlier than Copley's Mars, Venus and Vulcan, dated 1754, and his Galatea, also generally dated 1754; it was probably painted in 1753, to which year the earliest portraits attributed to him have also been assigned. 
Brook Watson and the Shark, 1778. 

Brook Watson and the Shark

Copley's well known history painting, Brook Watson and the Shark, created a sensation when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1778. A critic for the London Morning Post numbered it among "the first performances" of the exhibition. "The softness of the coloring, the animation which is displayed in the countenances of the sailors, the efforts of the drowning boy, and the frightened appearance of the man assaulting the shark," he wrote, "constitute altogether a degree of excellence that reflects the highest honor on the composer." Although some critics thought that the postures of the figures were unconvincing, the shark was unreal, and the boat was not at a proper keel, most agreed with the General Advertiser  that the picture deserved "particularly to be praised."

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Artists of Hawaii: Reuben Tam (1916 - 1991)

Reuben Tam.View from Blackhead, 1959.

Reuben Tam was born in Hawaii, educated at the University of Hawaii and at Columbia, lived in Manhattan, and had summered for many years on Monhegan island off the cost of Maine. He was the senior painting instructor at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and has shared his insights with students at such widely separated institutions as Oregon State University in Corvallis and Skowhegan in Maine. On Monhegan, his perennial rock garden (which winter storms oblige his perennially to restore each May) is the joy of the island. He was first shown in New York by Edith Gregor Halpert at her Downtown Gallery in 1945 and today his work is included in the permanent collections of almost every major museum in the United States. A painter of the eventful in nature, Tam joins in his art a profound understanding of how nature works with a poet's gift for the lyric impulse. Since he is a poet as well as a painter, two of his poems are published here for the first time, in addition to a brief excerpt from a letter (1968).

Ruben Tam. The Island.

To put thoughts of the long years of search into words is difficult, much like trying to explain a mountain with a handful of stones. But let me try.

Always in my life it has been place. My work as a painter, my most personal concerns, my obsessions and interests and involvements, all these have their origins and substance in the spirit of place. I was born in Kauai, northernmost of the Hawaiian Islands, an island of towering volcanic mountains, deep canyons, lava headlands, and beaches. The sea was all around, intimate, and vast. I wanted to walk the shores of the world.

Geology was always the most compelling study for me. And geomorphology, especially. To be aware of the origin of land, the revision's of the earth's crust, the imminent changes of the coastline, the cycles and surprises of weather and climate. Later, I was to look upon glaciers and moraines, and to spend summers in a region of fog. The weathers of place - how they surround me in their fullness and their variety!

In most of my paintings there's the plane pf land (or sea) and the space of sky. There's always light - sunlight of morning or noon or the daytime, or moonlight, or even starlight or the light of the aurora. In painting land, I usually try to describe the terrain - rock, sand, grass, or faulting, stratification, erosion and the marks of time. I like distance in my depictions of landscape, and I can't imagine land without distance. I paint horizons.

If I say, to begin with, that my painting is a by-product of my enthusiasm for nature, then you will see that my other activities are as integral a part of my life as my painting is. Here are some things I do. I paint, I write poems, I grow vegetables, I go rock-hounding and collect rocks, I tend a large garden of perennials set among rocks, I grow exotic tropical plants indoors under fluorescent lights, I star-gaze and follow comets, I hike, explore coastlines and read maps, collect sea shells, study the hybridizing of orchids, gather edible seaweeds, photograph sunsets and storm fronts. I am a moonwatcher and I wade in tide pools. 

Poetry is my first love in literature. Certain poets have helped to give me direction, by illuminating those areas of experience that have to do with wonder, time, light, the earth, and the sea. Some of these poets are Aiken, Jeffers, Crane, W.S. Graham. Certain books were very important to me during the early years of my search  - W.H. Hudson's A Hind in Richmond Park; Rockwell Kent's Voyaging and his N by E, Bridge's The Uttermost Part of the Earth, Haberly's Pursuit of the Horizon; The life of George Catlin. And in addition, certain books on geology, oceanography, and travel.

I like places where the forces of nature are in active operation. Some of my favorite places are:
The coast of Alaska-storm-ridden, a place of grey seas and dark cliffs rent with glaciers and hanging valleys.
The Canadian Rockies - moraines, tarns, screes, towering peaks, ice fields.
The Oregon coast - a grand display of tides, weathering, and seacliffs.
The islands of Hawaii - volcanoes, rain forests, red earth, the origins of land in mid-ocean.
Monhegan Island, Maine - the drowned coast, the region of fog, grandeur and intimacy, the edge of land, and the sea.
I have also seen other interesting places: Northern California, Yukon Territory, Cape Cod, and the Bay of Fundy.
I'd like very much to visit other places with exciting weather, dramatic terrain, and most important of all, a prevalence of wilderness.  

Reuben Tam. Fault and Weathering.

Reuben Tam. Surf and Red Sky, 1967

Reuben Tam. The Dark of Fundy.

Reuben Tam. Untitled.

Reuben Tam. The Shores of Light, 1960.

Reuben Tam. Kapaa Scene.

Island Night

Walk to the shore to see moonlight.
The low wind skims the rockweed,
Blending the rustle of bay-caught drift
And our singing of a song of islands.

The warm rocks leading to the outland
Are spaced apart it seems for us, firm
As the matrix based in our keep.

There lies the sea, the full moon on us
And the amethyst waves. The current
Leans outward in a vast waste of glint.
The shoals and coves are ashen craters.

Juniper, barnacle, heath aster,
Clinging with us to the outer strata,
Ride the great ellipse this night.

In the cold fading light,
In the glare of sudden meteors,
See the screes fall away,
And the unanchored,
And the mica of our days,
And the moult of our divinity.

Among Mountains

Ultimate in a serrate sky,
In a balance of ice planes and peaks,
The range of white mountains shone,
Signed in parallels for my landscape.

But place fell into shields, scattering
Contours on an undivided plain. 
A glacier turned the ridges around,
Against the heave of a warm time.

And night was ground water seeping
Through labyrinths in rock. Terrain
Was the stay of sediment
After each passing anarchy.

Stones of the moraine, what terminal?
Crack of quartz, facet of which dark?
Taut at my step, the fault
Staggers this day I've walked into. 


Tam, Reuben, letter, October 19, 1968; poems, undated.