The Michener Museum calls its current “Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography and Sculptural Form” a groundbreaking exhibition of photographs, paintings, fashion ensembles, and textiles by one of the country’s most celebrated modernists.
Curator Kirsten M. Jensen says the exhibition is a way to celebrate artist Sheeler and his unexplored work at Conde Naste, as well as celebrate her own interest in fashion.
Jensen says Sheeler’s photo work first came to her attention when she was in graduate school and her mother was taking classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and researching Sheeler photographs from his time at Vogue. Her paper was, “The Architectural Nature of 1920s Fashion.” Jensen says “It sort of bubbled under the surface until I came to the Michener, (some 15 years later), which has this direct connection to Charles Sheeler.”
Sheeler (1883–1965) was a Philadelphia native and a Doylestown resident from 1910 to 1926. He began his studies at the School of Industrial Arts and enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in 1903. Prominent American impressionist painter William Merritt Chase was his mentor.
But he came of age after a 1906 trip to Europe. While he had planned to become familiar with the historic craftsmanship of Italian and French art, he says in a 1959 interview for the Archives of American Art that he returned with something else. “When I came back, I couldn’t resume where I had left off. I had to bail out, as I’ve called it before, for about 10 years before I really got started in a new direction. It was no longer possible just to set up a model, either literally a model or a landscape, and go out and paint a landscape. I had to plan it ahead of time as to what ingredients it would have in it that would be to my satisfaction as near as I could arrive at them.”
The efforts made Sheeler one of the founding figures of American modernism for his pioneering work as both a painter and a photographer, with an over arching interest in industrial subjects. His linear, hard-edged style became known as precisionism.
“Using his house as his primary subject, he began experimenting with compositional arrangement: mass, texture, line, dramatic lighting, spatial distortions, and framing strategies to create powerful images. At the same time he produced compelling images of Machine Age New York for which he is best known: Art Deco skyscrapers, sleek locomotive engines, and majestic power plants,” says a museum biography statement.
As for his photography, Sheeler says in the 1943 Museum of Modern Art publication, “American Realists and Magic Realists,” “My interest in photography, paralleling that in painting, has been based on admiration for its possibility of accounting for the visual world with an exactitude not equaled by any other medium.” And in that 1959 interview, he says, “No drawing can give you the actuality to the extent that the photograph is, and I can pick out and make references for a form that I want to use with greater definition than I could by making a quick sketch from the subject, which would fill the considerable latitude from what I actually saw on location.”
For whatever reason, photography became an art form that provided Sheeler with an income and recognition. As Jensen writes for the exhibition, Sheeler was hired as a staff photographer by his friend, Edward Steichen, then director of photography for Conde Nast magazines. Steichen would go on to become director of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Steichen tasked Sheeler with photography assignments for Vogue and Vanity Fair, which he did until he left the position in 1931.
“Sheeler’s Conde Nast work has been almost universally dismissed as purely commercial, a painter’s ‘day job,’ and nothing more. Very few of these photographs have ever been published, and none of the nearly 352 photographs he produced for the magazines have been exhibited before. This is the first monographic exhibition of Sheeler’s work at the museum, and the first to explore his Conde Nast period, its roots in his early experimentations with photography, and its lasting impact on his mature body of work,” notes Jensen.
Although former scholars working at the Michener referenced Sheeler’s association with fashion photography no one did anything in “any explorative way,” says Jensen, adding that for a museum that has a direct connection to an artist to present a full range of his work “was really quite exciting. “
A walk through the exhibition begins with an exploration of Sheeler’s early period of experimentation: photographs of the Worthington House, where he lived in Doylestown, modern sculpture, early portraits, and his 1920 film collaboration with Paul Strand, “Manhatta.” Called by a prominent film historian “the first avant-garde film produced in the United States,” the 10-minute work mixes images from the American modern city with lines from Walt Whitman’s poem, “The City of Ships.”
There are 85 portraits and fashion photographs on loan from the Conde Nast archives in New York culled from the more than 200 that Sheeler produced during his time there. These photographs reflect the Jazz Age with portraits of starlets bedecked in fantastic gowns and jewels, models wearing the latest in couture designs, Ziegfeld Follies dancers, and stage actors in the latest Broadway shows.
A number of these photographs are included in staged, multi-media vignettes incorporating period costumes. Additional photographs and paintings are on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Yale University Art Gallery, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Columbus Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gaston Lachaise Foundation, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Additionally there are Sheeler’s own textile designs, which he produced in the early 1930s, on view for the first time. A photograph Sheeler took of his dealer, Edith Halpert, wearing a dress made from his textiles, standing between two of his recent industrial paintings, is also on view. Pieces of the original dress, as well as a re-creation of it, are also included in one of the multi-media vignettes.
Says Michener Museum Director Lisa Tremper Hanover: “The significance of the exhibition lies in the original scholarship, meticulously researched and eloquently relayed to the visiting public, and the physical installation that places photography, paintings, and important fashion and textiles of the era in a dynamic context.” She adds: “The Michener seeks to stretch the notion of art, and the opportunity to access non-traditional resources such as the Conde Nast archives brings distinction to our institution.”
After Sheeler left Conde Nast he continued his painting career. For the next three decades Sheeler established a style that would lead him to become one of the most recognized modern American painters of all time. Each painting, he said, held the intention to “present the subject as far as possible without imposing anything — to give it on its own terms.” Precision and technical skill influenced both the “what” and “how” of his work, and his aesthetic would go on to inspire generations of modern photographers and painters.
Jensen muses on a chance meeting with the “private and reserved” Sheeler and says that in addition to discussing his process and technique, “Because there is very little documentation, such as correspondence, relating to his Conde Nast years, I would be very interested to know how he really felt about his work there — I’d like to hear it from him.”
Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculptural Form, Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, through Sunday, July 9, Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. 215-340-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org.