The Shy Museumgoer

ART + HISTORY

Charles Sheeler and machine-age anxiety

In 1915 a man began buying up 2,000 acres of marshland no one else wanted. On it, he wanted to build a truly colossal machine. He dreamed of pouring in tons of iron ore, sand, and coal at one end of the machine, while thousands of shiny new cars rolled off a moving assembly line at the other end.

It sounds crazy, but he did it. Within ten years, this incessant tinkerer built a gigantic, miles-long assembly line that spewed 4,000 cars a day. His invention, which locals still call the Rouge, introduced mass-production of unimagined sophistication and self-sufficiency.

The Rouge jumpstarts Charles Sheeler’s career

The inventor, Henry Ford, hired a photographer to make an indelible record of his manufacturing complex in southeastern Michigan. To everyone’s surprise the photographer, Charles Sheeler, captured images of such undeniable elegance, one critic feared it signaled the end of painting.

This unbelievable establishment defies description. The subject matter is undeniably the most thrilling I have ever worked with.

Charles Sheeler, in a letter to his friend Walter Arensberg, 1927

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 chose to paint the geometric beauty of industrial forms rather than the biomorphic beauty of traditional picturesque landscapes. In his American Landscape (1930), the quiet stillness of the Rouge commands respect, even reverence. This is a meditation on the sanctity and naked mechanical power of American industry.

Would the painting be more or less interesting with people in it?

Sheeler portrayed one man’s genius rather than the thousands of nameless 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 does it threaten our workforce? Our culture? Our environment?

In the autumn of 1929, as the oil paint was drying on American Landscape, the stock market crashed, paving the way to The Great Depression. Before long vehicle production at the Rouge plummeted by 75 percent and its workforce was cut in half.

The Rouge jumpstarts Diego Rivera’s American masterpiece

In 1932, the Detroit Institute of Arts commissioned artist Diego Rivera to paint two fresco murals in its garden courtyard. 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, Rivera arrived in Michigan soon after the Ford Hunger March, when thousands of unemployed workers walked in freezing weather 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 vowed to highlight Rouge workers in his murals. He offered to paint all 27 panels in the courtyard gallery, instead of just two.

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

In his monumental 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, two corner panels symbolize the constructive and the destructive use of technology in general. On one panel, a child is being vaccinated, probably against smallpox. On the other panel, 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, painted in monochrome to simulate relief sculpture, 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, 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 evidence of The Great Depression. The only reference to a contemporary event appears on the south wall, where a workman wears a paper hat with the words “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. 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 museum on the opening weekend. Then the expected happened: Some people labeled the nudes pornographic, the vaccination panel sacrilegious.

Just another cog in the machine?

In 1936, our uneasy relationship with machines was portrayed by Charlie Chaplin in his dark comedy Modern Times. In the film’s most famous scene, his character goes crazy working on an assembly line that devours him.

Today, more than 600 assembly-line robots (some with red laser eyes) work alongside their human colleagues at the Rouge.

I’m told researchers in the field of artificial intelligence are trying to program the experience of boredom into robots, to encourage autonomous learning. If they succeed, assembly-line robots may decide their job is boring and find something more exciting to do. Sounds like trouble brewing to me.

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