CHARLES SHEELER AND THE SHAKERS

“I know a good print when I see it.  I know when it is good and why it is good.  It is the neck of a man, the nose of a woman . . . . It is a photograph by Sheeler.  It is.  It is the thing where it is.  So.  That’s the mine out of which riches have always been drawn.”[i]

Charles Sheeler
“Shaker Window”
c. 1935
B&W photograph
The William H. Lane Collection,
Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, Massachusetts

This is one of many observations made by William Carlos Williams regarding his long time friend Charles Sheeler.  Williams was constantly calling for an “intense vision of the facts”[ii] and considered a painting or a photograph or a poem as a thing to be shaped or carved out in the process. 

Williams noted this many times throughout his career:  from his early work, in several of his essays, and in his epic poem Patterson.  It even came up in his “Introduction” for Sheeler’s Retrospective Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1939 where he observed:  “It is in things that for the artist the power lies. . . .”[iii]

Sheeler had a wide range of interests, not only through his professional work but also as an inquisitive and thoughtful human being.  He supported himself for many years as a documentary photographer both with Vogue and Fortune Magazines, as well as work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.    

These projects often paralleled his aesthetic interests, complimenting his studio work.  Modern industrial subjects such as the factories in Ballardvale, Massachusetts and the Ford Motors plant in Detroit, Michigan became important sources of inspiration for this work.  Simultaneously, he was interested in, and paid visits to historic farmhouses in Pennsylvania and New England, as well as communitarian sites such as the Ephrata Community in Lancaster County, and the Shaker Villages in both Mount Lebanon, New York and Hancock, Massachusetts.  He even began collecting certain pieces of antique furniture with which he furnished his own home:  folk art, ceramics, curved wooden boxes, and of course many Shaker chairs, cabinets, and tables. 

Charles Sheeler
“Buildings at Lebanon”
1949
Tempera and graphite on pressed board faced with sized paper
14 5/16” x 20 1/4” 
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota 

William Carlos Williams even noted how his friend Charles Sheeler had taken certain objects and constructed an environment in which to live.  Williams writing in his autobiography stated: 

“The poem is our objective, the secret at the heart of the matter—as Sheeler’s small house, reorganized….”

“Charles Sheeler, artist, has taken the one rare object remaining more or less intact…and proceeded to live in it…and make a poem (a painting) of it….”[iv] 

“How shall we in this region of the mind which is all we can tactically, sensually know, organize our history other than as Shaker furniture is organized?  It is a past, totally uninfluenced by anything but the necessity, the total worth of the thing itself, the relationship of the parts to the whole.  The Shakers made furniture for their own simple ritualistic use, of white pine, applewood, birch—what they had.  Sheeler has a remarkable collection of this furniture.”[v]                

Charles Sheeler
“American Interior”
1934
Oil on canvas
32 1/2” x 30”
Gift of Mrs. Paul Moore,
Yale University Art Gallery,
New Haven, Connecticut

For several years Sheeler had been working on an autobiography, which he turned over to the writer Constance Rourke, who edited and organized it.  Rourke drew heavily upon Sheeler’s words, which became an important element in her monograph on this artist in 1939.  Later, the historians Faith and Edward Demming Andrews referred to this book in their article on Sheeler in “Art in America” that focused on his interest in the Shakers: 

“But as time went on he must have become more and more convinced that he wanted to do, through his medium, what the Shakers . . . had done in theirs:  to strip away all that was superficial, to find the essential, the absolute, the inner undisguised meaning, the final irreducible character in form.”[vi] 

Charles Sheeler
“Americana 31”
1931
Oil on canvas
36” x 48”
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Milton Lowenthal,
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Sheeler himself had many things to say regarding his interests and this collection.  They were historic artifacts by that time, but they were also very contemporary in feeling and form.  He stated that:  “I don’t like these things because they are old but in spite of it.  I’d like them still better if they were made yesterday because then they would afford proof that the same kind of creative power is continuing.”[vii] 

Charles Sheeler
“Shaker Detail”
1941
Oil and tempera on Masonite
8.75” x 9.75”
Wallace M. Scudder Bequest
Newark Museum of Art, Newark, New Jersey

“No embellishment meets the eye.  Beauty of line and proportion through excellence of craftsmanship make the absence of ornament in no way an omission.  The sense of light and spaciousness received upon entering the hall is indicative of similar spiritual qualities of the Shakers.  Instinctively one takes a deep breath, as in the midst of some moving and exalted association of nature.  There were no dark corners in those lives.”[viii] 

Charles Sheeler
“On a Shaker Theme”
1956
Oil on canvas
30” x 36”
Stephen and Sybil Stone Foundation,
Wareham, Massachusetts

“—Say it, no ideas but in things— 
         nothing but the blank faces of the houses
         and cylindrical trees 
         bent, forked by preconception and accident—
         split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
         secret—into the body of the light!”[ix]


[i] Williams, William Carlos; “The Descent of Winter” included in Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporations; New York, New York; 1971; p. 253.     

