Cult of The Machine: Precisionism and American Art in a Traveling Exhibition

March 24, 2018

The development of modern art in the first three decades of the 20th century in America was without a doubt under a great influence of the European art movements, especially by the avant-garde. Nevertheless, a large number of artists have managed to establish a truly authentic American style called Precisionism, which was practically a reflection of the rapid economic growth of the American society.

This phenomenon, which blossomed in the 1920’s and 30’s, will be thoroughly reevaluated with the upcoming exhibition Cult of The Machine: Precisionism and American Art at The de Young, one of the San Francisco's fine arts museums.

The idea behind the project is to carefully dissect the domains of this vast art production in the interwar period, especially the way the artists have articulated processes of mechanization and technological progress.

Charles Sheeler_Classic Landscape_1931
Charles Sheeler - Classic Landscape, 1931. Oil on canvas, 25 x 32 1/4 in. (63.5 x 81.9 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2000.39.2. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Inspired by The Machines

The very term Precisionism was coined in order to emphasize primarily the particular painting style based on sharp and precise geometrical forms which dominate the canvas. The aesthetic was reminiscent of Cubism and Futurism, which not strange since the Precisionists were rather empowered by the European intellectual circle of artists and writers present in the USA at that period.

Although this style was very often interpreted as a critical articulation of the themes of modernization and industrialization, the artists themselves were not quite fond of this reading. Regardless of the fact that the majority of the works were actual landscapes or rather a cityscapes, art historians very often ascribed Precisionism as being an anticipation of Pop Art, due to the blatant depiction of certain motifs affiliated with early marketing and pop culture.

Nevertheless, the ambivalence towards the complexities of the mechanic age is omnipresent in the majority of their works.

Left - Frankl Skyscraper bookcase 1926 Right - Storrs Auto Tower 1922
Left: Paul T. Frankl - Skyscraper bookcase, ca. 1926. Lacquered wood and brass, 7 ft. 11 1/2 in. x 43 in. 13 in. (242.6 x 109.2 x 33 cm) Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Robert J. Ulrich Works of Art Purchase Fund, 2007.3a-d. © Minneapolis Institute of Art. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco / Right: John Bradley Storrs - Auto Tower, Industrial Forms (part A), ca. 1922. Cast concrete, painted, 60 x 10 in. (152.4 x 25.4 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Gift of Deborah and Ed Shein, 2008.33.2. © The Estate of John Storrs, courtesy of Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago/New York. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Curatorial Concept Behind The Show

The intention of associate curator of American Art for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Emma Acker to carefully emphasize the historical context of this particular period will be presented not only by displaying paintings but the objects, photographs and cinema features as well.

From the works of representatives of the machine aesthetic such are Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, over the screenings of Ralph Steiner’s 1930 film Mechanical Principles to canvases of Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, and many others, the exhibition will show to the public how these works of art are still relevant today in the context of how we perceive the concepts of dehumanization, alienation and in general constant technological progress which determines our present and our future.

Ralph Steiner - Power Switches, ca. 1930. Gelatin silver print, 7 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. (19.1 x 21.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987, 1987.1100.277. © Ralph Steiner, compliments of Estate. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art at The de Young

The large-scale exhibition Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art at de Young Museum in San Francisco will be open on March 24th, and will be on display until August 12th, 2018. The impressive selection of Precisionist artworks couldn’t be possible without the loans from a number of institutions around the States, such as the Brooklyn Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Harvard Art Museums and others.

It is important to point out that this is going to be a traveling exhibition. The first institution after The de Young which is going to present the show will be Dallas Museum of Art and it will be open from September 9, 2018, until January 6, 2019.

Featured images: Clarence Holbrook Carter - War Bride, 1940. Oil on canvas, 36 x 54 in. (91.4 x 137.2 cm). Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Richard M. Scaife American Painting Fund and Paintings Acquisition Fund, 82.6. Photograph by Richard Stoner © Estate of Clarence Carter; Ralston Crawford - Overseas Highway, 1939. Oil on canvas, 28 x 45 in. (71.1 x 114.3 cm). Private Collection © Estate of Ralston Crawford / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; Charles Sheer - Barn Abstraction, 1918. Lithograph, 8 1/4 x 18 1/2 in. (20.9 x 47 cm). Museum of Modern Art, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund, 385.1956. © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY. All images are courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco