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Heirs to Sheeler

From the Magazine: Monday, December 11, 2006

Who are the best industrial artists today? We make the introductions.

Painters and photographers in the early 20th century were captivated by the vitality and power of urban and industrial landscapes. The skyscrapers of New York, in the hands of artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Margaret Bourke-White, were unimpeachable symbols of progress heralding the country’s modernity, and the giddy, gritty day-to-day of urban life that writer John Dos Passos captured in his trilogy U.S.A. was lusciously rendered in paintings by George Bellows, John Sloan, and Reginald Marsh.

Within this context, Charles Sheeler created his meticulous photographs and paintings of Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant—paintings that celebrated a booming industry and found beauty in structures whose form was based on function rather than architectural aesthetics. The tradition of urban landscape painting has been carried on
by artists such as Rackstraw Downes, Richard Estes, and Robert Cottingham. But who today depicts industrial subjects? Who is our Charles Sheeler?

HtS1Fact is, the heavy industry that Sheeler lionized in the 1920s and 1930s has become a disappearing part of our cultural landscape. In our collective consciousness, it is seen as our legacy rather than our future.

But in spite of this change (or perhaps because of it), the nation’s industrial patrimony has gained renewed potency as a source of inspiration for contemporary artists. Indeed, for several, there’s an urgency to record and contextualize industry’s presence before it falls to the wrecking ball. Here are our best heirs to Sheeler:

Becher factoriesIn the late 1950s, Bernd and Hilla Becher, a husband-and-wife team, saw the beginning of the decline of heavy industry, and ever since, they have been photographing mines, blast furnaces, water towers, steel mills, lime kilns, grain elevators, and numerous other industrial structures in Europe and the United States.

The Bechers, who are influential both as teachers and practitioners, use an unmistakable and formulaic style—cool, dispassionate, portrait-like black-and-white images. They combine a documentary sensibility with a modernist interest in repetition. The artists’ most compelling works are thematic groupings arranged in grids they call “typologies,” which reveal intriguing patterns in function-driven industrial design. Their recent books Industrial Landscapes and Typologies of Industrial Buildings (both MIT Press) comprise a fascinating visual encyclopedia of industrial building types.

Alex MacLean is another photographer skilled at finding intriguing designs in unexpected places—though usually from an altitude of at least 1,000 feet. His aerial photographs, such as those in Designs on the Land: Exploring America from the Air (Thames and Hudson), capture beguiling patterns in the landscape not visible at ground level. He finds industry’s vastness appealing and speaks in awe of the “size, organization, and engineering” of places like the Houston Ship Channel, featured in his portrait of Houston, commissioned by the Rice Design Alliance in 2000.

hts2Trained as an architect at Harvard, he has captured, during his 30-year career, spellbindingly beautiful patterns in agricultural, urban, maritime, and desert settings. “New Car Lot,” for example, could easily be mistaken for a cubist mosaic or a pictorial depiction of streaming data. In “Blue Tankers,” he turns a West Virginia railyard into a visually stunning meditation on composition. “It’s very minimalist,” he says, and it reveals “the grace and beauty in simple basic forms.”

LutterVera Lutter says she’s fascinated with industrial subjects because “they represent man’s greatest achievements…. They are monumental manifestations of our greatest ambitions.” The irony is that she uses a centuries-old technology to produce her images, exposing them directly, without film, onto photographic paper.

A recent collaboration with the Print Center in Philadelphia yielded a dazzling photograph of 30th Street Station that measures 51 by 146 inches (the exposure lasted 105 minutes). The results resemble negatives, an effect Lutter says some call haunting and uncanny. Her description is more apt: “sublime.”

HTS3A contemporary painter who readily acknowledges a debt to Sheeler is Stephen Dolmatch. Like Sheeler, he works from an extensive body of photographs, and his style resembles Sheeler’s precisionism. Dolmatch uses a cool, subdued palette and has been rendering crisp, quietly dramatic urban and industrial landscapes of New York and New Jersey for more than 20 years. He focuses on the design elements of a subject rather than its physicality. He recently said he’s intrigued in how an image “breaks down into a series of diagonals and rhythmic geometries.”

In “Network,” a glimpse upward at an elevated railway’s metal supports is rendered as a wild visual symphony of shadow and light, and an otherwise forgettable New Jersey oil tank farm—“Hackensack River”—is transformed into a lean and elegant study of form.

On the other hand, the work of Rick Dula, another painter indebted to Sheeler, is moody and dramatic and more deliberately conveys the physical nature of his subjects. Recently, Dula referred to Sheeler’s work as the “birth announcements of modern industry.” His own work, he says, is capturing the decline: “I paint what seems to be vanishing from the modern urban landscape, and want to preserve some of the beauty before it is gone.”

DulaDula, who lives in Denver, speaks wistfully of abandoned factories as “grand and heroic” structures that once were the centerpieces of their towns and cities. Seeing old mills prods thoughts of “all of the people who worked there and the lives they had.” Dula’s “Nebraska City Silos” recalls Sheeler’s soaring vertical compositions, but the addition of warm, fading sunlight humanizes the scene.

Today’s painters and photographers, like their predecessors, are still captivated by the power of urban and industrial landscapes. Advances in technology have changed industry, and familiarity and perhaps sophistication have dampened the optimism found in Sheeler’s art. But the heirs to Sheeler still show there is potential for wonder. In photographing a gigantic Pepsi Cola sign overlooking New York, Vera Lutter said she was attracted to the “theatricality and presentation of this pop cultural icon.” She also set up the shot so that “through the grid and the scaffolding, you get glimpses of the beautiful metropolis beyond.” Industrial art is alive and well.

Image credits from top to bottom: "Blast Furnaces," copyright by Bernd and Hilla Becher, image courtesy of Sonnabend Gallery; "New Car Lot," 1978, aerial photograph by Alex MacLean; "Pepsi Cola, Long Island City, IX; July 2, 1998," copyright Vera Lutter, image courtesy of Gagosian Gallery, photography courtesy of Rob McKeever; "Walkway," by Stephen Dolmatch; "Nebraska City Silos," by Rick Dula.


Where and How Much

Bernd and Hilla Becher are represented by the Sonnabend Gallery in New York. Images sell at a variety of prices, depending in part on size and rarity. For example, a grid of water towers, from a signed edition of 100, sold at auction for $2,200, while a group of 22 gelatin silver prints sold last year for $160,000.

Alex MacLean is represented by the Kathleen Ewing Gallery in Washington and by the Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York. Price range for his photographs is between $1,300 and $3,600.

Vera Lutter is represented by the Gagosian Gallery in New York. A unique gelatin silver pinhole image of a Chicago scene, measuring 77 by 56 inches, sold at auction last year for $81,600.

Stephen Dolmatch can be contacted directly at Price range for his paintings is $4,000 to $7,000.

Rick Dula is represented by the George Bills Gallery in New York. Price range for his paintings is $2,800 to $13,000.

As for Charles Sheeler, his works rarely come up at auction, but a small (8 by 10 inch) photograph from his River Rouge series sold at Sotheby’s in 1999 for $608,000. A small Sheeler watercolor recently sold for $660,000; a small painting for $478,000; a lithograph for $48,000.

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