A humble stove warmed Modernist

Charles Sheeler’s heart — By: PETER PLAGENS

Charles Sheller StoveCHARLES SHELLER (1883-1965) is one of the most important artists of the first half-century of American Modernism. Usually this judgment reflects his work as a painter, which is often referrecl to as “Precisionist”—smooth, machine-age realism with a Cubist spin. But Sheeler’s reputation as a photographer is good enough to have earne(l him a major retrospective exhibition, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It opens next month, January 2005, at the Georgia O’Keeffc Museum in Santa Fe. New Mexico

Sheeler, who was born in Philadelphia and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, went to Paris in 1909 at the moment Cubism was taking off like a sky-rocket. Back in the States, however, nascently Modernist painting did not a living make . So he took up commercial photography, concentrating on architectiral pictures. He was self-taught, his experience confined originally to the $5 box Brownie he owned as a teenager. While living in Philadelphia, he rented a farm-house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 39 miles away, with the way-out artist Morton Schamberg. Sheeler was so fond of the house’s 19th-century stove that he called it his “companion” anti made it a subject of photographs he took at night using glaring artificial light that gave stark, dramatic shadows and bleached out unimportant textural details.

Sheeler was applying what he knew about Cubism to photography, and Doyle-stown House: Interior with Stove (c. 191;) is a tonal fugue of rectangles, triangles and a few crisp curves. Other shapes serve as punctuation, such as the mysterious gray circle between the window and door, and the grooved chunk of wood on the floor . In a drawing, the artist has total, inch-by-inch control over the distribution of tone. But the stove photograph is amazing precisely because it isn’t a drawing. Sheeler could only concoct risky cantatas of light out of whatever sat in front of his lens and hope the camera caught them. Shortly after he took this picture—the masterpiece of his Doylestown series—a popular song about American soldiers returning home from World War I asked, “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree? After Sheller saw Paris, he did keep himself down on the farm----but on his own artistic terms, taking the best of Paris, and its Cubism, with him.’

                                                                        PETER PLAGENS is a painter

                                                                        and the art critic for NEWSWEEK


Smithsonsian Magazine

December 2004. (Pg.21)

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