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Monday, 3 May 2010

William Carlos Williams: Classic Scene


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
stacks -- aluminum --

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 --

William Carlos Williams, 1937, from Poems 1936-1939

Classic Landscape
: Charles Sheeler. 1931 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

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


phaneronoemikon said...

gives our own clunkachank ruse the monumentality of old egypt
and with a wry tang of flesh
to boot.


TC said...


Yes, a weird Nile Valley 'toon feel to this.

In the top image I have spied a single antlike human figure 3" from left margin and 2 1/2" down from the top, next to two red brick colored loaf-shaped chunks and at the foot of some sort of metal strut structure. Just for scale perhaps?

Sheeler didn't want organic images and instead wanted to record the new triumph of industrial management with its specific structural geometries. His mechanical world has a certain chilly creeping organic quality to it, though. I think he was on the Ford payroll for a while.

Curtis Roberts said...

Spending the day with these Sheelers, something I haven’t done for a while, and some other Sheeler paintings, photographs and interviews (from the Archives of American Art) has been super-great, for themselves and for the other names that popped up. (Apart from Williams, there were Demuth and Schamberg, of course, and Duchamp, Picabia, Gleizes, Man Ray, Mina Loy and all the Others, not to mention the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.) This poem and these paintings seem to be speaking in unison. The Ford Motor Company made a very intelligent decision retaining Sheeler’s services. Could that ever happen again?

TC said...


Happy to hear that you've been rediscovering the Sheelers as I have.

On the question of would another Sheeler be hired by another Ford, I doubt there will ever be either another Sheeler or another Ford.

(The old River Rouge dynamism would probably be harder for a contemporary Dorothy to find her way back to, these days, than was Kansas once, for the girl in that other bit of mythology.)

But in a mutated way the question certainly remains pertinent.

Most artists of most epochs have lived by (whether or not they were honest enough to admit it) the Damon Runyon adage, Get the Money.

For better or worse.

I will never forget the transitional passage in Robert Flaherty's Lousiana Story -- his last film, 1948, financed by Standard Oil, nominally with "no strings attached" -- in which the child's myth-world of a bayou swamp-pastoral golden age, barefoot lad and wild critters in lovely daily harmony, is disrupted when the oil surveyors show up; and then soon enough, the drill rigs, the platforms, and History. The invasion is seen as intrusive, acceptable, necessary, and progressive, all at once. A great, confusing, deeply troubling film.

In recent years I have noted some of the most poetic of movie directors, Hou Hsiao-hsien would be a salient example, doing short films for high end automotive firms, BMW in specific. I don't think Hou's films have been the same since.

The funding for his films now comes from Europe, I believe.

Hou of course is Taiwanese. I have also admired the work of the mainland director Jia Zhangke. But in Jia's most recent films, too, there are disturbing hints that the images deployed to analyze the sense of loss and change, in the historical passage from heavy industrial to the "new" modernized economy, are being coloured by the varying tints of the funding sources. In his recent 24 City, a former factory complex is demolished to make way for new Western-style condo developments. Learning that Jia received sponsorship from the new development project merely underscored, for me, the feeling of a basic ambiguity of motivation and view at the core of the work.

(But of course one would be able to attain a lofty elevation of holier- than-thou-ness on this issue only after one had turned down the sponsorship opportunities oneself.)

Lally said...

There was an article in a recent New Yorker about the giant mural Julie Mehretu created (with the help of many assistants etc.) and then letters in a following New Yorker condemning her for it because it was paid for by Goldman Sachs for their new Manhattan building. I felt some understanding for both positions. As someone who has written a lot of stuff for hire over the years, as well as acted for hire, I felt I was using whatever creative talent(s) and impulses I had to put bread on the table for my kids, but I was also constantly turning stuff down even when I desperately needed the wok because I didn't want to in any way support certain messages or corporations etc. (e.g. I had the chance to get in on the video game biz using my voice for bad guys, especially evil bosses, but since I felt and feel violent video games contribute to violence in those most susceptible to them, like young boys, I turned them down, as opposed to contributing to the voiceover in Drugstore Cowboy not with my voice but with my writing, a film I thought I could help by inserting language that might make it easier for a non addict audience to understand that compulsion better, etc.). All this to say I don't know what Sheeler's financial situation was or that much about his life and how necessary it might have felt for him to let Ford pay for some of his art, but I do know that as a working-class kid with little education his paintings appealed to me enormously because they reminded me of what I loved most about the industrial landscapes in my part of New Jersey and reaffirmed my boyhood belief that I had a right to not only dig art but understand it in terms of my own life and surroundings. Thus Sheeler's art became a touchstone for my development as a poet even before WC Williams did.

