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Posts Tagged ‘Precisionists’

Art: Elsie Driggs, Pittsburgh, 1927, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
“Beauty is everywhere if you know how to look for it.”

You don’t have to love pollution to love industrial monstrosities transfigured by art. In fact, the tension between what you know smokestack flames are spewing and the beauty of the fire against the blue sky is part of the appeal. Which is not to say I wouldn’t happily give it up.

Still, I was interested in this article on the general topic at the Millions. Bill Morris writes, “In the early years of the twentieth century, an eight-year-old girl named Elsie Driggs was traveling by train with her parents from Sharon, Pennsylvania, to New York. She had dozed off by the time the train reached Pittsburgh, but as the writer John Loughery would recount years later in Woman’s Art Journal, her sleep was interrupted: ‘She was awakened by her father to witness the drama of the black night-sky over Pittsburgh ablaze with soaring flames from the steel plants. It was a memorable sight.’

“So memorable that 20 years later, with her artistic career beginning to flourish, Driggs returned to Pittsburgh hoping to recapture the scene in paint. But the fiery Bessemer steel-making process had been abandoned by then, so there were no longer any flames spurting into the night sky. Worse, the local mill’s managers insisted that a steel mill was no place for a young lady—and they were suspicious that she was a union organizer or industrial spy. But Driggs did not give up. ‘Walking up Squirrel Hill to my boarding house one night, I found my view,’ she told Loughery. ‘It was such a steep hill. You looked right down on the Jones and Laughlin mills. You were right there. The forms were so close.

And I stared at it and told myself, ‘This shouldn’t be beautiful. But it is.’ And it was all I had. So I drew it.

“And then she made a painting from her sketches. And then, nearly a century later, while viewing an exhibition of the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection, my eye was drawn to a smallish black-and-white painting — just 34 by 40 inches — that from a distance appeared to be abstract. … As I got closer I realized it was a stark depiction of cylindrical industrial smokestacks bound by wires at the top left and a gush of smoke at the bottom right. The smokestacks are black and gray, the only color coming from a hint of sulfur in the pale sky. And that’s it: smokestacks, wires, smoke, sky. No flames, no human beings. How did this unremarkable image manage to be so otherworldly beautiful?

“The card on the wall told me that the picture was called ‘Pittsburgh 1927’ and it was painted by Elsie Driggs. She soon followed it with an equally stark painting of silos and ducts and smokestacks called ‘Blast Furnace,’ and then a monumental, faceted painting called ‘The Queensborough Bridge.’ These paintings gained Driggs entry into a group dubbed the Precisionists, an informal movement of mostly young artists who in the 1920s were drawn to America’s emerging industrial landscape of factories and skyscrapers and bridges, which they rendered with both a geometric precision that echoed Cubism and a sparseness that sometimes bordered on abstraction, typified by ‘Pittsburgh 1927.’

“There were other Precisionists on the walls of the Whitney the day I discovered Elsie Driggs, most notably Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. While Driggs was in Pittsburgh, Sheeler was in Detroit on a commission to photograph Henry Ford’s sprawling River Rouge complex, the workplace of 75,000 people, then the largest factory in the world. Sheeler’s assignment was part of the corporation’s publicity campaign for the Model A, which was about to replace Ford’s obsolete Model T. Sheeler spent six weeks roaming the complex with his camera, producing 32 prints that the company used for publicity and that are now regarded as high art. Possibly his most memorable image is ‘Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company,’ a picture of two conveyors making an X over a tangled netherworld of fences and buildings and ironwork, all of it topped by eight slender smokestacks that reach into the heavens. …

“One of Sheeler’s works from the Rouge was in the Whitney show — a painting made five years later called simply ‘River Rouge Plant,’ an oddly serene depiction of the factory’s coal processing and storage facility. The exterior walls of the buildings are creamy or tan, the foreground waters of a boat slip are glassy and calm, the sky is blue. There are no workers, no smoke or sparks or grease or slag heaps. The only hint of the repetitive, soul-crushing work that was done there is the nose of a freighter visible on the right. Part of Henry Ford’s genius was to make everything he needed to produce cars — what’s known as vertical integration, the cutting out of all middlemen — and so to make steel he had coal brought up by train from Appalachia, while his fleet of freighters brought iron ore down from Duluth, Minnesota. You would not know this by looking at Sheeler’s stately photographs or serene paintings, nor would you know that Ford was a union-busting anti-Semite who ruthlessly policed the morals of his captive work force. Sheeler was not concerned with such unpleasant facts. For him, all that mattered was that the Rouge was a visual gold mine. ‘The subject matter, he wrote to his friend Walter Arensberg, ‘is undeniably the most thrilling I have ever worked with.’ American factories, he added, were ‘our substitute for the religious experience.’

“Hanging on a wall near ‘River Rouge Plant’ was Charles Demuth’s painting ‘My Egypt’ from 1930, a depiction of a grain elevator in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The gray structure, topped by exhaust ducts and flanked by a smokestack, is seen from a low angle, giving it a monumental, nearly monstrous presence. Diagonal lines hint at stained glass — and at the notion, widespread at the time among Sheeler and others, that industrial structures were the cathedrals of the machine age. …

“By depicting industrial architecture and machinery but not the humans who built and operated it, the Precisionists left themselves open to the charge [of] glorifying the machine while minimizing or simply ignoring its human costs. …

“What was behind the Precisionists’ tendency to focus on machines rather than their operators, on the mechanical rather than the human? Was it a way of condemning the pulverizing power of the industrial age? Or was it a way of glorifying these monuments to human ingenuity and will? Or could it be that it was not one or the other, but a bit of both? Or neither? 

“One possible answer comes from Elsie Driggs. The year she painted ‘Pittsburgh 1927,’ Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. A year later, Driggs experienced her first flight, aboard a Ford Tri-Motor that carried her from Cleveland to Detroit. It was an ethereal experience, judging by the painting she executed that year, ‘Aeroplane,’ which was included in ‘Cult of the Machine.’ It shows a curvaceous, silvery plane floating through the heavens. Black diagonal lines suggest the whirring of propellers — and identify it as the work of a Precisionist. It’s a lovely, loving homage, clearly a way of glorifying this airborne monument to human ingenuity and will.”

More at the Millions, here. Wonderful pictures. No firewall.

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