Exhibit of the week
Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art
De Young Museum, San Francisco, through Aug. 12
“I have always thought precisionism was a bit ridiculous,” said Sebastian Smee in The Washington Post. An American art movement that sprang up between the world wars, it treated the landscape of the machine age with such fawning meticulousness that the school’s output came to look “not just dated but naïvely misguided.” And though a few powerful artists—Charles Sheeler, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Paul Strand—worked in a precisionist mode, even their contributions to the movement come across as sterile. The de Young’s new exhibition of some 130 precisionist works hasn’t changed my opinion. But “there are more smart ideas at the show’s heart than anything I’ve seen in a long while.” Its curators must have recognized that we’re living in a tumultuous age similar to that of the precisionists, who were attempting to glorify the unpretty infrastructure that made the comforts of modern life possible. “They were,” if nothing else, “trying to face the world honestly.”
They couldn’t have been trying very hard, said Martin Filler in NYBooks.com. Though mechanistic paintings and art-deco artifacts are reliable crowd-pleasers, to a large extent, their appeal “all comes down to stylization.” How much reality could these urban and industrial scenes capture, after all, when so few of the images include human figures? Sheeler explicitly defended that aspect. “What a beautiful world it would be if there were no people in it,” he once said. Upper Deck, his 1929 painting of a steamship’s gleaming infrastructure, betrays no hint that nature and machinery interact, and thus “epitomizes the hermetic nature of the precisionist project.” Not every artist followed the same path. My favorite artist in the show is Gerald Murphy, a wealthy American who produced only about 14 paintings in his lifetime. Watch, his 1925 masterpiece, is executed with “immaculate exactitude,” yet it arranges its stylized timepiece gears in a way that “conveys the enormous flair and sense of fun we associate with the Jazz Age,” traits otherwise largely absent from this “earnest, but ponderous” survey.
The show’s final painting may even give you chills, said Charles Desmarais in the San Francisco Chronicle. War Bride, a 1940 canvas by Midwestern artist Clarence Holbrook Carter, provides “a fitting coda” to an exhibition populated with work that celebrates the world being created by machines. Here, a human figure finally is the focus, but she’s a veiled woman in full wedding attire with her back to us, and she stands before a “vast, altar-like” machine that emits the red glow of a furnace. It’s an unsettling image. “We don’t know whether she is meant to be married within the protection of this cathedral of industry, warmed at its massive hearth, or is to be taken by the smelter itself as wife. Some 80 years later, we still await the answer.”