The Shy Museumgoer


Sheeler, Rivera, and machine-age anxiety

In 1915, Henry Ford quietly — almost secretly — purchased 2,000 acres of marshland because he wanted to build a colossal machine on the soggy tract. He imagined pouring in tons of iron ore, sand, and coal at one end of the contraption, while thousands of shiny new cars rolled off a moving assembly line at the other end.

It sounds absurd, but he did it. This incessant tinkerer created a machine that literally produced 4,000 cars a day. The extraordinary complex, with 120 miles of conveyors, pioneered mass-production of undreamed-of sophistication and self-sufficiency.

The Rouge jumpstarts Charles Sheeler’s career

Ford hired photographer Charles Sheeler to make an indelible record of the River Rouge factory complex in Dearborn, Michigan. To everyone’s surprise, Sheeler captured images of such undeniable elegance, one critic feared it signaled the end of painting.

At the time, Sheeler was a respected commercial photographer who believed deeply in the medium. Several years later he emerged from his studio in rural New York with a brand-new style of American landscape painting.

Charles Sheeler, "American Landscape," (1930)
Charles Sheeler, American Landscape (1930)

Sheeler focused on the geometric beauty of industrial forms rather than the biomorphic beauty of traditional picturesque landscapes. In American Landscape, the quiet stillness of the River Rouge Complex commands respect, even reverence. This is a meditation on the sanctity and naked mechanical power of American industry.

Would the painting be more interesting with people in it?

American Landscape represents one man’s genius, rather than the thousands of workers who made the machinery hum. I need a magnifying glass to find the only two figures in the picture.

Charles Sheeler’s work is tense, taut, and tight. It is always serious. It is quite American. “Tense, taut, and tight” are not altogether complimentary terms when applied to paintings, but Sheeler gets away with them.

But are we drifting as a nation into general hardness? I must confess I don’t like bleakness and bareness, and if Charles Sheeler has been holding the mirror up to nature and if half the things he says are true, then he’s got me worried.

Henry McBride, The New York Sun, 1946

Most contemporary critics lauded Sheeler’s veneration of Yankee ingenuity, but today his industrial landscapes raise central questions about technology. In what ways will it impact our workforce? Our culture? Our planet?

While the oil paint was still drying on American Landscape, the stock market crashed, paving the way to The Great Depression. Auto production plummeted by 75 percent and “The Rouge” cut its workforce in half.

The Rouge jumpstarts the best work of Diego Rivera’s career

Three years later, the Detroit Institute of Arts commissioned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera to paint two fresco murals. The theme: Detroit industry.

Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts

As it happens, the artist arrived in Michigan right after the Ford Hunger March, when thousands of unemployed autoworkers walked from downtown Detroit to the gates of The Rouge to demand employment. Ford security guards panicked and shot into the crowd, killing five people.

Rivera, who believed public art could be an instrument for social change, offered to paint all 27 panels in the museum’s courtyard gallery, instead of just two. On them he would celebrate the Rouge autoworkers.

I made thousands of sketches of towering blast furnaces, serpentine conveyor belts, impressive scientific laboratories….and of the people who worked them. I was afire with enthusiasm.

My childhood passion for mechanical toys had been transmuted to a delight in machinery for its own sake, and for its meaning to humanity: liberation from drudgery and poverty.

Diego Rivera, “My Art, My Life,” 1992
Diego Rivera, "Detroit Industry Murals, North Wall" fresco (1933)
Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry/North Wall fresco (1933)

In Rivera’s extraordinary murals, raw materials from deep inside the earth transform from a primordial state into automobiles. People of all races work side by side, using their physical strength to operate fiery blast furnaces and machines whose forms resemble the sculpture of ancient peoples.

Conveyors curve in, out, and around the compositions like a giant circulatory system. The only element missing is the deafening sound.

On the north wall, the two corner panels represent the constructive and destructive use of technology. On one panel, a child is being vaccinated, probably against smallpox. On the other panel, six men are building the poisonous gas bombs that terrorized Europe during World War I.

Rivera’s unique style adapts the anthropomorphism of Pre-Columbian Art, the intersecting planes of Cubism, and the small-scale narrative panels of the Italian Renaissance. His predella-like panels are painted in monochrome, to simulate relief sculpture. They illustrate a typical day: workers punch in at a time clock, pour molten metal into molds, break for lunch, attend a class led by Henry Ford, and collect wages at a pay wagon.

Diego Rivera, detail from "Detroit Industry Murals" (1932-33). Man wearing paper hat with "We want beer" on it.
Detail from Detroit Industry/South Wall (1932-33)

You won’t find any sign of The Great Depression. The only reference to a contemporary event appears on the south wall, where a workman is wearing a paper hat that says “We want.” The full slogan is “We want beer,” which reminds me of a “certain” U.S. Supreme Court Justice, but in fact refers to the repeal of Prohibition.

Rivera worked on the Detroit Industry murals for nearly a year. Unemployed autoworkers stopped by the museum to watch him paint. While no one was looking, artist Frida Kahlo climbed up the scaffolding to steal a kiss.

Diego Rivera, vaccination panel from "Detroit Industry Murals" (1933)
Vaccination panel from Detroit Industry (1933)

When the murals were unveiled, they were met with an emotional outpouring. As many as 16,000 people came to the Detroit Institute of Arts on the opening weekend. And then the expected happened: Some people labeled the nudes pornographic, the vaccination panel sacrilegious.

We have always had an uneasy relationship with technology

Two years later, filmmaker Charlie Chaplin satirized our relationship with technology in his black comedy Modern Times. In the movie’s most famous scene, his character goes crazy working on an assembly line that nearly devours him.

Today, more than 600 robots (some with red laser eyes) work alongside their human colleagues at The Rouge. Meanwhile, in laboratories around the world, scientists are trying to program the experience of boredom into robots to encourage autonomous learning. If they succeed, assembly-line robots may find something more exciting to do. What’s coming is unimaginable — for better and for worse.