Photography, painting, and Charles Sheeler's View of New York.

Author:Troyen, Carol

In 1935, Edith Halpert of the Downtown Gallery, New York, sold Charles Sheeler's View of New York to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for $2,200 (Fig. 1). Although considerably reduced from her original asking price of $3,500, it nonetheless represented a substantial sum during the worst days of the Depression. (1) The acquisition was praised in the press, the writer for the Christian Science Monitor noting with approval that it signified an important fulfillment of the museum's promise to purchase contemporary American art. She then described the picture as exemplifying the cool, dispassionate aesthetic of the machine age: "[Sheeler] paints the clean, flat surfaces, the straight, defining lines.... he displays how his design is motivated by the standardized forms conditioned by machines. The modulations, the differentiations which are induced by feeling and the personal margin, are wanting altogether." (2)

The reviewer was mistaken. View of New York, which depicts part of Sheeler's photography studio at 310 East Forty-fourth Street, is an extremely personal picture. Painted with delicate, subtly varying brushwork and arranged with Sheeler's customary sensitivity to formal balance and evocative design, the picture is dominated by his big view camera on a stand. It also shows a lamp and a chair--presumably used by models and clients--conspicuously empty and turned away from the camera. The casement window, open to a bright sky, underscores the irony of the title, for there is no specific evocation of New York--or of any other place, for that matter--in the view. Sheeler immortalized his studio at what proved to be a critical juncture in his career, the moment when he decided, at the urging of his new dealer Halpert, to downplay his activity as a photographer in order to promote his identity as a painter. View of New York can thus be read as "a self-portrait of an artist uncomfortable with self expression." (3) As a portrait of the artist's own workplace, it knowingly participates in the tradition of studio images as confessionals, as projections of the artist's measure of his own career. (4) It is a lament, in which the empty chair, the covered camera, and the switched-off lamp allude to Sheeler's withdrawal from a nearly twenty-year career in photography. The open window is a traditional romantic motif signaling transition to an unpredictable future. View of New York speaks of disconnection and possible loss in the face of uncertainty.

However, View of New York tells more than the poignant story of a middle-aged artist at a crossroads (Sheeler was forty-seven when he painted the picture). His decision to effectively end his career as a photographer seems disappointing, perhaps even a mistake, so extraordinary were his achievements in the medium up to that point. Yet this view of Sheeler's career change does not take into account the practical considerations that likely affected his decision. These considerations, in turn, shed light on the nature and status of photography in the United States in the early 1930s, and on the nature and status of Sheeler's position in the world of photography as well. If the contents of View of New York--the covered camera, the empty chair--reflect Sheeler's meditation on his career thus far, its style, which makes canny use of his experiences as a photographer, promises a new and rich artistic direction. And the circumstances of its creation indicate his relation to the culture around him. In setting aside his persona as a photographer, what, exactly, was Sheeler saying goodbye to, and what was he embracing? The answers to these questions suggest that the period of the early 1930s was a pivotal moment not just in Sheeler's career but also in the development of American photography.

Prime among the practical considerations affecting Sheeler must have been money. He was not a high roller, but he enjoyed fine things. (5) He had already begun collecting the Shaker and other early American objects that he would feature in his paintings of the 1930s; in View of New York, he balances his camera with Danish designer Kaare Klint's stylish Safari chair, a landmark of contemporary furniture design. His career had been marked by moves of studio and home to increasingly prestigious addresses: by 1931 he was working in a recently constructed building in the heart of prosperous Midtown, and he would soon move his residence from South Salem, New York, to the more exclusive Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Sheeler had always made a living from commercial photographic work, which both paid his bills and subsidized his artistic endeavors. While in Philadelphia he supported himself by taking photographs of newly built houses for local architects. In the 1920s he produced photographs of typewriters, spark plugs, and other products for advertising agencies. Even more lucrative was his work for Conde Nast Publications. Early in 1926, Edward Steichen recruited him to produce fashion and celebrity photographs for Vogue and Vanity Fair (Fig. 2), and he continued to take pictures for those magazines until the spring of 1929. Although he described the job as "a daily trip to jail" and grumbled that it left him little time for anything else, it provided him with an extremely comfortable income. He found the commissions to photograph the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Plant near Detroit, Michigan, in 1927 and the White Star Steamship Line's SS Majestic in 1928 both more satisfying artistically and an additional source of money. (6) But this all came to an end in the spring of 1929--a few months before the stock market crash--when Sheeler left for Europe. Although he would publish a few more photographs of consumer goods, sweater sets, and celebrities over the next several years, by the onset of the Depression he could no longer count on regular commercial commissions. (7)

