Love machine

Peering under the hood of Charles Sheeler's magnificent mechanical obsession

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REVIEW To look at the formally austere self-portraits made by the American artist Charles Sheeler (1883–1965) at various points throughout his career, you might surmise, from the repeated images of his stiff, unsmiling visage, that he toiled in obscurity for dry, dusty decades as an administrative underling at a low-level law firm, forever obsessed with organizing his paper clips, pausing from his tedious task only long enough to clean his spectacles on a crisply starched pocket handkerchief and tie the laces of his uncomfortable shoes, polished deep black the previous evening while listening to news of the Lindbergh kidnapping on his wooden Philco tube radio. As the crotchety stepfather of modernism, Sheeler cultivated a stern yet slightly mewling look of quotidian routine, as if neither he nor any other mere individual should assume particular importance amid the daunting technological advancements of his era. Like all true-blue men of meager means in the early part of the 20th century, Sheeler was enthralled with industrial progress and glorified all things steel and chrome. If this clerk allowed himself one indulgence, it was basking in the cult of the machine.

If modernism taught us anything, however, it's that appearances can — no, should — be deceiving. Hat, coat, and desk chair notwithstanding, Sheeler was no paper-pushing nine-to-fiver. Indeed (a word I imagine he uttered frequently, accompanied by a nearly imperceptible tilt of the head), this self-proclaimed precisionist was rather radical in behavior, artistic methodology, and aesthetic philosophizing — though always politely so. Working with deliberate pacing and patience as a filmmaker, photographer, and painter and alarmingly proficient at drawing and printmaking, Sheeler established a unique dichotomy between new and old, rendering the former as oddly antiquated and the latter as the cat's pajamas. Fittingly, his remarkable body of work remains strikingly contemporary; thus the "Charles Sheeler: Across Media" exhibition, handsomely installed in the upper galleries of the appropriately angular de Young Museum, has not the aged patina of a haphazard retrospective begrudgingly granted to a doddering éminence grise of yesteryear but the luminous sheen of a classy chassis careening into J.G. Ballard's Crash by way of the icy David Cronenberg adaptation. Sheeler is Vaughan, so turned on by cogs and shafts, bolts and pylons, that he becomes the ghost in his own machine.

Born in Philadelphia, Sheeler studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, then booked passage for Paris, where he looked askance at Pablo Picasso's and Georges Braque's cubist conundrums before returning to the States, plonking down a fiver on a Brownie camera and taking up commercial photography with an emphasis on architecture.

In 1920, Sheeler collaborated with photographer Paul Strand on Manhatta, a six-minute city-symphony film ostensibly based on portions of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass yet excising virtually all traces of the bearded bard's insatiable lust for life in favor of abstractions formed by bridges, skyscrapers, and the sun setting over the Hudson River. Widely considered the first American avant-garde film, Manhatta screens repeatedly in the gallery and is surrounded by related photographs that further reveal Sheeler's New York state of mind.

Sheeler soon settled in a rented farmhouse in Doylestown, Penn., with fellow artist Morton Shamberg, but it was the home's 19th-century stove that Sheeler referred to as his "companion," so enamored was he of its utilitarian exactitude and sensuous shape.

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