by Mark Van Proyen
There are times when looking backward can be helpful in fully understanding the road ahead. Take, for example, the 1955 painting Golden Gate by by Charles Sheeler. It is the most recent work contained in the sprawling and multi-faceted exhibition titled Cult of the Machine, currently at the de Young Museum until August 12. Created less than a year after the opening of Disneyland and the related onslaught of “imagineers” that were employed therein, Golden Gate presents an optimistic, almost worshipful worm’s eye view of the famous bridge, painted in crisp geometries filled out in bright, proto-Pop alternations of yellow, orange, green and blue. It marks a new beginning for American prosperity that was interrupted by the great depression, World War II and the Korean conflict, one that was brought to a slow close beginning with the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. The fact that Sheeler’s bridge looks out toward the Pacific while turning its back on the East Coast and Europe seems like a happy omen, even as it also signals the end of the machine age and the early beginning of the age of electronic media. From it’s vantage, to look forward in time is to see the unfolding of a California dream that was already making Hollywood the cultural communication center of the country, and would eventually make the San Francisco Bay Area an international center for the technological reshaping of the entire world.
To look in the opposite geographic and temporal directions is to behold the rise and slow fall of an older technological order, that being the mega-industrialization of the American East Coast and upper Mid-West. That was the age of smokestack Capitalism, which is explicitly reflected in Cult of The Machine. It got its start in the age of the robber barons of the 1890s, reaching a zenith in the two decades following the Second World War. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the engines of mass production were migrating toward the distant shores of cheap labor and exploitable resources, but from about 1913 to 1955, the American factory had become the sine qua non of an imagined future that was simultaneously viewed as a worker’s paradise and a dystopian hell. During that time, it had also become the symbolic economic engine of a new America that was quickly rising to the stature of global empire, and the central symbol of a vast reshaping of urban life that replaced the idea of the city radiating outward from a human center by recasting said city as the secondary appendage of industrial processes.
Cult of the Machinewas curated by Emma Acker. It is a wide-ranging and exceedingly well-researched survey of an interwar style in American painting, photography and design that has come to be called Precisionism, which was related to contemporaneous European movements such as Purism and Neue Sachlichkiet, as well as the work of that American-born mainstay of the Bauhaus, Lyonel Feininger. The origin of the term is murky, and it never had anything resembling a group manifesto. Nonetheless, it represents an important and still under-discussed chapter in the history of American art by virtue of how it foreshadowed so much of what would come after it. Cult of the Machine is also more than a survey of Precisionism, in that it adds several curatorial sub-plots to its central thesis, which otherwise could be seen as a recapitulation of a 1982 exhibition organized at the San Francisco Museum of Modern by Karen Tsujimoto called Images of America. Many of the same works were are included in both exhibitions, and there lies the major reason for interest in Cult of The Machine: From it, we learn that the Precisionist esthetic is what it always was, but during the intervening 36 years, our relationship to it has changed in very dramatic way.
The curatorial sub-plots mentioned above are found in Cult of the Machine’s inclusion of such things as a concours- condition Cord 81 Phaeton convertible roadster of 1937 vintage, complete with tuck-and-roll interior and super-deluxe whitewall tires. There is also a section devoted to the display of handcrafted Shaker furniture, suggesting affinities between those objects and the adroit geometries of the Precisionist paintings and photographs. The outward similarity between the Shaker and Precisionist works stems from the programmatic banishment of ornament and
the emphasis on sleek simplicities of design. And obviously, the distinctively American aspects of the two groups of objects should also be noted. On the other hand, it also needs to be remembered that the Shaker objects were created from a religious conviction that upheld the values of simplicity, utility and honest craftsmanship as humble virtues, while the machine culture so celebrated by the Precisionists were both residues and instruments of the run-away amplification of wealth.
Precisionism emerged in the wake of the First World War, and can trace its early roots to two events that happened in 1913. The first of these was the Armory Show and its subsequent controversy, which brought hundreds of examples of Cubism, Futurism and Purism to American shores for the first time. Almost all of the Precisionist painters and photographers were either in or very near to New York at the time of that exhibition, making it unimaginable to think that they were not influenced by it. The second event was the opening Henry Ford’s Crystal Palace assembly line factory at Highland Park Michigan, facilitating the manufacture of Model T motor vehicles at such small expense that the factory workers who made them could also afford to buy them. This innovation represented the beginning of something that social theorists now call Fordism, a term whose current significance lies in the way that it set the stage for the post-Fordist arrangements of our own moment, with all of the rising wealth inequality pertaining to it. It is of interest to note that Ford got his idea of mass manufacturing from watching the hook-and-pull gangs drag animal carcasses through Chicago meat packing plants. A frightening corollary to this fact is that Ford’s thesis of mass production exerted a subsequent influence on the masterminds of the Nazi final solution, prompting the use of similarly configured mechanisms for the purpose of large scale mass murder. Such are the sad lessons of history, too often ignored. On the other hand, other histories also come into play, as another part of Cult of the Machine is given over to a selection of industrial design objects and stylish consumer products that were featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1934 exhibition titled Machine Age (the first inaugurated by that museum’s then-new architecture and design department), also represented inCult of The Machine by the earlier exhibition’s catalog which was designed by Joseph Albers.
