IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN:  CHARLES SHEELER AND WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

“We looked upon the French with a certain amount of awe because we thought they had secrets about art and literature which we might gain.  We were anxious to learn, and yet we were repelled too.  There was a little resentment in us against all the success of the French.  The time had come for us to talk on our own terms.  We felt this.”[i]

Charles Sheeler
“Buttresses, Chartres Cathedral”
1929
Gelatin silver print
9 5/8” x 7 9/16”
Gift of the artist
Museum of Modern Art, New York

“Even though I have so profound an admiration for the beauty of Chartres, I realize strongly that it belongs to a culture, a tradition, a people of which I am not a part….It seems to be a persistent necessity for me to feel a sense of derivation from the country in which I live and work.”[ii] 

Here are two important statements by 20th Century Americans:  the first from William Carlos Williams and the second from Charles Sheeler.  They became friends almost immediately after meeting for the first time and remained so for years to follow.  Sheeler was concerned as a painter and photographer with discovering an American vision and a local, immediate subject matter.  Williams, in his search for a poetic voice and an American idiom in his writing, incorporated everyday subjects and images, always insisting to ‘say it, no ideas but in things!’[iii]

In her early book on Charles Sheeler, Constance Rourke noticed the mutual interest in painting and poetry and the personal affection that had been established between the painter Charles Sheeler and the poet William Carlos Williams.  They travelled in some of the same social and aesthetic circles:  in Philadelphia within the Louise and Walter Arensberg family of influence, and New York, both were included in the circle built around the Steiglitz Group, which also included the artists Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth. 

Elizabeth Black Carmer
“William Carlos Williams, Charles Sheeler and
Carl Carmer at the Carmer’s Octagon House”
1961
B&W photograph
26” x 21”
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution,
Washington, DC.

“A new intercommunication between artists and writers had begun of which this lasting friendship was a symbol.  Williams, Wallace Stevens, and a few other ‘new’ poets had read some of their work at one of the Independents exhibitions.  Some of Sheeler’s drawings and photographs were reproduced in Broom. . . . Each group was tending more often to look at the work of the other, to consider it, stay with it, give it the warmth of immediate discussion.  Exchanges of ideas were taking place that might not be reflected directly in either painting or writing but could provide something in the way of a generative force for both.”[iv]

And here is one of Williams’ early observations regarding Sheeler’s work:  “Romance, decoration, fullness—are lost in touch, sight, a word, to bite an apple.  Henry Ford has asked Chas. Sheeler to go to Detroit and photograph everything.  Carte blanche.  Sheeler!  That’s rich. . . .”[v]

Charles Sheeler
“River Rouge Plant”
1932
Oil on canvas
20” x 24 1/8”
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Sheeler, in his capacity as a professional photographer, worked for several publications in the Conde Nast Group, as well as documenting the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Arensburg family private collection.  Williams also knew of the Arensburg circle of artists, realists and surrealists amongst them, and of the importance of the local avant-garde.  These are interesting parallels in their lives and activities.  Today however, writers and artists often see this as the glorification of the industrial object, or as nostalgia, or realism so real, that it becomes surreal. 

Charles Sheeler
“Rolling Power”
1939
Oil on canvas
15 “ x 30”
Smith College Museum of Art
Northampton, Massachusetts

The Descent of Winter 10/30

“To freight cars in the air
all the slow
         clank, clank
         clank, clank
moving above the treetops

the
         wha,   wha
of the horse whistle

         pah,   pah,   pah
         pah,   pah,   pah,   pah,   pah

         piece and piece
         piece and piece
moving still trippingly
through the morningmist

long after the engine
has fought by
                           and disappeared
in silence
                  to the left”[vi] 

Sheeler took great advantage of his many photographic essay commissions not just to document industrial sites in the East and the Mid-West, but to also collect valuable images for his own studio work in both drawing and painting.  Variations on many of these themes appeared in his work throughout his lifetime and they have continued to provide inspiration for several artists in younger generations.   

Charles Sheeler
“Criss-Crossed Conveyors—Ford Plant ”
1927
B&W Photograph
The William H. Lane Collection,
Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, Massachusetts

Contemporary painters such as Donald Sultan and Robert Moskowitz have benefitted from this insight that is contained in Sheeler’s work:  an intense perception of the man-made environment and landscape.  Recent curators and art historians have also noticed this, especially those writing about the Industrial Sublime[vii] and Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine.[viii]   It is an ongoing aesthetic.          

Donald Sultan
“Veracruz, November 18, 1986”
1986
Latex and tar on tile over Masonite
Matthew and Iris Strauss Collection,
Rancho Santa Fe, California

“A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.  When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant. . . . Its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.  Therefore, each speech having its own character, the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own intrinsic form.  The effect is beauty, what in a single object resolves our complex feelings of propriety. . . .”

Charles Sheeler
“Stacks in Celebration”
1954
Oil on canvas
22” x 28”
Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio

“When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them—without distortion which would mar their exact significances—into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses.  It isn’t what he says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.”[ix]

Robert Moskowitz
“Stack”
2000
Pastel on paper
50 5/8” x 22 1/2”
Lawrence Markey Inc.,
San Antonio, Texas


[i] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 49.

[ii] Tsujimoto, Karen; Images of America:  Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the University of Washington Press; Seattle & London; 1982; p. 85.  (Statement made by Sheeler on his series of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, originally published in Constance Rourke; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; New York, New York; Harcourt, Brace; 1938; p. 130).

[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1946 & 1992; p. 6.

[iv] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 50.

[v] Williams, William Carlos; Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1971; p. 253. 

[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1971; p. 246.

[vii] Botwinick, Michael, et al; Industrial sublime; Empire State Editions, Fordham University Press; Yonkers, New York; 2014.

[viii] Lucic, Karen; Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine; Harvard University Press; Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1991.

[ix] Williams, William Carlos; I Wanted to Write a Poem:  The Autobiography of the Works of a Poet; (Edited by Edith Heal); New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1978; pp. 78-79.

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