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):PART2.

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In the second part of my examination into Precisionism I am going to look in more detail into the role of the Precisionists. Georgia O’Keefe who in many ways only skirted around  Precisionism had more in common with Arthur Dove and his germinating Plants . Later on as I have pointed out in Part 1 O’Keefe would be taken up by the proponents of Identity Politics like Griselda Pollock.

Robert Atkins gives a dictionary definition of Precisionism in his Art Spoke.

” Precisionism is a style of American Painting that flourished after World war 1. precisionist painters were attracted to the unified abstract designs f Cubism , but wanted to depict subject matter that was easily recognised”. [1].

” Precisionist paintings are flattened compositions that portray machine age life in the most advanced technological culture of the day . Unpeopled images of inherently geometric forms-skyscrapers grain elevators factories were imbued with heroic simplicity”. [2].

Atkins continues to show the type of Art that O’Keefe , Sheeler and Demuth painted.

” Georgia O’Keefe painted vistas of nocturnal Manhattan , Charles Demuth produced images of ships and factories through the prismatic lens of Cubism”. [3].

Morgan in her Dictionary of American art describes in personal terms her impression of the Precisionist artists.

” Few 20th Century artists so convincingly registered the transcendental American attraction to physical fact as a manifestation of some unknown reality”. [4].

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In her commentary Morgan continues to discuss the role that O’Keefe played in the precisionist movement.

” In the early 1970’s she was rediscovered by a new wave of Feminist artists (Post Modernists) and activists keen to discover accomplished role models fairly neglected”. [5].

Morgan confirms my prognosis that O’Keefe was not as immersed in precisionism as was Charles Sheeler.

” It is noteworthy that O’Keefe’s journey to abstraction took quite a different path from those of other Young Modernists , rather her familiarity with abstracting tendencies with Art Nouveau design and the principles she had learned from Dove suffused to free her creativity while she remained isolated in Southern California”.[6].

” She also knew the work of Arthur Dove and others in the Stieglitz circle who experimented along those lines. During winters she painted still lives and views from her city-windows. she contributed to Precisionist interest in formalised depictions of modern Architectural subjects”. [7].

Morgan ascribes to her the way the emergence of photography helped her to focus sharply on many of the flowery forms she painted.

” In her celebrated close up of Flowers from the middle years of the 1920’s she demonstrated close attention to the era’s sharp focus photography that zeroed in on objects for dramatic effect”.[8].

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Morgan now turns her attention to Charles Sheeler  quite an enigmatic figure who also used sharp focus photography to enhance his paintings.

” Charles Sheeler the central figure in Precisionism , he ranks also among leaders in the early development of sharp focus photography”. [9].

” In Painting his colour-saturated cubist style positioned him among the most experimental artists of the decade and won his work a place in the 1916 forum exhibition”.[10].

” Despite his prowess in the medium Sheeler came to have increasing doubts about the role of creativity in Photography. in 1931 he temporarily  relinquished the medium for several years in order to focus single mindedly on Painting”. [11].

Morgan points out that Sheeler’s paintings had a very close affinity with Photography.

”  Sheeler’s paintings so closely resembled photographs that stimulated them that they are difficult to differentiate  when both are seen in Black and white”. [12].

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Morgan finally shows that although Sheeler’s work resembles photographs there are small little alterations that Sheeler always made to his paintings.

” Yet close analysis always reveals myriad alterations in Sheeler’s translation from the mechanical medium to the handmade. Many such paintings also betray the artist’s underlying ambivalence about Industrial progress”. [13].

Turning now to Charles Demuth my favourite of all the Precisionists, Demuth showed that he could paint realistic  pictures as well as his very sharp drawn precisionist pictures. I do appreciate his Three sailors  on the Beach which is  painted with loving care showing  how Demuth reveals his sexuality as a Gay man.

” A key participant in the early development of modernism in the United states. He produced sophisticated still lives , architectural abstractions and figural subjects marked by elegant refinement, ironic wit and vibrant sensuousness”.[14].

” Demuth became involved with Stieglitz circle although the photographer did not show his work until 1925. in addition Demuth soon became widely acquainted within other circles of artists, writers and social revolutionaries”.[15].

Demuth mixed with a variety of Modernists including Marcel Duchamp and the European artists who had fled from Germany after the Nazis came to power.

” He came into contact with Marcel Duchamp and New York Dada. in the summer of 1916 while working with Marsden Hartley (Another Gay Artist who I will be writing about soon) in Provincetown. Demuth began to paint in the precisionist mode that dominates his major works in Oil and tempera”. [16].

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Charles Demuth, Twelve Nude Boys at the Beach

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For me Demuth is the Revolutionary artist who combines precisionist close sharp fragmented Cubist like shapes with Dada influenced images. The Iconography is totally free either of one form or another. His work with Hartley would show that Demuth of all 3 was the Modernist who embraced abstraction.

” Demuth dissected and sometimes rearranged elements using cubist fragmentation and often ray like lines adapted from Futurism. in these works he anticipated the precisionists taste for clarity , hard edges and planar forms”. [17].

” Among Demuth’s most singular accomplishments is a set of poster portraits as he called them from the late 1920’s .in these Demuth  cleverly symbolised several colleagues including Georgia O’Keefe , Arthur Dove and John Marin”. [18].

Morgan concludes showing that Demuth’s work was to greatly influence Modernists and particularly the Neo Dadaists of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauchensberg and of course the Abstract Expressionists. His insistence on using lettering would reflect on the Pop art of Roy Lichenstein and Andy Warhol.

” Of all Demuth’s work – this may suggest his relevance to a younger generation emerging in the 1950’s and 1960’s. pop artists too were interested in clean and impersonal forms in Letters and numbers that function doubly as elements of design and meaning”.[19].

This concludes my exploration of the Precisionists but to me Charles Demuth who died before his artistic talents could have developed was the most important revolutionary artist amongst the Precisionists  and was to have an effect on the artists that followed Demuth Marsden Hartley, Alfred Maurer and Maurice Prendergast.

FOOTNOTES

  1. ART SPOKE 1848-1944 ROBERT ATKINS . PG.171
  2. DITTO.PG.171
  3. DITTO.PG.171
  4. THE OXFORD  DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN ART AND ARTISTS. ANN LEE MORGAN. PG.348
  5. DITTO.PG.348
  6. DITTO.PG.348
  7. DITTO.PG.349-350
  8. DITTO.PG.350
  9. DITTO.PG.442
  10. DITTO.PG.443
  11. DITTO.PG.443
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  13. DITTO.PG.443
  14. DITTO.PG.119
  15. DITTO.PG.119
  16. DITTO.PG.119
  17. DITTO.PG.119
  18. DITTO.PG.119
  19. DITTO.PG.119

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