- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

Artist Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) imagined a stark, hard-edged, angular world with few signs of life. His precise, people-less paintings and photographs of skyscrapers, factories and machines are not warm and fuzzy. They come across as the kind of images that only architecture buffs, industrial archaeologists and neat freaks could love.

The dry, technique-focused exhibit “Charles Sheeler: Across Media,” opening at the National Gallery of Art tomorrow, won’t likely win converts to the artist’s impersonal vision. It is not an in-depth retrospective but rather a summation of his themes and working methods, drawing upon a core of works acquired recently by the museum.

The main success of the modest three-gallery show is to present the artist as a multimedia master. Previous Sheeler exhibitions have concentrated on either his paintings or his photographs, but this display of 52 works is the first to bring both together in a single show, along with drawings and film, to reveal the artist’s creative process and how each medium influenced the others.

Hung in a space next to the dada show, the exhibit almost seems like a quiet offshoot of that multimedia blockbuster. Indeed, Mr. Sheeler, who traveled to Paris in 1908, was familiar with the movement, though his ordered odes to machines and buildings were influenced more by cubism.

The artist named one of his drawings “Ballet Mechanique” after a dada film and photographed an art piece (included in the adjacent exhibit) dedicated to his friend Marcel Duchamp. He also created photomontages in the darkroom using a technique more advanced than the earlier dadaist photo collages.

His ability to shift from film to drawing to painting makes Mr. Sheeler sound daring, but the new exhibit conveys the opposite effect. It shows how controlling, meticulous and tightly focused he was. Many of his pictures teeter on the brink of abstraction but never quite let go of identifiable reality. Even in “Variations in Red,” a 1949 painting created late in his career, the bold, flat shapes of color are discernible as parts of buildings.

Though his medium changed, Mr. Sheeler’s themes and compositions remained largely the same. He would recast an urban or industrial scene in celluloid, crayon and oils, slightly changing the viewpoint, mood and details. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was still drawing and painting the interior with a wood stove that he had photographed first in 1917. Only subtly distinct in many cases, the repetitious images give a dullness to the exhibit.

Mr. Sheeler probably would have pooh-poohed the exhibit’s multimedia spin on his work. For most of his career, he downplayed his shutterbug skills and worked hard to promote himself as a modern painter. That was because photography and filmmaking were considered more commercial than artistic in his day. Curiously, the exhibit, which celebrates media crossovers, opens with “View of New York,” a large 1931 canvas symbolizing Mr. Sheeler’s decision not to exhibit his photos.

The Philadelphia-born artist initially took up photography to make money to support his painting, snapping pictures of buildings for architects. Perhaps they persuaded him to keep people away from the camera; the artist established his “precisionism,” as his crisply outlined, empty settings came to be called, early in his career. The show never fully explains the source of Mr. Sheeler’s detachment and why he preferred architecture to nature.

One of his recurring subjects is the 1768 stone farmhouse in Doylestown, Pa., that he rented in the 1910s. Mr. Sheeler photographed its dramatically lit doorways, staircase and rooms like an austere stage set without furnishings or inhabitants. These images of vacant white interiors are his most haunting and would serve as the basis for paintings and drawings for decades.

In 1920, he collaborated with photographer Paul Strand on a silent movie of New York City, shown at the beginning of the exhibit. The pioneering art film, called “Manhatta” after Walt Whitman’s poem, “Mannahatta,” quotes Whitman to introduce scenes of boats, bridges, buildings and figures scurrying around the frames like insects.

Clips and photos from the movie became the source for later paintings, including the nearly abstract “Church Street El” and “Skyscrapers.” Mr. Sheeler was right to promote himself as a painter. His works in oils far outshine the film strips, photos and drawings hung around them. They make apparent the artist’s skillful translation of cinematic technique through color and shadow to create complex spatial relationships on canvas.

His success as a commercial photographer led Mr. Sheeler in 1927 to shoot the conveyors, factory buildings and machines of the Ford Motor Co.’s vast River Rouge factory near Dearborn, Mich. His images, part of a campaign to promote Ford’s new Model A car, inspired the photomurals, drawings and paintings that form the exhibit’s centerpiece.

Among the gems in the show is “American Landscape,” an idealized scene of the Ford plant reflected in a canal. Like his River Rouge photos, Mr. Sheeler’s 1930 painting shows no sweaty workers or messy signs of manufacturing. The serene “landscape,” almost completely man-made, best expresses the artist’s belief that industry could be a positive, civilizing force in modern society.

By the 1940s and ‘50s, Mr. Sheeler didn’t seem so sure. The last gallery features photomontages and paintings of abandoned textile mills in Massachusetts and New Hampshire with titles such as “New England Irrelevancies.” Though he described the vacant riverfront factories as “gruesome” and “ghastly,” some of his depictions of them are brighter and morekaleidoscopic than earlier works. Like so much of his rigorous art, they celebrate a beauty in emptiness.

WHAT: “Charles Sheeler: Across Media”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: Tomorrow through Aug. 27; Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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