Monday, 27 October 2014

Who's Who: Charles Sheeler

(Bellwood, 2012)
Full Name: Charles Rattew Sheeler Jr.
Nationality: United States
Occupation: Photographer, Artist
Born: Philadelphia, 1883
Died: New York State, 1965

Charles Rattew Sheeler Jr. was an American artist and photographer who played a leading role in the rise of Precisionism (an art movement in the 1920s and 30s that expressed landscapes with sharp geometric forms inspired by the uniformity of the increasingly modernised urban landscape). Sheeler was vastly interested in how old buildings such as barns and Victorian townhouses could be appealing despite being built purely for function.

Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge
Plant, Ford Motor Company, 1927.
(MOMA, 2009)
Much of his early work originated from photographs that he took on jobs for companies such as Ford as well as collectors and galleries. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s he gained an admiration for functional structures, seeing beauty in their precision and the effectiveneness of their function rather than any superficial aesthetic appeal. He spent most of his life living close to New York City, which at the time became famous as one of the first skyscraper cities in the world (Fritz Lang's vision for Metropolis was also greatly inspired by the growing city) and greatly influenced his outlook. In his later years his work became more abstract, with paintings becoming basic blocks and geometric shapes to represent buildings. Sheeler did not just simply take snaps, he liked to set up his photographs in a way that captured scale and depth as well as giving a hint through cut framing that what was beyond the frame was as significant as what was in the frame and telling the viewer that what was shot was only a tiny part of the whole.

On Shaker Theme 2, 1956
Precisionism bears a strong link to cubism due to the simple geometric and abstract shapes of some pieces, especially evident in Sheeler's work after 1950 where buildings lack any texture or in some cases definable features such as bricks and windows, appearing to only be blocks. One of Sheeler's other characteristic styles of this period (as demonstrated left) involved laying two photographs of different angles one atop the other and then painting the resulting image that he saw.

Sheeler continued working until suffering a stroke in 1959 that left him debilitated and unable to work in the way he did, effectively forcing him into retirement. Six years later, a second stroke attack ended his life in 1965. The Precisionist movement that he had helped to spur served as an American foothold to the modernist movement in a time where the modernist art scene was dominated by primarily European movements and figures such as French Cubism and Impressionism, Italian Futurism and German Expressionism. His interest in the functional and the idea of seeing beauty in function are reflected in the German Bauhaus school of design, which while no longer an institution since 1933 is still an influential art style throughout the world such as in Tel Aviv, Israel - an entire city of Bauhaus-derived buildings.


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