Friday, 1 May 2009


"The art of Europe is finished -dead- and America is the country of the art of the future. Look at the skyscrapers! Has Europe anything to show more beautiful than these?"

Marcel Duchamp wrote that in 1915. Faced with the alternative of a continent indulging itself in a ritual of mass suicide, one can understand Duchamp's enthusiasm for the new world he encountered.It was a world whose possibilities must have seemed endless to those prepared to look beyond the aesthetics of the passing age, influenced by the new perspectives the new century had already offered. As its subtitle, 'Reordering Reality', implies, the 1994 book PRECISONISM IN AMERICA reflects some of those possibilities, but also reveals the limitations of those aesthetics in coping with the changes in modern America.

Growing out of Cubism and Le Corbusier's Purism, Precisionism saw hope in the purity of things mechanical, which insinuated themselves directly into daily life. This was above all a way of imposing form on an increasingly chaotic universe. The seemingly formless romanticism of the 19th century, which reached its zenith with the Impressionists, offered no way to cope with the destructive pace of change in the 20th century. Disorder seemed to multiply geometrically, turning the world upside down, and revealing its dark side most clearly in the technological madness of the World War.

PRECISIONISM IN AMERICA spotlights the best known painters of this very loosely structured movement: Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Georgia O'Keeffe and Joseph Stella, along with photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston.It also provides revealing looks at Preston Dickinson, Elsie Driggs (that's her 'Queensborough Bridge, 1927' left), and the photographer Imogen Cunningham, which help us round out the picture of the art. The work of Driggs, O'Keeffe, and Cunningham also signaled another of the major reorderings of the century, the growing importance of women in modern art. The "cool, intellectual nature" of work by women often baffled contemporary critics, who expected more emotional,if not more 'twee', art, but in the new century, design would be based on cool intellectualism. Dorothy Grafly was perceptive in comparing Precisionist women's painting to "photographic purity"; purity, in the face of modern chaos, was the precisionists' ideal.

As a synthesis of American realism with European abstract design Precisionism harkens back both to classical architecture and to Cubism. William Carlos Williams had close connections with the Precisionists; Demuth's painting based on his poem 'I Saw The Figure 5' is one of the early works marking the move from synchronicity to precision. Williams might well have been writing about the Precisionists when he wrote "There is nothing sentimental about a machine. A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there's nothing sentimental about a poem I mean there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant."

You can see what Williams meant in Preston Dickinson's "Grain Elevators" (1923) or Ralston Crawford's "Buffalo Grain Elevators" (1937). Or the Sheeler photo, "Criss Cross Conveyors" (left), or Paul Strand's remarkable "Motion Picture Camera." Detail, simplicity and, yes, precision: materials converted to power with nothing redundant.

Yet for all the seeking to escape 19th century romanticism, Demuth could use an Impressionist palette in a painting of a water tower and a smokestack he titled "Aucassin and Nicolette" (1921, right) and incline the two structures toward each other, like those Medieval lovers. This may reflect innate American sentimentality more than Romanticism, but it begs the question of modernism. In the face of twentieth century America, as Duchamp realised instinctively, realism WAS modernism. Realism seems the dominant force at work here, reflecting, more than seeking out, a Cubist language. Paintings like O'Keefe's "New York Night" seek to imitate the patterns of nature in those of man: the lights of traffic reflected in patterns on hotel windows.

These artists were attempting to simplify the aesthetic formula of Cezanne and others, which had been done previously in America by the Synchronists, who used abstract forms; the precisionists' forms were real. They wanted art to reflect the perfection in straight highways, and gleaming skyscrapers. Demuth's early echoes of synchronism soon give way to still lives of eggplants, then the larger scale of factories and cities, like 'My Egypt' (right) justifiably famous both for its beauty and its message, that the works of modernity were every bit as classic as those of antiquity.

As with Sheeler's fascination with the simple lines of Shaker furniture, the Precisionists sought in both the past and in nature justifications for the precepts of modernism. The exterior fabric of American society never came to reflect those human fundamentals; the immediate shock of the Depression is reflected better in, for example, Edward Hopper, and another World War rendered the inventions of modernity much less appealling--it wasn't a coincidence abstraction flourished after that war. But that was something they could not have predicted. The pace of change increased faster, but much less precisely, than they ever dreamed.

PRECISIONISM IN AMERICA 1915-1941: Reordering Reality
Gail Stavitsky, Lisa Steinman, Rony Golan
New York: Harry N. Abrams/Montclair Art Museum

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