During the 1920s Sheeler had had reasonable success in selling paintings. His most promising sale came in 1926, when Duncan Phillips bought Skyscrapers (Fig. 3) from the dealer Charles Daniel for $400--the largest sum his paintings had yet commanded (but probably about what he earned from a single photograph published in Vanity Fair (8)). Such discerning collectors as Ferdinand Howald, John Quinn, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney had already bought paintings and drawings from him through Daniel and other New York dealers. In 1930, Sheeler's Upper Deck (Fig. 4) appeared in the exhibition Paintings and Sculpture by Living Americans at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and in a group show at the Downtown Gallery, where it attracted considerable attention. When Edith Halpert--by this time the most dynamic and successful contemporary art dealer in New York, with a clientele that included, among others, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller--offered him an exclusive arrangement to sell his paintings at her gallery, it must have seemed an appealing proposal.


At the time, Sheeler's future as an artistic photographer seemed less promising. In contrast to the excitement surrounding his creative work in the late 1910s, when he, Paul Strand, and Morton Schamberg were hailed as "the Trinity of Photography," and when he attracted the support of prestigious patrons and gallery directors, (9) from the mid-1920s he showed and sold very little. In fact, during this period, many photographers found opportunities--to exhibit, to gain critical attention, to sell--quite limited. Museums took little notice: although Alfred Stieglitz's donations of groups of his own photographs to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1924 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1928 inaugurated those institutions' permanent collections of photography, museums rarely sought to acquire or display photographs as works of art. (10) Few commercial galleries had any interest in handling photography in the late 1920s. Even Stieglitz showed only paintings at this time. J. B. Neumann's New Art Circle hosted an occasional display (where, for example, Ralph Steiner's photographs were on view in early 1926), as did the Daniel Gallery (which showed Man Ray's rayographs in March 1927). Otherwise, the Art Center, an umbrella organization given to earnest exhibitions of craft and illustration, served as the principal place for exhibitions of photography in New York. It also housed the headquarters for the Pictorialist Photographers of America, which, until the Art Center closed in the early 1930s, presented exhibitions in its spaces. (11) While the Art Center generally featured shows of the Beautiful Hands in Photographic Art sort, it hosted serious exhibitions from time to time: Paul Outerbridge showed work in 1924, Anton Bruehl in 1926. (12) As a forum for the promotion of photography, it virtually stood alone. Yet despite its good intentions it proved ineffective. In this era, photographers seemed to make art mostly for each other or for themselves: "Photographers who pursued personal aesthetic goals of adult interest were few, and for the most part they worked in secret." (13)

Sheeler showed at the Art Center in February 1926; the majority of the work came from the late 1910s. That exhibition followed by only a few days the close of Sheeler's show of paintings and drawings at J. B. Neumann's gallery. It is not clear whether the reviewer for Art News had this coincidence in mind in writing about the Art Center show, "there are but few exhibitions of paintings that can hold their own against the artistry of Mr. Sheeler's photographs." (14) In any case, the accolade is unusual on two counts: First, as a discussion of an exhibition of photography, it was all but unique in the 1920s. Art News, the voice of the mainstream, preferred to cover such stories as "Jules Bache Buys Raphael for $600,000," in its issue of March 16, 1929, than to comment on Paul Strand's exhibition at the Intimate Gallery that same month. The more progressive art magazines evinced little more...

To continue reading