Some of the earliest works in Cult of the Machine are from 1916. These include a quartet of small oil paintings by Morton Livingston Schamberg that take articles of then-new(ish) objects such as telephones and cameras as their subjects, rendered in a way that straddles the difference between schematic indication and the kind of emblematic line art that would have then been serviceable as magazine illustration. There are also two works by Joseph Stella, the earliest and best being Factories (1918). This is an ominous and powerful painting, featuring a mélange of dark smokestacks set a murky background of swirling blue and yellow smoke. Stella was in Paris in from 1910 to 1912, and he was personally acquainted with all of the Italian Futurist artists who exhibited there at the Gallerie Bernheim-Jeune in February of 1912, especially Umberto Boccioni, whose 1910 painting The City Rises must have made a major impact. Soon after that exhibition, Stella returned to America to have his work included in the Armory Show, and in so doing established himself as the major link between Precisionist and Futurist esthetics, the latter being notorious for its celebration of speed, power and crypto-fascist violence.
Schamberg is also represented by a 1917 photo called View from Rooftop, which establishes the theme of artists crossing back and forth between painting and photography. The most striking example of such a crossing is found in the work of Charles Sheeler, who has many more works in the exhibition than any of the other artists. The photograph Upper Deck (1928) and the 1929 painting of the same title bear this out, demonstrating that Sheeler may very well be the first artist to have made a full-fledged photorealist painting.
The choice selection of photographs in Cult of the Machine could make for a compelling exhibition in its own right. All are modestly scaled gelatin silver prints, and almost all hail from that 1920s moment in the history of the light-fixing medium where the realism of gray scale “straight photography” was deemed the exciting new alternative to the lugubrious sentimentality of “pictorialism.” They often recorded the dramatic play of light and shadow on an urban architecture that was remorselessly indifferent to its human occupants. A good early example is Paul Strand’s Wall Street from 1915, showing a small parade of beleaguered figures trudging past a quartet of overwhelmingly large windows. This is the only photograph in the exhibition that features human subjects, tiny as those figures are. As for the rest, they are united by their refusal to do so. There are gelatin-silver prints by Alma Lavenson, Berenice Abbott, Imogen Cunningham, Margaret Bourke-White, Willard Van Dyke and Edward Steichen that all take a worm’s-eye view of large edifices such as bridges, skyscrapers or factories, all eerily depopulated and all perfect blends of stunning graphic composition and the kind of richly saturated mid-tones that make digital prints look brittle in comparison.
Returning to the selection of Sheeler works that are ubiquitously located throughout the exhibition, we can say that there are some hits and misses. The biggest hits are a pair of largish works that take the Ford Motor Company’s Rouge River assembly plant as their subjects. Respectively titled American Landscape (1930) and Classic Landscape (1931), these complex works show the vast scale of the plant in a way that intimates that it has completely replaced nature as a source of meditation on the Sublime. There is no room for the human figure in these works, which tell us that Sheeler came to his Rouge River paintings in much the same way that Cezanne came to Mt. St.
Not only must we bind Frankenstein, we must also make him beautiful.
— Alfred Barr, 1936
Victoire, that is, as a compelling muse that required multiple visitations. Sheeler’s weak point is when he lapses into straightforward illustration. Works such as Rolling Power (1939) may well be a slick and skillful illustration of the wheel works of a locomotive, but they are not much more than that. Nonetheless, there are several other works by Sheeler that are sheer knockouts, in part because they epitomize the idea of small images seeming to be much larger than they are. One of these, Suspended Power (1939), gives us a dramatic overhead view of a gargantuan propeller being lowered into a cavernous socket while tiny figures can be seen looking on. Another stunning work in the same vein is Church Street El (1920), which comes close to being a fully abstract image made up of taught, interlaced geometries.
