Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Industrial Archeology: Motor City, Mythic Vistas (Charles Sheeler, 1928-1932)


American Landscape: Charles Sheeler. 1930 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

River Rouge Plant: Charles Sheeler, 1932 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)

River Rouge Industrial Plant: Charles Sheeler, 1928 (Carnegie Museum of Art. Pittsburgh)

"You often feel, in Sheeler, the presence of an artist who wanted to submit himself to structures and ideologies larger than himself, as though - whatever doubts he might have had about them - they promised security. And the ideology of American managerial industrialism underwrote that promise. So he set out to become its artist laureate.

"It is difficult, today, to imagine the enthusiasm with which Americans (and especially American managers) in the 1920s embraced the idea of the machine as a model and regulator of working life. It grew out of Henry Ford's use of the production line in mass car manufacture. Ford declared in 1909 that he was going to democratize the auto, that "when I'm through everybody will be able to afford one, and about everyone will have one." He produced millions of identical cars in exactly the same way, by breaking down each stage of their making into small repetitive units of work, each of which could be performed, hundreds of times a day, not by a craftsman but by an ordinary worker in charge of a single, specialized machine. These work-molecules flowed into the river of the production line, watched over by a hierarchy of managers. In 1914, the year full production-line assembly began at the Ford plant in Detroit, the basic black Model T cost $490, a quarter of what the cheaper sort of American car had cost ten years before, and 248,000 Fords were sold; by 1924 the car was down to $290, and in 1919, on the eve of the Wall Street crash, American automakers produced 4.8 million units. The sales graph had gone almost vertical.

"Ford, omnipotent crank that he was, believed he had invented something like a new religion, based on industry. It would lead to a United States of the World, with himself - the complete anti-humanist, serene and objective in his understanding of process, the literal deus ex machina - as its messiah. "The man who builds a factory builds a temple. The man who works there, worships there." Even the defective human body, a meat machine, would in time be fixed with interchangeable parts. History, he famously pronounced, was bunk, and "machinery is accomplishing in the world what man has failed to do by preaching propaganda or the written word." And doubters were to Ford - as skeptics about one-world "Interactivity" are to Internet votaries today - contemptible Luddites, dust beneath the pneumatic tires of the certain future.

"In 1927 the Ford Motor Company hired Charles Sheeler to spend six weeks in its River Rouge plant, taking photographs. Sheeler was so deeply impressed that he would echo Ford's bizarre pieties about industrial religion: "Our factories," wrote the artist, "are our substitute for religious expression." And so, in Sheeler's photographs of River Rouge, they became. The interiors of the mighty factory buildings are high, clean, invested with a numinous light, and free of all human presences except when they are needed to give scale. His image of a stamping press expresses the fantasy of the machine as cult object, with no hint of the often boring, dehumanizing, and dangerous character of factory work: impassive and objective, the godlike engine is served by its tiny acolyte. And in 1929, not long after he made his photograph of crisscrossing conveyors at the Ford plant, he took a similar one of a much earlier form: the flying buttresses at the crossing of Chartres Cathedral.

"But the painting that most succinctly expressed his feelings about big industry is American Landscape, 1930. It holds no nature at all, except for the sky (into which a plume of effluents rises from a tall smokestack) and the water of a dead canal. Whatever can be seen is man-made, and the view has a curious and embalmed serenity, produced by the regular cylinders of silos and smokestack and the dark authoritarian arms of the loading machinery to the right. The sphere, the cube, and the cylinder are no longer things to be sought in nature, as Cezanne had once recommended: in the mighty abstraction of process and product, they have replaced nature altogether. The ancient tension between nature and culture is over. Culture has won. It has colonized all the space in the American imagination that nature once claimed. The world of Thomas Cole is finally, irreparably, concreted over. One human figure remains, and you can hardly see him, or it, at first: a tiny, scurrying ant, on the tracks by the canal, between the uncoupled boxcars."

Robert Hughes: excerpt from American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, 1998 (via artchive)


Anonymous said...

It was very, very exciting to see this pop up just the other minute. Seeing these Sheelers -- some of my favorites -- reproduced so beautifully raises the spirits ahead of another challenging gray day. I think Hughes has this basically wrong and loads (and re-loads) the dice to support his deadening, flat conclusion. But I will think about this some more.

No nature? That light. Those clouds. That sky and, yes, that water.

I tend to discount and try to keep artists' statements about their work -- especially “pull-quotes” selected by critics – in perspective and set them against both the individual pieces I’m looking at and their entire body of work. Caroline’s career arranging publicity for musicians showed me over and over that it’s easy to speak too loosely when people are asking you for comments all the time and that comments are very easily distorted.

These are very fine artworks imbued with life and spirit. I’d love to say that Ford served Sheeler, rather than the other way around. But at the very least it’s a draw or a non-event in the way that Hughes posits.

Mythic Visas -- that's great.

