Landscapes Of Power

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In the fall of 1927 the Philadelphia advertising agency N. W. Ayer and Son came up with a campaign for the Ford Motor Company: a series of photographs of Ford’s thousand-acre industrial site on the Rouge River near Detroit, which would portray the company itself as an efficient machine, an icon of American industry. Ayer had a photographer in mind: a Philadelphian named Charles Sheeler.

Sheeler earned his living as a photographer, but his real interest was painting. Tall, thin, and shy, he had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under William Merritt Chase. While he waited for his paintings to sell, Sheeler photographed houses for local architects and fashion models for Vogue and Vanity Fair. He welcomed the Ford assignment, and the thirty-two prints he made of the Rouge quickly became classics of industrial photography. They also helped refine his vision as an artist: beginning in 1930, he turned out five canvases based on the compositions he had made for Ford. By 1931 he was able to give up photography to paint full-time.

Some of Sheeler’s paintings resemble photographs, but everything extraneous has been left out. He even minimized his own brushstrokes, striving for what he called a “craftsmanship so adequate as to be unobtrusive.” Form was what interested him, and he found that when he made industrial forms his subject, the function of various parts guaranteed a dynamic relationship among them.

Industry wasn’t Sheeler’s only subject. He also painted barns and still lifes and interiors. But his industrial landscapes—some of which are gathered here—constitute his best work. An exhibition of Sheeler’s paintings and photographs will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston until January 3, 1988, when it will travel to the Whitney in New York (January 28 to April 17) and then to the Dallas Museum of Art (May 15 to July 10).

—Jane Colihan