Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art

Dallas Museum of Art
Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art
September 16—January 6, 2019

Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art presents an engaging and thorough investigation into the dialogue between fine art and industry during the era of American ascendance early in the last century. A major group effort, this comprehensive exhibition, organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, draws on the collections of more than 50 institutions, and is accompanied by a scholarly exhibition catalogue published by Yale University Press.

Inspired by the 1913 Armory show, artists responded in particular to a selection of pieces by the European avant-garde. Cubism, Expressionism, and Futurism (and soon Dada) were liberating artistic styles that American artists quickly transfigured into an American context. Critics who first saw the work of Charles Demuth, Georgia O’Keeffe, Morton Schamberg and Charles Sheeler, dubbed these artists’ urban, mechanistic art Precisionism. This exhibition convincingly argues that these artists were not simply copying the Europeans, but were creating bold, original aesthetic expressions inspired by the American metropolis and the machine age that made it possible.



One of the major art forms to define the last century was cinema, so it’s no surprise that visitors are first greeted by Ralph Steiner’s “Mechanical Principles” (1930), a nine-minute film originally shot in 35 millimeter. A repetitive array of machine parts, gears and pistons silently undulate, clearly expressive of an abstract and hypnotic process built on automated exactitude and assembly-line manufacturing first used in the United States. These images set the stage, placing the art in context. The exhibition shows precisionist paintings and photographs looking back toward Picabia’s “Dada Machines” (one on paper included here) and forward to the American present. Morton Schamberg’s “Painting (Formerly Machine)” (1916) is a classic example of a flattened, abstracted gadget from the printing industry, reimagined as fine art with arcs, circles and lines harmonized  on a uniform background. The formal qualities of the object are decontextualized from its purpose as a machine, elevating the image beyond the merely technical.

Some 14 years after the Armory show, also in New York, the Machine-Age Exposition went on view in 1927. Fernand Léger designed the cover for the catalogue, which depicted an abstracted, multi-colored ball bearing. The exhibition called for the union of architecture, artists and engineers in the building of a new social landscape through mass production and large-scale projects. These ideas were comparable to the philosophy of the Bauhaus school in Germany, and such conflation of art and industry also thrived during this time in America. A drawing on paper in ink by Louis Lozowick, “Machine Ornament No. 2” (1927), was part of a series done for the Exposition and celebrates abstract forms fused with the power of industry through bold graphics that propel the machinery toward the viewer.

By the time precisionist painting reached its mature stage in the work of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, the style was marked by the discernable absence of human beings and a polished surface with imperceptible brushstrokes. Celebrating machined surfaces and architectural feats, they seem to argue that the presence of the human figure was redundant, except perhaps to illustrate scale. In Demuth’s “Incense of a New Church” (1921), only the smoke and soot of a steel mill stand as evidence to the human work force inside, pollution ironically equated to incense from a religious service.

Included in the exhibition was a gallery of industrial design objects in an arrangement that referred to the Machine Art exhibition curated by Alfred Barr at the Museum of Modern Art in 1934. Among other surprises are masterworks by one of the only female precisionists, Elsie Driggs, whose painting “Blast Furnaces” (1927), with its horrific tones and mammoth edifice, asks a significant question: how alienating was this new world and what cost to our environment does the apparent euphoria portend? These are questions that precisionist art, for all its celebration of gears and smokestacks, prompts us to ask today.

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