Artist's Notebook

Looking back: Precisionism, Part I

Contributed by Sharon Butler /Back in the 1920s during the early days of industrialization, the Precisionists were drawn to the welded geometric forms of steel mills, bridges, water towers, smoke stacks, factory complexes, and coal mines. Influenced by photographers Edward Weston, Paul Strand and Imogen Cunningham, and borrowing freely from Cubism and Futurism, American artists such as Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Elsie Driggs, Ralston Crawford, and Louis Lozowick favored odd tilted angles, tightly cropped vistas, skeletal steel structures, abstracted shape, and crisp, flat color. For most of the artists, the new industrial architecture symbolized American ingenuity and progress.

 Charles Demuth (American, 1883�1935), Buildings, c. 1930�3, oil and graphite on fiberboard. Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Art Association Purchase Fund, Deaccession Funds/City of Dallas (by exchange) in honor of Dr. Steven A. Nash.
Charles Demuth, Machinery, 1920,tempera and pencil on cardboard,  24 x 19 7/8 inches. Metropolitan Museum, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949. 

According to the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History,

Machinery was first shown in an exhibition of Demuth’s works titled “Arrangements of the American Landscape Forms,” held at the Daniel Gallery in New York in 1920. Rather than a traditional landscape scene, it depicts industrial architecture in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Despite some abstract use of force lines and fragmented planes, the subject remains identifiable. It is a scene of rooftop machinery set against a background of windows belonging to an adjacent factory building; the central structure is a cyclone separator, a centrifuge-like apparatus often used in industrial settings, consisting of a tank, a funnel, and two armlike duct pipes. Like Demuth’s painting The Figure 5 in Gold, this work was dedicated to his close friend, the poet William Carlos Williams. Williams himself contemplated the analogy between the arts and technology. In 1944, he wrote, “To make two bald statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words” (introduction to The Wedge, 1944).

Elsie Driggs (American, (1898-1992), Pittsburgh,1927, oil, 34� x 40 inches. Collection Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York.
Louis Lozowick (American, 1892�1973), Roofs and Sky, 1939, color silkscreen, 10 x 13 inches. Metropolitan Museum, Harriet Brisbane Dick Fund, 1940.

In 1947, Lozowick summarized his artistic credo in these words for the publication 100 Contemporary American Jewish Painters and Sculptors:

From the innumerable choices which our complex and tradition-laden civilization presents to the artist, I have chosen one which seems to suit my training and temperament. I might characterize it thus: Industry harnessed by Man for the Benefit of Mankind.” This optimism about modern industry and technology is evident in Roofs and Sky, which was produced in an edition of approximately twenty-five prints. In this dramatically cropped composition, the immediately recognizable New York City landmark of the Empire State Building is paired with the more generic forms of the water tower and smokestack in the foreground. Unexpectedly, Lozowick relegates the iconic Art Deco tower to the background, choosing instead to bestow a heroic monumentality upon two completely utilitarian mechanical elements.

Charles Sheeler (American, 1883�1965), Water, 1945, oil on canvas, 24 x 29 1/8 inches.Metropolitan Museum, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1949.

Water depicts one of the power generators built by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s, when hydroelectric power was being distributed throughout the Tennessee River region of the United States….For Sheeler, these monumental, streamlined forms signified human ingenuity in harnessing nature’s power. His interpretation of American industry was somewhat idealized: workers are never shown, and the machinery is pristine and gleaming, free of any dirt or smoke. Sheeler expressed his feelings about the emotional symbolism of technology when he wrote: “Every age manifests itself by some external evidence. In a period such as ours when only a comparatively few individuals seem to be given to religion, some form other than the Gothic cathedral must be found. Industry concerns the greatest numbers�it may be true, as has been said, that our factories are our substitute for religious expression.(Quoted in Constance Rourke, Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition, 1938).

Ralston Crawford (Canadian, 1906-1978), Lights in an Aircraft Plant, 1945, oil on canvas, 30 3/8 x 40 1/4 inches. National Gallery of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, 1970.

From the Hollis Taggart website:    

During World War II Crawford was drafted and served as chief of the Visual Presentation Unit of the Weather Division in the Army Air Force. Although denied his first choice position as a Navy photographer, he managed to use his art skills for military service.  There he developed methods of visually representing weather, using easily recognized symbols to indicate rain, snow, clouds, and other meteorological conditions; his charts resemble those used today.  In 1946, Crawford was hired by Fortune magazine to document the atomic bomb detonation test at Bikini Atoll on the Marshall Islands.  He portrayed the blast and its wreckage in abstract imagery dominated by fractured, angular forms whose gray tones allude to the wreckage of the ship used as a test target, punctuated by much brighter colors to indicate the explosion.

Edward Hopper (American 1882-1967), Untitled (Rooftops), 1926, watercolor and graphite pencil on paper, 12 7/8 � 19 7/8 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest � Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Although not generally considered a Precisionist, Edward Hopper was interested in similar forms found in the urban landscape.

George Copeland Ault (American, 1891-1948), Roofs, 1931, oil on canvas. Hood Museum, Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.

Ault focused on the roofs and facades of New York tenements and warehouses until he moved to rural Woodstock in 1937.

Stay tuned for Part II: A round-up of contemporary painting rooted in Precisionism.

Related posts:
Schjeldahl on Demuth: Slanting rays of abstracted light (2008)
Precisionist Elsie Driggs retrospective at Michener Museum (2008)
Precisionist Charles Demuth’s chimney and tower paintings in Fort Worth (2007)


Subscribe to Two Coats of Paint by email.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *