Urban Realism and the American Scene
Object-Charles Sheeler, Bucks County Barn
Charles Sheeler pioneered the distinctly American style known as precisionism. Characterized by a stark aesthetic, it drew inspiration from the stripped down utilitarian look of the industrial environment. Recognized for his work both as a photographer and a painter, Sheeler relied on the uncluttered functionality of vernacular design to produce coolly analytical art. Bucks County Barn emphasizes the building’s geometric structure to celebrate the clean clarity and spare design of Pennsylvania’s traditional architecture. Countering the aura of stillness and impersonality that the painting projects, two cows, pale-green grass, and the downed rails of a fence lend the image authenticity and immediacy. This crisp portrait of the red-and-white barn, based on a Sheeler photograph, recalls the intent of the so-called American Scene movement, which exalted the heartland and advocated an artistic style both modern and emphatically American.
Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.
During the early 1930s, New York City art dealer Edith Halpert (1900–1970) convinced Charles Sheeler to distance himself from photography for fear that the much admired clarity of his painting would be attributed solely to its photographic origins. Sheeler duly obliged, meaning, ironically, that the artist often considered the preeminent artist of the Machine Age willingly suppressed his use of a machine. As early as 1920, critic Henry McBride (1867–1962) noted in his review of Sheeler’s “Bucks County Barns” exhibition at the De Zayas Gallery in New York that what ignited his interest most were the artist’s photographs. McBride argues against the “ascetism” of the drawings titled Barn Abstraction but for the photographs of the barns. Sheeler’s “relentless eye” and the fact he “never forgets for a moment that the camera is a machine” are counted as major achievements.Henry McBride, “Charles Sheeler’s Bucks County Barns” in McBride, The Flow of Art: Essays and Criticisms of Henry McBride (New York: Atheneum, 1975), 155. Perhaps Halpert’s concern had grounds.
Against Halpert, I would like to argue that Sheeler’s photography is not a problem but rather a means to understand the artist’s nonphotographic work better. Throughout his life, Sheeler was very clear that every medium he chose possessed distinct and unique attributes, despite their shared subject matter. This is especially true of his continued exploration of Bucks County barns. As a guide, I offer a modern interpretation of photography that postdates Sheeler’s work, Museum of Modern Art curator John Szarkowski’s (1925–2007) take on the American photographer William Eggleston (b. 1939): “Form is perhaps the point of art,” argues Szarkowski. “The goal is not to make something factually impeccable, but seamlessly persuasive.”John Szarkowski, William Eggleston’s Guide (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1976), 7. Sheeler’s Bucks County Barn (1940) appears seamlessly persuasive, but the formal continuity of the image is a visual trick—it is Sheeler’s photographic vision remade through the medium of painting.
Remaking and revision are central to Sheeler’s method. Few of his works are simply themselves. Singular. Unique. Each of his images has a past (and a future). And its past, present, and future will always be different. Bucks County Barn was followed by Thunder Shower (1948, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh) and preceded by several conté crayon drawings—including Barn (1917, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Barn Abstraction (1918, Philadelphia Museum of Art)—and these had in turn succeeded a series of photographs, including Bucks County Barn (with Chickens), (with Wall), and (with Gable) (all 1916–17, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
Bucks County Barn is a sleight of hand—a contiguous whole, a fully formed and coherent image. But look beyond the dominance of volumetric form, note the opacity of the windows, the suggested thresholds and blocked entry points to the barn. The building is both pristine and weather worn, with some areas of high detail and other areas blank. Seriousness is set against playfulness; reality is skewed. A broken fence, next to the low coop or shed, leads the eye to a predatory silhouette advancing on two headless cows. A perimeter breached, a quiet invasion in plain sight of the sight-less. A symbolic gesture toward American insularity and indifference to world events in 1940? Perhaps. A skewering of photographic realism, itself a myth: definitely.
Associate Professor of History of Art, University of Nottingham, UK