CHARLES SHEELER 1883-1965
Steam Turbine, 1939
Oil on canvas, 22 X 18" (55.88 x 45.72 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Museum purchase, 950-0-111
In 1938, Charles Sheeler was commissioned by Fortune magazine to produce six paintings extolling America's industrial power. Sheeler visited power stations across the nation, photographing selected sites which became the basis for the paintings.' These paintings, known collectively as Power, were reproduced in a portfolio supplement to the December, 1940, issue of Fortune and exhibited from December 2 to December 21, 1940 at Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery. The text of the Power portfolio claimed that Sheeler depicted machines not as "strange, inhuman masses of material, but exquisite manifestations of human reason," because the machine was to the present what the figure had been to the Renaissance. Steam Turbine, the fifth in the series, was based on one of the turbines at the Hudson Avenue Station of the Brooklyn Edison Company, New York, then the world's largest steam power plant. The curving, steam-filled loop dominates the composition; in the foreground are other machines such as heat exchangers, pumps, and automatic valves. Sheeler concentrated on the geometric perfection and implicit power of the forms, as he had done since his first big industrial commission, photographing Henry Ford's River Rouge Plant outside Detroit, in 1927.
Sheeler, who was born in Philadelphia in 1883, first succeeded as a painter. However, in 1912, after studying at the School of Industrial Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, he began to support himself as an architectural photographer. From 1910 to 1919 he spent weekends in Bucks County where his interest in the beautiful expression of function in vernacular art and architecture, particularly that of the Shakers, became a subject for both paintings and photographs. In the 1920s, while working as a commercial photographer for Cond'e Nast, he was associated with artists who are now called Precisionists for the precise way in which they treated their themes, particularly industrial subjects. After a solo exhibition at the Downtown Gallery in 1931, he was known primarily as a realist painter, though beginning in the 1940s he sought to capture the overview of images as seen by the moving eye in semi-abstract paintings. Sheeler's achievement was that he was both a distinguished painter and photographer and found a rationale for "machine art" between the world wars.
In 1928, Sheeler was commissioned to photograph the ocean liner, the US.S. Majestic. His work, Upper Deck (1929, Harvard University Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum), based on that photograph, was a turning point because, for the first time, Sheeler discovered how to achieve photographic qualities in paint. As he later recalled, "Starting with Upper Deck I have sought to have a complete conception of the picture established in my mind, much as the architect completes his plans before the work of bringing the house into existence begins." Theodore E. Stebbins and Norman Keyes noted that in Upper Deck, "for the first time he did nothing to disguise or alter his photographic source." In the case of both Upper Deck and the Power series, he used the photograph, rather than a sketch, as a preliminary study because a photograph gave "actuality' and "greater definition."
Sheeler consciously sought an architectural structure and an impersonal surface, devoid of temperamental slashes of paint or layers suggesting sequences of time. He did not underpaint. He wanted to eliminate "the means to the end, meaning the technique as far as possible and to present the subject in itself without the distraction of the means of achieving it . . . " But in Sheeler's best paintings, the impersonal surface shimmers; it is like a still reflection in a pond, not just a reflection of a single, unified image but an image of concentration. In Steam Turbine, the precision of the geometric structure, the subtlety of the paint surface, and the nuances of color simultaneously convey both the information of a photograph and the qualities of a painting.
Critics were not always pleased with the obvious relationship between photographs and paintings in Sheeler's work. Milton Brown, perhaps his strongest critic, noted in his review of the Power series that the paintings were probably the most photographic of Sheeler's works, lacking the abstract quality of some of his earlier paintings. Brown found the color "cold and unexpressive." His severest criticism was that the paintings failed to capture the "dynamic energy hidden within these engines of power, the potentialities of movement, creation, or destruction." But in saying that there was "no longer a question of any such principle as the relation of art to nature," Brown misunderstood Sheeler, because for Sheeler the detailed "exactitude" of photography offered the most complete view of nature and thus the best source for his art.