Sheeler is not the only painter in the group who occasionally lapses into illustration. Edmund Lewandowsky’s Blast Furnace from 1941 looks in every way to be influenced by Sheeler, as does Elsie Driggs’s Areoplane from 1928, although in the latter case, it is redeemed by the remarkable fact that Driggs was also a pioneering aviator in addition to being a painter. She finds another kind of redemption in the much more compelling Blast Furnace (1927), which is an ominously dark and foreboding rendition of octopussian pipes and towers entangled around four ominous cylinders, a breathtakingly sinister image if ever there was one. I was much more overwhelmed by Driggs’ painting than I was with Georgia O’Keefe’s uncharacteristically large City Night from 1926, another work that makes dramatic use of crisp edges and a worm’s eye view perspective to depict upthrusting skyscrapers on a moonlit night. City Nightis not your stereotypical O’Keefe work, owing to its size, subject matter and hard edge stylistics, but it does establish the link between Precisionism and her generation of early 20thcentury American Modernists who exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery prior to the first World War. It is a link that is also informed by the exhibition’s inclusion of Ship’s Mast (c. 1920-1935), a graphite drawing by Helen Torr.
Next to Sheeler, one of the other major figures to be given extensive attention in Cult of The Machine is Charles Demuth, who is represented by a cohesive quartet of works ranging in date from 1921 to 1931, all translating factories and urban rooftops into bold and elaborate compositional statements worthy of Mondrian at his best. If Precisionism can be said to be a hybrid of Cubism and Ash Can Realism, then these works are the ones that fully demonstrate the connection. Something similar can be said about the paintings of Edmund Lewandowski, Furnace #3 (1948) and Dynamo (1948), both organized into dynamic, perfectly balanced compositions.
It is a shame that it was not possible to borrow Demuth’s I Saw The Figure 5 in Gold (1928) from the Metropolitan Museum, but even with the absence of that notable masterpiece, Cult of The Machine still manages to make the very interesting case for Precisionism’s early anticipation of Pop Art. Two paintings by Gerald Murphy bear this out. One is a Razor (1924), at still life that at first glance seems very much influenced by the work of Fernand Leger. Using an emblematic, hard-edge graphic style, it features a skull-and-crossbones composition of a shaving razor, fountain pen and branded matchbox, the later sporting a logo that mirrors the graphic structure of the entire painting’s composition, which establishes a formal half-way point between Cubism and Pop Art. The larger of Murphy’s works hails from the following year, and is
titled Watch. It gives us an elaborate fantasy on the complex gear works of a clock, pictured in hard-edge shapes as a frontal schematic. Other works that foreshadow the 30-year hence emergence of Pop are Louis Lozowick’s Machine Ornament No. 2 (1927), an ink drawing so tight in execution that it looks as if it were a digitally printed vector graphic, and Ralston Crawford’s Coal Elevators (1938), sporting a simplified rendition of six colossal cylinders that look as if it were taken from a Roy Lichtenstein sketchbook. A later work by Crawford, Overseas Highway (1939), similarly anticipates some of the 1960s paintings made by Ed Ruscha.
Another work by Lozowick, New York (1925) also anticipates Pop, picturing the city as a teeming beehive of layered geometries, as does another painting by Bumpei Usui, 14thStreet (1924). In general, one clear point that can be made about Precisionism pertains to the way it all but completely banishes nature and the human figure from the idea of landscape, registering one of the very first art historical moments that had recognized how the built environment had eclipsed and supplanted nature as the source of sublime rumination. Bessemer furnaces, I-beam girders and towering smokestacks had become the flora and fauna of the forward-looking imagination, which was “post-human” six decades before the term became a now-wow buzzword in graduate seminars.
In addition to Sheeler and Demuth, George Copeland-Ault is the other artist who is represented by the largest quantity of works. Although his paintings tend to be smallish, they all pack quite a punch. He is at his best when he paints nighttime scenes such as New Moon (1945), which makes an empty street look like a lovingly painted computer graphic, as does Sullivan Street Abstraction (1924). The illuminated evening mist of New York Night (1921) is beyond ominous, but when the sun comes up he also gets great results, as in Hudson Street (1932), showing the old meat packing district on a sunny, Sunday morning with not a human soul to be seen.
As the Great Depression brought on economic collapse, the Precisionist artists gradually started taking some cues from rural regionalists like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton to refocus their attention away from urban environments. It is worth remembering that the regionalists were keen to vilify all things having to do with city life, and the popularity of their populist message seemed to exert an influence on some of the Precisionist painters. At this moment, the human figure and the natural landscape start to re-appear in their works, often revealed in wintery scenes that say something about the effect that the great depression had on loss of the high spirits of the roaring ‘20s. Copeland-Ault did several works in small town environments. One these, Highland Light (1929), compares favorably to later works made by Edward Hopper. It shows a searchlight surrounded by several smaller, identical buildings captured on a bright summer day. Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1945) also takes the viewer out of the urban environment and into the wee hours of a ghostly small town. Throughout the mid-1930s, Sheeler also turned away from the world of the urban machine culture and toward rustic small town scenes, as in Buck’s Country Barn (1932).
