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Peter Van Dyke
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Pamela Marcil


The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist

August 2, 2004 (Detroit)—The Ford Rouge Steel plant, an historic icon, industrial symbol and artistic model, will be a major focus of the exhibition The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) from Sept. 8 to Dec. 5, 2004. This exhibition is the first major retrospective to focus exclusively on Sheeler’s photographic work, including more than 100 pieces, many with unique ties to the city of Detroit. Most significantly, the visually arresting images of Sheeler’s mural Industry. Also on view will be documentation of American industry created for Fortune magazine in the late 1930s; photographs of African sculpture (1916–18); images of Chartres Cathedral (1929); the film Manhatta accompanied by stills of New York City (1920); and images of Sheeler’s house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (1916–17)

Sheeler’s innovation in merging art and industry was as revolutionary as the era itself,” said Graham W. J. Beal, director of the DIA. “Hosting this important exhibition at the DIA is especially relevant given Detroit’s industrial background and the fact that the museum is home to another important work depicting the Ford River Rouge plant, Diego Rivera’s incomparable Detroit Industry murals.”

Sheeler (1883-–1965) was born in Philadelphia and started his career painting, being taught by renowned American artist William Merritt Chase. Sheeler discovered photography as a way to support his painting, taking commission assignments from Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines and Ford Motor Company. In the 1920s, Sheeler began to use photography as a fine art, focusing his work on depictions of American rural and urban landscape. In 1931, Sheeler’s photography output lessened, as he concentrated fully on his career as a painter.

Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant and Detroit Industry
Images Sheeler shot at the River Rouge plant in 1927 will be the focal point of this exhibition, occupying the entire central gallery. On the occasion of the introduction of the new Ford Model A, Sheeler was commissioned to photograph the plant in Dearborn as part of a larger $1.3 million advertising campaign. During Sheeler’s six-week stay at the 1,100-acre plant, he struggled to make visual sense of such a vast enterprise, finally deciding to document details of the operation and make portraits of machinery, rather than panoramic views of the factory and its famous assembly line. The series, consisting of fewer than 40 photographs, is regarded as the high point of machine-age photography.

The DIA will re-create Sheeler’s four-by-seven-foot mural Industry (1932), which was originally installed in the 1932 exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This portrayal of Detroit industry, together with the DIA’s Rivera murals will offer insight into how both artists responded to this subject; Sheeler found inspiration in the beauty of machine-age design and industry while Rivera saw the Rouge as a relationship of man and machine.

Chartres, Americana, and the Power Series
This exhibition also reveals Sheeler’s characteristic emphasis on architectural detail through his photographic series of Chartres Cathedral; the interiors of his homes, with their antique and Shaker furnishings; and the Shaker meetinghouse in Mt. Lebanon, New York. The DIA’s Sheeler painting, Home Sweet Home (1931), will offer insight into how the artist’s work in photography influenced his painting. In the late 1930s, Fortune magazine commissioned Sheeler to create a series of paintings on the theme of power in America. The exhibition includes striking photographic studies for these paintings taken during his travels in the United States to such places as the Boulder Dam and the Tennessee Valley. One photograph that resulted from this commission was the rare photograph Wheels, which Fortune published in December of 1940. Only four original prints of this photograph exist today, one in the DIA’s collections.

Manhatta, Views of New York, and Nudes
The groundbreaking short film Manhatta (made by Sheeler and Paul Strand in 1920), along with the series of still images derived from the film, are included in the exhibition. The six-minute film spans an imaginary day in the life of New York City and has been described as the first avant-garde film made in America. Fourteen extant still photographs from Manhatta, and eight photographs from Sheeler’s New York Park Row Building series reflect Sheeler’s focus on the details of urban life. Also on view will be a selection of nude stills from Sheeler’s earliest film that feature his first wife Katharine. These images are the only nude photographs he is known to have taken during his career.

Photography of Works of Art, Bucks County and the Doylestown House
Photographing works of art from a spectrum of cultures was a formative experience for Sheeler as he came to believe that all great art grew out of the same tradition. The DIA will feature Sheeler’s powerful photographs of African art (1916–18) juxtaposed with African sculpture from the museum’s collection, as well as Sheeler’s photographs of works by other artists including Marcel Duchamp, Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso. Images by Sheeler taken in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, including the radically modern Side of White Barn (1915) and others taken at the artist’s weekend retreat in Doylestown, mark Sheeler’s first extended foray into artistic photography. The photographs of the house—of utilitarian subjects such as stoves, windows, doors and abstractions of the central staircase—show the clear influence of Cubism in Sheeler’s work.

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Located in the heart of Detroit’s Cultural Center, the DIA is recognized as one of the country’s premier art museums. From the first van Gogh to enter a U.S. museum (Self Portrait, 1887), to Diego Rivera’s world-renowned Detroit Industry murals, the DIA's collection reveals the scope and depth of human experience, imagination and emotion.
Visit online at www.dia.org.

Museum hours are 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m.–9 p.m. Fridays, and
10 a.m.–5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Admission is a donation. We recommend $4 for adults and $1 for children. DIA members are admitted free. For membership information call 313.833.7971.