Curtis Roberts said...

Tom and Lally: Both of your comments re Sheeler, Flaherty and the other film makers, Ford, corporate funding and sponsorship, and the things we find and remember as beautiful in the industrial landscape are fascinating.

Obviously, people used to think about Ford (and our other major US car makers) quite differently than we do today. As for corporate sponsorship, my wife spent her career in the music business doing publicity and was working when the world began to be gifted by such odd events as "Jovan" presenting the Rolling Stones, etc. The only one of those tie-ups that ever seemed seamless to me and to have some integrity was when Caroline assisted the band The Stray Cats on a tour being promoted by Dos Equis beer. The group liked the beer (and had no trouble saying so sincerely in order to have their touring expenses defrayed) and were kept in good supply. Relative to other products, beer seemed fairly benign and thematically consistent with the enterprise.

TC said...

Michael and Curtis,

How interesting, indeed.

Back in the days before I became permanently unemployable I had a few amusing experiences in this area, as I am reminded by my faithful Muse.

I was once hired to write a history of bagels, for instance.

Strike out, swinging, before penny one.

Another time I was given a choice (by an ad agency) of American female Winter Olympians about whom to compose a poetic encomium. There was a hockey player, a soccer player (Mia Hamm), and Picabo Street, the skier. I seem to have picked the hockey player, whose name I have repressed because... whiff! again!

Dos Equis, though, that one I bet I could have knocked out of the park, once upon a time.

Curtis Roberts said...

I expect that The History Of Bagels by Tom Clark is something that would attract a discriminating audience. Sign me up, please.

I don’t know whether this was the assignment you weren’t able to proceed with or not, but some time ago (I’m hazy about the dates, but the memory is sharp and clear), we saw a man being interviewed on US television who spoke about his experiences introducing the bagel into Japan.

As I recall, he was an American teaching in Japan for some reason, who had entrepreneurial instincts. Based on his contacts with students and others, he thought the Japanese market was primed for bagels. He obtained backing and prepared his marketing campaign. Initially the product was to be introduced in frozen form to prolong shelf-life. If it took off, the plans were to introduced daily-baked fresh bagels.

Included in the product literature was the historical description: “Bagels are first boiled, then baked”.

Japanese consumers, who purchased the product in frozen form IN DROVES, read this legend on the packaging and went home and dutifully boiled and then baked their frozen bagels.

I’m not sure what the current sales figures are for bagels in Japan, but apparently people were satisfied with the product then.

TC said...

Well, Curtis, my error was taking the assignment seriously and proceeding as though the ... shall we say unleavened (?) factual history were sufficient.

It was not.

I've had a few of those. Let's see, there was the life of Gutenberg...

The other evening I ran into a fellow who makes large boxes for large cameras, and as he worked along, and told me the name of his latest client, I related the tale of Gutenberg's complicated relations with his father-in-law, who happened to have the same name as the client... and this entered into the history of the financing of the purchase of moveable type, and then later, the foreclosure and repossession of same... the tragedy of Gutenberg... and I noticed my friend the cabinet maker was struggling politely to keep up with the story.

In that moment I realized where I had gone wrong with my life of Gutenberg... too much FACT.

Ditto with the bagels.

Curtis Roberts said...

That is my tendency also. A man I worked for said to me early in our relationship: "I asked you what time it was, not how to make a watch". Fortunately, he liked me, but I was guided by his advice in our future professional dealings. That being said, the Gutenberg tale has valuable information. Your friend was probably at the end of a long day. I expect he has re-told the story by now.

Curtis Faville said...

Penguins always leave me with a feeling of delight and awe.

Whether it's because they seem so marginally adapted to the existence that circumstances have dictated for them, or because they seem accidentally to personify some fairly typical proto-human characteristics which we cherish, I'm not certain.

In their necessarily stoic endurance, they are inspiring. In their oddly awkward gait and heft, they're almost pitiable. Caught in a snag of genetic descent, neither fish nor fowl nor land-animal.

Will global warming finally finish them off? We'll never know--at least anyone in our own generation.

TC said...

Interesting as it may be to momentarily imagine Johan Gutenberg as a penguin... Curtis F, shall I take it your lovely comment about penguins, which strikes a deep chord with me, is meant to attend the post above on Cape Horn, which has a photo of penguins in the Falklands?

In any case, the pathos in this is quite touching:

"In their necessarily stoic endurance, they are inspiring. In their oddly awkward gait and heft, they're almost pitiable. Caught in a snag of genetic descent, neither fish nor fowl nor land-animal..."

Some penguins, for your enjoyment.