Time Turns Sheeler, A Natural Ascetic, Into an Aesthete

It’s odd to recall that Henry McBride, the premier critical champion of early American modernism, once described Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), whose photographs are the subject of a captivating exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as “a natural-born ascetic,” adding: “He is like a Mondrian who dispenses with charm.” Nowadays, we’re more likely to characterize Sheeler-especially in regard to his photographs-as a natural-born aesthete.

For whether his subjects were drawn from a Bucks County farmhouse, the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant in Michigan, his wife’s naked body or Chartres Cathedral, Sheeler’s pictorial eye was relentlessly concentrated on the aesthetics of abstract form. So much so, indeed, that if the word hadn’t acquired so much baggage in recent years, one would be tempted to call Sheeler an unrepentant formalist.

This penchant for abstraction-even in pictures otherwise devoted to the unembellished depiction of observed objects-isexplicitly confirmed by Sheeler himself in certain passages from his unpublished1937 autobiography included in the catalog accompanying the current Met show. And it turns out, moreover, that it was an affinity derived not only from Sheeler’s early encounter with the Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque, as we might expect, but from an even earlier encounter with the Old Masters in Europe.

“Seeing the works of the great Italians,” Sheeler wrote, “brought to our consciousness that design, in its larger sense, comprised the structure of a picture. We had been accustomed to arranging objects for a still-life, for example, to select and place them agreeably without consideration of other relations. It was apparent in the works of Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and others, that forms must be placed within primary consideration for their relation to all other forms. As a corollary we realized that a picture might be assembled arbitrarily, with a primary consideration of design, that would be outside of time, place or momentary conditions. With these observations our interest in representing the casual appearances of nature ceased. We were from then on to be interested in causes rather than effect. These lessons learned in Italy were to be of a great value in our approach to Paris, our next objective.” For in Paris, Sheeler discovered the aesthetics of Cubism, which remained the matrix for everything he subsequently created in his photographs and paintings.

As for dispensing with charm-well, the passage of time has changed our view of that, too. What could be more charming, after all, than Sheeler’s photographs of the living room of his house in South Salem, N.Y., with its vividly patterned hooked rugs and elegantly designed Shaker furniture? They certainly charm this observer far more than do the more monumental pictures of the Ford Motor Company’s Rouge River plant. So do Sheeler’s wonderful photographs of the legendary New York apartment of Walter and Louise Arensberg, with its great collection of Cubist paintings, Brancusi sculpture, country furniture and African sculpture, among much else.

And while we don’t usually associate Sheeler with photographs of people, he turns out to have been a great portrait photographer as well. The portrait of Brancusi (circa 1926) is one of the best that I’ve seen of this sculptor, who was himself a master photographer. If one had to select a single image to represent the quintessence of Sheeler’s photographic achievement, however, it would have to be the Side of White Barn, Bucks County (1915), the most abstract and, in some respects, the most poignant of all his outdoor photographs. It’s a picture that even Mondrian might have admired.

In the entire last phase of his career, Sheeler largely abandoned photography in favor of painting, of which he was also a master. And this exhibition of his photographs certainly makes one eager to see a full retrospective devoted to his paintings.

“In the end,” writes Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., in the show’s excellent catalog, “Charles Sheeler’s importance as an artist is twofold. First, between 1915 and 1929, he produced a modernist photographic oeuvre … that has few equals nationally and internationally. Second, beginning in 1929, and continuing for nearly 30 years, he largely put photography for its own sake aside and instead created a second major body of work, of paintings and drawings that derive from his own photographs in experimental and inventive ways and that anticipate the manner in which the two mediums-painting and photography-would virtually merge in the hands of other artists during the 1960’s.” Then Mr. Stebbins rather spoils his own case by suggesting that Sheeler somehow prepared us for the advent of Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter. I’m sure Mr. Stebbins didn’t mean this to be an insult to Sheeler, but an insult it is.

Never mind. For both the exhibition and the catalog that Mr. Stebbins and his colleagues have given us in The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist , we can be grateful. The exhibition, which was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, remains on view through Aug. 17.