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Charles Sheeler: Across Media

October 7, 2006 - January 7, 2007


A landmark exhibition highlighting the working methods of the important American modernist Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) will be on view at the Art Institute of Chicago this fall.  Charles Sheeler: Across Media is the first exhibition to focus on the complex, often paradoxical relationships between photography, film, drawing, and painting that were central to Sheeler's art.  This intimate exhibition will feature approximately 50 masterpieces, including the magnificent paintings American Landscape (1930) and Classic Landscape (1931), masterful drawings, and striking examples of the artist's photographs.  The exhibition, which originated at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., received rave reviews there and will, next year, travel to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young (February 10 through May 6, 2007).

Charles Sheeler was born in Philadelphia, where he studied industrial drawing, decorative painting, and applied art at the School of Industrial Art before enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.   The education he received in Philadelphia in these fields are evidenced in the works on view in Charles Sheeler: Across Media, which showcase Sheeler's training as a draftsman with meticulous processes and his omnivorous interest in various media.

While Sheeler was at the Academy, the charismatic personality and impressionistic technique of the artist and teacher William Merritt Chase influenced him greatly.  In 1909, however, he traveled to Europe and saw the works of Braque, Picasso, and Cézanne.  Sheeler's encounters with the works of these modernist masters transformed his ideas about space and structure, and he began to reject Chase's loosely painted style.  His commitment to modernism was later affirmed when he exhibited in the momentous Armory Show of 1913.

Back in the United States, Sheeler shared a Philadelphia studio and a country house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his close friend and fellow artist Morton Schamberg. When it became clear that neither artist could support himself adequately by painting alone, both Sheeler and Schamberg turned to commercial photography. Sheeler's subjects at this time were usually related to art and architecture, although through the 1920s and 1930s he accepted fashion and journalistic assignments from such prestigious magazines as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Life, and Fortune.

In 1919 Sheeler moved to New York City, where he associated with avant-garde artists at the salons held by the art collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg and at the Whitney Studio Club. One of Sheeler's most important commissions came in 1927, when he was asked by Ford Motor Company to photograph River Rouge Plant in the Detroit area. The success of the River Rouge project advanced Sheeler's career and was a sign that photography was gaining acceptance as an art form. The project also provided subject matter for some of Sheeler's most significant paintings.

Throughout his career Sheeler excelled as both a photographer and a painter. His stark interpretations of architectural, industrial, and technological subjects reflect his love of precise, geometric forms and his strong sense of abstract design.

Charles Sheeler: Across Media opens with a small selection of Sheeler's seminal photographs, circa 1917, of the interior of his 18th-century Quaker fieldstone house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. These highly experimental, innovative night scenes represent the artist's first major achievement as a photographer and later inspired several important paintings and drawings.  Moving from the rural to the urban, the exhibition next features Manhatta (1920), an intriguing short film of New York City's metropolitan landscape. A collaboration between Sheeler and fellow photographer Paul Strand, Manhatta is regarded as a landmark in avant-garde film making in the United States.  It will be seen in conjunction with many related works, including the dramatic painting Church Street El (1920).

The third component of the exhibition highlights Sheeler's series of iconic paintings and drawings inspired by his commercial photographs of Ford's River Rouge Plant, taken in 1927.  Sheeler successfully navigated the boundaries between fine art and commercial work with this series, and the interplay between the photographs, conté crayon drawings, and paintings reveals the complexity of his artistic practice.

The penultimate section of the exhibition presents the Art Institute's enigmatic masterpiece The Artist Looks at Nature (1943) and related photographs and drawings. This painting encapsulates Sheeler's affinity for mixing media, further suggesting his awareness of how his mastery of various techniques shaped his identity as an artist.  The final galleries explore Sheeler's experiments with photomontage in the 1940s and 1950s, works that are among the most complex and intriguing achievements of his entire career.

Charles Sheeler: Across Media is accompanied by a catalogue produced by the National Gallery of Art and published in association with University of California Press.  The 238-page, hardcover catalogue includes 50 color illustrations and 80 black-and-white reproductions.  It features an in-depth essay on Sheeler written by Charles Brock, assistant curator of American and British paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington.  The catalogue is available at the Museum Shop.

In Chicago, Charles Sheeler: Across Media is curated by Sarah E. Kelly, Henry and Gilda Buchbinder Associate Curator of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago. Charles Sheeler: Across Media was organized by the National Gallery of Art.  The exhibition and related education programs at the Art Institute of Chicago are made possible by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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