PRECISIONISM, THE ART OF THE MODERN URBAN INDUSTRIAL LANDSCAPE INCLUDING ASPECTS OF CUBISM AND ABSTRACTION. AN EXAMINATION OF THE ART OF GEORGIA O’KEEFE ( 1887-1986), CHARLES DEMUTH (1883-1935) AND CHARLES SHEELER (1883-1965): PART 1.

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In this posting I am going to consider Georgia O’Keefe who was married to Alfred Stieglitz until he died in 1946. Stieglitz was very impressed with O’Keefe and recently she has being lauded by a number of Feminist Art Historians who promote Identity Politics. They insist that they are Marxists but Griselda Pollock is well into Post-Modernism as her writings Show. There are aspects of O’Keefe’s work which strictly cannot be referred to as Precisionism but in fact has great similarity to Arthur Dove’s work depicting flowers petals and other germinating plants and flowers.

American Art begins by describing some of the early work of O’Keefe @Bell Cross Ranchos New Mexico in 1930.

” O’Keefe further developed the Modernist style with which she had built her reputation in New York , painting a whole series of New Mexico motifs including adobe buildings, bleached out skulls found in the desert”. [1].

” Many of the works produced by Georgia O’Keefe during the 1820’s and 1930’s hover enticingly between figuration  and abstraction. the notion that art could be entirely non -representational or abstract was widely explored in the decade from 1910″. [2].

O’Keefe’s work is not totally abstract there are plenty of figural representations , it would only be the Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt and others who would achieve this objective Rothko’s colour field paintings and Barnett Newman’s work would excise any formal representations as did Klein in his pure Blue picture period.

” O’Keefe experimented with abstract forms notably in the work Blue and Green magic (1919) , however the key strength of O’Keefe’s work often resided in its derivation from natural organic forms producing shapes and colours that evolve plant forms like Flames and Shells”. [3].

” Her career was supported by Alfred Stieglitz whom she married in 1924 .in the mid-1920’s O’Keefe was initially influenced by the Precisionists”. [4].

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American Art now goes onto describe a more conventional practitioner of Precisionism Charles Sheeler.

” The use of carefully modulated tonalities reminiscent of watercolour painting gives the impression of lightly ephermal forms floating in an undefined space”.[5].

” Charles Sheeler was a major figure amongst a group of American artists called precisionists . Precisionism was very much the product of the Machine age in America after the First World war”. [6].

As you look at Sheeler’s pictures you can see the linear approach with sharp lines dissecting other lines.

” Indeed the very composition of the painting exudes sharp linearity order and balance. Individual expression is avoided and the image is reminiscent of an Engineer’s blueprints”. [7].

Ford the builder of one the first automobiles invited Sheeler to look around his factory.

” Shortly after it was opened Ford invited the precisionist painter Charles Sheeler to visit the factory. Sheeler took hundreds of photographs. He also used the photographs as source material for a series of paintings of the factory”. [8].

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American Art shows how Sheeler’s work reflected some of the work he had done in the 1920’s.

” Sheeler’s work reverted to a similar style to that he had adopted in the 1920’s with pieces like Upper Deck. he now introduced a new dimension by combining g two overlaid images in Convergence 2″.[9].

American Art now turns to the work of Charles Demuth  another prolific precisionist painter.

” Charles Demuth’s I saw the figure 5 in gold 1928, Produced in the 1920’s by one of the key figures in the precisionist movement the work is based on an imagist poem by Demuth’s close friend William Carlos Williams”.[10].

” Demuth presents a fragmented view of the vehicle and focuses his attention on the gold emblazoned no 5″. [11].

” Like many of the works produced by the Precisionists Charles Demuth’s buildings abstraction Lancaster focuses upon modern Industrial forms. Demuth’s painting is lightly linear in its structure and uses a limited palette of red , blue and white with yellow highlights”. [12].

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As can be seen from these later images Charles Demuth was a Gay man very similar to the Gay scene amongst the artists in the Neo dadists of Jasper Johns John Cage and others who followed the Pop art of Any Warhol. If you look at some of John’s number and target series it reminds me of the No 5 that Demuth drew and especially his statement of Art so unlike O’Keefe and Sheeler. Demuth was quite a complex character as Baigell spells out in his Concise History of American Painting and Sculpture.

” Yet the painters who helped set the artistic mood in the 1920’s had either participated in or had developed from the pre-war movements. Charles Sheeler had exhibited Fauvist works in the Armoury Show, Charles Demuth was an intimate of Duchamp , Georgia O’Keefe became one of the artists Stieglitz supported most actively”.[13].

” Charles Sheeler perhaps best reflected this ambivalence  when he created a Modern version of the 19th Century painting His River Rouge portrait”. [14].

Baigell argues that Charles Sheeler in many ways is the most Precisionist of all these painters.

” Sheeler’s paintings represent the major stylistic trend of precisionism and after .His work began to assume precisionist qualities as early as 1915″. [15].

” Sheeler’s interest in early American artifacts especially those of Shaker communities probably influenced his choice of motifs and forms”.[16].

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Baigell now continues to comment on both Sheeler and Demuth and their role in developing Precisionist forms of Art in the early part of the 20th Century.

” Believing that his art bore little connection to current events or popular attitudes Sheeler never knowingly ventured into social or political comment , nor did he paint American subjects with a chauvinist intent. In this way he tried to avoid the major social issues confronting artists during the 1930’s”. [17].

Demuth on the other hand did display social issues  he painted Men on the Beach and showed his sexuality as a gay man in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

” Had Charles Demuth lived beyond 1935 he might have served as a major link between the Modernist movements of the 1910’s and the 1940’s. On the ne hand some of his industrial subjects certainly  his titles for them skirted Dadaism and on the other he never abandoned the early Modernist concern for subtly changing nuances of tone and colour , whether using watercolours tempera or Oils”. [18].

” Of all the those associated with precisionism Georgia O’Keefe is mst clearly allied to the Modernism of the Stieglitz circle. Her style to be sure was characteristic of the newer Developments”. [19].

This concludes my first part of my Investigation into Precisionism and I would Agree with Matthew Baigell that Georgia O’Keefe is the artist who had more in common with Dove and Marin than she did with Sheeler or Demuth. In Part 2 I will further discuss the role of Precisionist art and its relationship to Modernism.

FOOTNOTES

  1. AMERICAN ART FLAME PUBLISHING.PG.192
  2. DITTO.PG.254
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  9. DITTO.PG.336
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  13. A CONCISE HISTORY OF AMERICAN PAINTING AND SCULPTURE MATTHEW BAIGELL.PG.243
  14. DITTO.246
  15. DITTO.246-7
  16. DITTO.PG.247
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  19. DITTO.PG.251

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