One work that is prominently featured near the exit of the exhibition is Clarence Holbrook Carter’s War Bride (1940), which could be aptly renamed The Bride Stripped Bare by a Dozen Horizontal Printing Press Cylinders. It features a large female figure with her back turned to the viewer, decked out in ornate, pre-Raphaelite bridal attire. She faces a mechanical maw made up of twelve large, ominously grey cylinders. The next step, it seems, will be into the lost innocence of war, with all of its related churning of propaganda goading the expenditure of blood and treasure. Clearly, war was again in the air, and the industry worship of the Precisionist esthetic was starting to look less and less like a horn of streamlined plenty, and more and more like the brutalist stylization of the military-Industrial-complex that it would eventually become. We should remember that War Bride was made when another generation of European artists would flee the ravages of war and make their homes in America. This migration was controversial, and would prompt a great many commentators to wrongly think that American Modernism was initiated by this migration. Cult of the Machine goes against this grain, and might even be taken as evidence that much of post-World War I European Modernism may have been motivated by a kind of misguided “America envy” as it would pertain to the possibilities of escaping the constraints of tradition-bound economic relations. After all, America was the land of self-invention and unexplored possibility, while what remained of Europe was busying itself in the mostly failed effort of recovering lost glories.
Of course, since the time of Carter’s War Bride, Abstract Expressionism has come and gone, and looking at the Precisionist paintings recalls of some of the more over-the-top statements made by the likes of Barnet Newman and Clyfford Still, the latter having written: “Behind these reactions is a body of history matured into dogma, authority, tradition. The totalitarian hegemony of this tradition I despise, its presumptions I reject. Its security is an illusion, banal, and without courage. Its substance is but dust and filing cabinets. The homage paid to it is a celebration of death. We all bear the burden of this tradition on our backs but I cannot hold it a privilege to be a pallbearer of my spirit in its name.”
He may have had Precisionism in the back of his mind when he wrote those words, and in reflecting on them now, we might wonder what Still may have had to say about our own time of technological idealism running amok, seeing the many disruptions that it has caused. No doubt, the prompting of such questions is part of the intention behind Cult of The Machine, even as it also reveals some under-recognized ways by which artists have responded to the then-emerging idea of a technological sublime. For example, think of the effects of a new economic divide between those who have lost jobs due to technology and others who have gained jobs for the same reason, and then map those disparities on to an already skewed electoral map that
was sitting atop a powder keg full of other long-standing resentments bred by religious hypocrisy, racism and runaway debt-to-equity ratios. The recent emergence of the gig economy has only exacerbated these imbalances, and in many ways, social media can be held responsible for the post-truth conditions of our political moment, even more so than the faux radicalism of postmodernist theories of situational epistemology, which have only served to concede “truth” to “power.” This point was given support in an April 17, 2018 interview in New York Magazine, in which virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier admitted as much when he said: “It’s this thing that we were warned about. It’s this thing that we knew could happen. Norbert Wiener, who coined the term cybernetics, warned about it as a possibility. And despite all the warnings, and despite all of the cautions, we just walked right into it, and we created mass behavior-modification regimes out of our digital networks. We did it out of this desire to be both cool socialists and cool libertarians at the same time.”
Certainly, there are positive things that can be said about the integration of esthetic design features and optimized functionality; one has only to think of the success of Apple’s marketing of boutique-grade gizmos as the sparkling status symbols for the ultra cool. But the sleek look of these props from the James Bond-movie-of-everyday-life comes at the cost of an increasing population of people who are unable to afford full access to the benefits of the new technological campfire, and next to rising wealth inequality and rapid degradation of the environment, their disenfranchisement represents the greatest challenge to be faced in the next three decades, presuming the world does not again lurch into the insanity of global war. As the
situation now stands, the failed democratic promise of social media has only further amplified the technological rupture of the social realm by maximally muddying the threshold between ignorant and informed opinion, meaning that it was only a matter of time before foul play would rise up from the murk. At the time of this writing, a new collision course bred by technological perfidy is again on the horizon, pointing toward another international catastrophe in the foreseeable future. No doubt, it is and will be a war of information manipulation and financial terrorism in much the same way as the last global cataclysm was a war of sheer industrial muscle, but the Cult of the Machine provides us with an instructive lesson about the limits of any techno-fetishism that promises freedom while percolating disaster, retelling the old story about the moral outcomes of shiny new things large and small.
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"Cult of the Machine” @ de Young Museum through August 12, 2018
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.