Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sheeler's Classic Landscape

When John Updike died, I decided that it was time for a self-guided tutorial on postwar American authors. An old copy of The Harper American Literature, vol. 2 (1987) is my guide. The aesthetics of this edition bring me back to my college years. Remember those literature surveys with 300-page weekly assignments? Remember the textbooks, and the thousands of tightly bound, fragile, onion skin pages?

The mammoth that sits on my reading table has Classic Landscape (1931) by Charles Sheeler on the cover. Sheeler is one of my favorite American painters, and I fully understand why the editors chose this image to visually represent American literary modernity from Walt Whitman to Toni Morrison.

After indulging in Nabokov's "Terra Incognita" (1963), James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1960), and Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." (1941), I close the book and take a break from the written word. It's time to judge the book by the cover. With Karen Lucic as my guide (
Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine, 1991), I explore the problems behind this industrial landscape.

Sheeler painted Classic Landscape in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression. The scene depicts the Ford Motor Company's industrial complex on the Rouge River. Henry Ford moved his factory from Highlands Park to Dearborn in 1927, as he also introduced the Model A. The advertising agency of Ayer & Sons managed the company's new image and commissioned Sheeler to photograph the site. Sheeler's 32 official photos appeared on popular magazines like Vanity Fair and celebrated the factories as cathedrals of industry. American images of silos and industrial architecture inspired the new generation of European architects, evident in treatises like Le Corbusier's Vers un architecture (Paris, 1923).

Three years after the Ford commission, Sheeler used his photos to model a series of paintings, including American Landscape (1930) and Classic Landscape (1931). Their execution during the Depression begs the question on Sheeler's persistence on industrial heroics even at a time of pessimism. The absence of humans in the paintings, moreover, could be construed as total disregard for human labor and lack of compassion for the miseries of unemployment. In contrast, muralist Diego Rivera used images of the Ford plant to condemn capitalism in his Detroit Industry
(1932-33), which is crowded with figures. Similarly, architects like Le Corbusier abandoned the precisionist heroics for a brutal, curvilinear, expressionist alternative. Scholars have wondered why Sheeler refused to abandon the deification of American industry that he had helped create, why he ignored the human suffering of the Depression, or whether he had no regard for the labor movement.

The best way to explain the absence of humanity and the resilience of the machine in Classic Landscape is to recognize the poetic beauty of the work as a form of humanist triumph. Our guide in redeeming Sheeler's poetics should be no other than his contemporary, the poet William Carlos Williams. In a 1939 essay, Williams explains the artist's overwhelmingly humanless industrial landscape as follows: "Sheeler was devoted himself mainly to ... landscapes with little direct reference to humanity. This does not in the least make him inhuman, since when man becomes insignificant in his attributes and swollen to fill the horizon the representation of the human face is not enlightening." (Lucic 1991, p. 105) And even more potent is Williams' own industrial passivity expressed in his 1937 poem "Classic Scene" (Lucic 1991, pp. 106-107):

A power-house
in the shape of
a red brick chair
90 feet high

on the seat of which
sit the figures
of two metal

commanding an area
of squalid shacks
side by side -
from one of which

buff smoke streams while under
a grey sky
the other remains

passive today -

It's a shame that the editors of Harper American Literature lacked the art-historical insight to include this poem in their anthology and have Sheeler's and Williams' classic landscapes reverberate. In the postwar period (the literature of which I'm reading), Sheeler was heavily criticized as an apologist for capitalist exploitation. But his paintings seem to move beyond political activism in order to express a deeper existential ambivalence. They engage industry with an American pastoral tradition.
Lucic most eloquently describes the dialectical tensions inherent in Sheeler's Ford landscapes: "They speak to us in ways that are not easily analyzed--touching our needs to idealize as well as our fears of being annihilated by the object of our regard. Bringing conflicting hopes and anxieties to the surface, albeit subtly, they not only express ideology but also enact is own virtual unmasking and self-criticism. While such works relate to the hyperbolic rhetoric about industry during this era, they also turn the rhetoric in on itself to reveal its hollow core." (Lucic 1991, p. 117)

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States