Photography, Painting, and Charles Sheeler's View of New York

Article excerpt

In 1935, Edith Halpert of the Downtown Gallery, New York, sold Charles Sheeler's View of New York to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for $2,200 (Fig. 1). Although considerably reduced from her original asking price of $3,500, it nonetheless represented a substantial sum during the worst days of the Depression.1 The acquisition was praised in the press, the writer for the Christian Science Monitor noting with approval that it signified an important fulfillment of the museum's promise to purchase contemporary American art. She then described the picture as exemplifying the cool, dispassionate aesthetic of the machine age: "[Sheeler] paints the clean, flat surfaces, the straight, defining lines. . . . he displays how his design is motivated by the standardized forms conditioned by machines. The modulations, the differentiations which are induced by feeling and the personal margin, are wanting altogether."2

The reviewer was mistaken. View of New York, which depicts part of Sheeler's photography studio at 310 East Forty-fourth Street, is an extremely personal picture. Painted with delicate, subtly varying brushwork and arranged with Sheeler's customary sensitivity to formal balance and evocative design, the picture is dominated by his big view camera on a stand. It also shows a lamp and a chair-presumably used by models and clients-conspicuously empty and turned away from the camera. The casement window, open to a bright sky, underscores the irony of the title, for there is no specific evocation of New York-or of any other place, for that matter-in the view. Sheeler immortalized his studio at what proved to be a critical juncture in his career, the moment when he decided, at the urging of his new dealer Halpert, to downplay his activity as a photographer in order to promote his identity as a painter. View of New York can thus be read as "a self-portrait of an artist uncomfortable with self expression."3 As a portrait of the artist's own workplace, it knowingly participates in the tradition of studio images as confessionals, as projections of the artist's measure of his own career.4 It is a lament, in which the empty chair, the covered camera, and the switched-off lamp allude to Sheeler's withdrawal from a nearly twenty-year career in photography. The open window is a traditional romantic motif signaling transition to an unpredictable future. View of New York speaks of disconnection and possible loss in the face of uncertainty.

However, View of New York tells more than the poignant story of a middle-aged artist at a crossroads (Sheeler was forty-seven when he painted the picture). His decision to effectively end his career as a photographer seems disappointing, perhaps even a mistake, so extraordinary were his achievements in the medium up to that point. Yet this view of Sheeler's career change does not take into account the practical considerations that likely affected his decision. These considerations, in turn, shed light on the nature and status of photography in the United States in the early 1930s, and on the nature and status of Sheeler's position in the world of photography as well. If the contents of View of New York-the covered camera, the empty chair-reflect Sheeler's meditation on his career thus far, its style, which makes canny use of his experiences as a photographer, promises a new and rich artistic direction. And the circumstances of its creation indicate his relation to the culture around him. In setting aside his persona as a photographer, what, exactly, was Sheeler saying goodbye to, and what was he embracing? The answers to these questions suggest that the period of the early 1930s was a pivotal moment not just in Sheeler's career but also in the development of American photography.

Prime among the practical considerations affecting Sheeler must have been money. He was not a high roller, but he enjoyed fine things.5 He had already begun collecting the Shaker and other early American objects that he would feature in his paintings of the 1930s; in View of New York, he balances his camera with Danish designer Kaare Klint's stylish Safari chair, a landmark of contemporary furniture design. …