[ii] Williams, William Carlos; “The Descent of Winter” included in Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1971; p. 231.

[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporations; New York, New York; 1992; p. 234.     

[iv] Williams, William Carlos; The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1967; pp. 332-333.

[v] Williams, William Carlos; The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1967; pp. 333-334.

[vi] Andrews, Faith and Edward D.; “Sheeler and the Shakers;” Art in America; New York, New York; Number One; 1965; p. 95.

[vii] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 136.

[viii] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 136.

[ix] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporations; New York, New York; 1992; pp. 6-7.     

HAND TOOLS

dine-1
Jim Dine
“Untitled (Pliers)”
1973
Graphite, charcoal and crayon on paper
25 5/8″ x 19 3/4″
Museum of Modern Art, New York

“I love the tools made for mechanics. I stop at the windows of hardware stores. If I could only find an excuse to buy many more of them than I have already bought on the pretense that I might have use for them! They are so beautiful, so simple and plain and straight to their meaning. There is no ‘Art’ about them, they have not been made beautiful, they are beautiful.”

“Someone has defined a work of art as a ‘thing beautifully done.’ I like it better if we cut away the adverb and preserve the word ‘done,’ and let it stand alone in its fullest meaning. Things are not done beautifully. The beauty is an integral part of their being done.”[i]

dine-2
Jim Dine
“Untitled (Brace and Bit)”
1973
Graphite, charcoal and crayon on paper
25 5/8″ x 19 3/4″
Museum of Modern Art, New York

A wrench, a brace or a pair of pliers, along with pencils and brushes, are all literal extensions of the human hand. Metaphorically, as artists we also speak of finding our own hand, or discovering one’s touch. Poets speak of finding their own voice. This is often a difficult process, which takes a lot of work. To accomplish this work, we use the tools that are near at hand.

This idea has echoes both across and beyond our borders. Whether it might be the great simplicity in a Shaker building or chair, or the profound Japanese insight into beauty, the tools that allow us to produce the hand-made object are of utmost importance.

In his great treatise on craftsmanship and the making of certain objects, Soetsu Yanagi wrote that: “They are made without obsessive consciousness of beauty; thus we catch a glimpse of what is meant by ‘no-mindedness,’ whereby all things become simplified, natural, and without contrivance.”[ii]

Similarly, Faith and Edward Demming Andrews have observed the work and the laws of the Shakers:   “All beauty that has not a foundation in use, soon grows distasteful, and needs continual replacement with something new. That which has in itself the highest use possesses the greatest beauty.”[iii]

shaker-1
Richard Emery Nickolson
“Dwelling House Interior, Hancock Shaker Village”
Color photograph
1978
Hancock, Massachusetts

“The craftsmanship of the Shakers was an integral part of the life and thought of a humble but consecrated folk. They did not think of the work of their hands—in building, in joinery, in industrial pursuit of every kind—as an art, something special or exclusive, but rather as the right way of sustaining their church order, the ideal of a better society. For them the machine or tool was a ‘servant force.’ It was the purpose of work which was important. This led to a manner of work, which in turn gave a common character—an integrity, a harmony, a subtle but identifiable quality to all the labor of their hands.”[iv]

shaker-2
Richard Emery Nickolson
“Dwelling House Interior, Hancock Shaker Village”
Color photograph
1978
Hancock, Massachusetts

And in the end, it is a reminder to all artists that “The thing shines, not the maker.…and therefore whatever is made is lovely.”[v]


 

[i] Henri, Robert; The Art Spirit, Basic Books, New York, New York; 2007; p. 53.

[ii] Yanagi, Soetsu; The Unknown Craftsman; Kodansha International; Tokyo, New York and London; 1972 & 1989; p. 203.

[iii] Andrews, Edward Deming, and Faith Andrews; Religion in Wood: A Book of Shaker Furniture; Indiana University Press; Bloomington and London; 1966; p. 15.

[iv] Andrews, Edward Deming, and Faith Andrews; Religion in Wood: A Book of Shaker Furniture; p. 14.

[v] Yanagi, Soetsu; The Unknown Craftsman; p. 200.