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

I was hoping you might let your January 29th poem be included in the Annandale Dream Gazette:

Please let me know. Thanks,
Lynn Behrendt

TC said...


Well said, and reasonable enough, though in retrospect, the early XX Century worship of technology does appear a bit naïve and sanguine, given what's gone down since.

(This is the first in a series of posts intended to describe the hundred-year-arc of the particular technology in question).

But, yes, who can deny that Sheeler's paintings are every bit as strong as you suggest.

TC said...


Certainly you may use "In Bill's Backyard, Bolinas".

(And I'd appreciate it if, once you've put it up, you'd drop a comment on my January 29 post -- or for that matter any current post -- and let me know. Many thanks!)

TC said...

Curtis, oh my, yes, "Mythic Visas" does have a certain ring to it, now that you mention it... but as a matter of fact "Visas" was actually a typo for "Vistas" (now corrected).

As I am currently blaming all my many errors and oopses on the convenient catch-all excuse of massive doses of heavy-duty Sulfa drugs, let's just put it down to that, and not to senior dementia... quite yet.

Anonymous said...

Ok, "Vistas". "Visas" was good, though. I'm not sure it was meant to, but your post, which I first viewed/read while drinking a very satisfying cup of coffee really raised my morning spirits (something I don't usually associate with reading Robert Hughes, although believe me I have nothing against him). I've been "humming Sheelers" all morning and trying again unsuccessfully (which is ok; the process and pathways are interesting) to work out his thoughts and those of his close friend and colleague, the mysterious Morton Schamberg, vis-a-vis modern life and technology -- trying to tie them into the larger picture.

aditya said...

Some times its just a brilliant illusion of chimneys shooting up clouds in the sky.
Too good to pass.

In here we have Mr. Tata who had promised a car under One Lakh rupees some time ago. Make that 2000 dollars. They have built plenty and sold plenty. It is now, the cheapest car on the planet. They are following the model of Gandhian Engineering (Frugal Engineering).


Or maybe this is what poverty is today. I need to revamp and get modern 'asap'!

Gandhi on the other hand, was greatly inspired by Thoreau.

If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? - THoreau.

On the other hand, this morning while walking past a grand Oberoi hotel -

Two children peeping
into each other's
rag sacks -- for toys (?)

And the clouds are getting darker every minute.
Would it rain tonight?



Yes, great to see these paintings here. Curtis is right -- "No nature? That light. Those clouds. That sky and, yes, that water."


light coming into sky above still black
plane of ridge, red-tailed hawk calling
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

shows itself, appearance as
“fact” that is itself

everything else, not looked
at, not as I imagined

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
sunlit green of pine of tip of sandspit

TC said...

Aditya, brilliant photos, those, for these apocalyptic times.

Emissions on the wind, going where?

And a beautiful haiku, to keep us in touch with the pathos of reality in the living moment.

Your ragpicker child possesses more humanity than a billion motor vehicles, even the new allegedly guilt-assuaging "energy efficient" (i.e. ultra-expensive bougie-snob) models.

The idea of Western-style Democracy without automobiles is evidently unthinkable (which is one of the salient reasons why achieving "Western-style Democracy" remains in many respects a dubious objective.)

Message from the universe: "Get out of your car and walk while you still have legs, humanoids!!"

If Gandhi and Thoreau were in Tahrir Square today might not they too not be chanting: "We Want Our Humanity Back?

Meanwhile, what can we do but watch and listen, pray if we have any gods, and in any case, since we have no other choice, do as Steve's poem proposes, trust in

appearance as
“fact” that is itself

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

Thanks Tom. The poem will be posted on Sunday.

aditya said...

The birth of an extra car
at the end
is the denomination
of a loss of breath each day.

appearance as
“fact” that is itself


idea of Western-style Democracy

Great. Absolutely Tom.

Plus your choice of the word 'humanity' is true.

Richness, especially when it makes somebody poor is sort of a typo too Tom. Much less fun than the green tea/sea, busy/busty, mythic visas/vistas. Some times of the month I live this very typo.

I have been accused of talking of the rich and poor just because I do not possess enough money. Meanwhile, what can we do but watch and listen, pray if we have any gods, and in any case, since we have no other choice, do as Steve's poem proposes, trust in

appearance as
“fact” that is itself



I saw the most recent post and I just knew one of the origins straightaway.

Th fish are awake. The dog(s) are guarding the watchman.

TC said...


A lapse in the attention of a septuagenarian is never a surprise, but it is nonetheless regrettable that I had somehow managed to miss this comment until just now -- when, by a curious irony, I came back to the post to dispatch a blurt of commercial spam from some objectionable hydra- or hydro-industrial source.

Still that latest twist turned out to be a nice piece of luck, since I have now discovered my favourite poem of the day (well, night, which with me counts for the same):

The birth of an extra car
at the end
is the denomination
of a loss of breath each day.

We have so little breath left to us, how can we afford to lose any of it, even if we are poor.

Anyhow... the fish are awake, for the moment. Thanks, my friend.