Waking from the American Dream

Edward Hopper, Night Hawks, 1942

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:

(W H Auden, September 1st 1939)

The “low dishonest decade” Auden refers to was the 1930s, which was the high point of the American art movement known as Precisionism, or sometimes cubist realism. The phrase “clever hopes” sums up nicely the state of optimism that had preceded the Great Depression of 1929 but must surely have been dissipated by the time Auden’s pessimistic poem and Hopper’s alienated painting had appeared.

The Sisyphean task of 20th Century artists and intellectuals had been to cast off the enormous cultural baggage of the 19th Century, but this had largely been accomplished in Europe, albeit with the aid of the First World War. The destruction of the European economies had enhanced the industrial might of the US and revealed it as the dominant world power, driven by business acumen, Taylorist efficiency and Henry Ford’s ever expanding empire of assembly-line production.

As early as 1909, the Italian Futurist Marinetti had expressed youthful discount with Italy’s cultural heritage and his love of the motor-car.

“Let the good incendiaries with charred fingers come! Here they are! Heap up the fire to the shelves of the libraries! Divert the canals to flood the cellars of the museums! Let the glorious canvases swim ashore! Take the picks and hammers! Undermine the foundation of venerable towns!”  Futurist Manifesto, Marinetti

Joseph Stella, Brooklyn Bridge, 1919-20.

As an Italian immigrant in New York, Joseph Stella found the Brooklyn Bridge “as the shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America.” Standing alone before the bridge Stella felt “the underground tumult of the trains in perpetual motion, the shrill sulphurous voice of the trolley wires, the strange moanings of appeal from tug boats.” These sentiments were paralleled in a film Manhatta, by the precisionist photographer Paul Strand and the painter Charles Sheeler. The eponymous title was taken from the poem Manhatta, by Walt Whitman:

“Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships, an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,

Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies”

The film Manhatta can be viewed in Fred Shively’s essay about the photography of Charles Sheeler on this site.

Charles Sheeler (1883 – 1965) was born in Philadelphia, and had seen the cubism of Picasso and Braque first hand in Paris in 1909, as well as the work of the Fauves. On returning to America, he worked primarily as a photographer but used this discipline to inform and strengthen his work as a painter. His work was largely dominated by industrial landscapes, rendered in a realistic style but emphasizing the abstract patterns generated by their functional architecture. An extreme example of this style is shown below, where the cityscape is reduced to abstract almost flat planes with the bare minimum of detail to suggest human habitation.

Charles Sheeler, Church Street El, 1920

Sheeler’s Classic Landscape, shown below, may deserve the accolade of masterpiece. The title suggests a vague connection with the classical ideals that the Futurists tried to reject, but which was an important part of Cezanne’s inspiration for emphasizing geometry in his work, to redo the great masters in a new way. Ostensibly, it was this geometric idealization that the precisionists found attractive in the cubist derivations of Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris, which were inspired by Cezanne’s later works. However, there is no evidence of Cubist fragmentation in Sheeler’s work, which finds its geometric abstractions in its architectural and engineering subjects, rather than imposing them as an intellectual and painterly technique. In this regard, Sheeler subordinated himself to what he saw, as does the camera lens, and abstracts what he finds pleasing, as does the photographer.

The success of Classic Landscape lies in its seemingly honest representation of an industrialized American landscape, demonstrating that its aesthetic values are not inherently inferior to, say, the ruins of Ancient Rome that so fascinated painters of the 18th and 19th Centuries. As Cezanne had demonstrated, it is the underlying values of abstract colour and form that appeal to the senses rather than the subject matter of the painting. With hindsight, we know Sheeler’s vision was a false one that idealized industry and removed all suggestions of its terrible potential to destroy countless lives and fatally damage the environment. The depiction of urban landscapes using the meticulous technique of photo-realism is to be found in the work of contemporary artists such as David Hockney, and the notable Australian painter Jeffrey Smart, although the latter has no obvious connection to the American Modernists.

Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931

Charles Demuth (1883-1935) was also born in Pennsylvania and, like Sheeler, spent some time in Paris in the early 1900s. His subject matter was architectural, including simple country subjects, and ships, rendered in what might be describes a pseudo-cubist style, which retained rather than fragmented the subject. A notable feature of his work is the fusion of space and the subject, perhaps suggesting a kind of Relativistic interpretation of space common to the work of many artists of the time, including Chagall but particularly the Cubist Lyonel Feininger, whose work closely resembles Demuth’s. Demuth was a close friend of Marcel Duchamp and so was in touch with the avante-gard of the time.

Charles Demuth, After Christopher Wren, 1920

Charles Demuth, My Egypt, 1927

Robert Hughes (American Visions) attributes the title of this painting of a silo to Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, but perhaps Demuth was thinking more of the importance of Mid-West grain production to the wealth of the United States, as had been Egyptian grain to the Roman Empire. The arbitrary perspective lines act as a device to increase the scale of the building, which entirely blots out the landscape on which it stands. This sterile vision is in stark contrast to Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World, which shows rolling fields, an isolated farmhouse and a crippled girl. The slight connection is that Demuth himself was crippled and walked with a cane.

Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, 1948

Demuth’s most famous painting was The Figure Five in Gold, (shown below) based on a poem by his friend William Carlos Williams entitled, I Saw the Figure Five in Gold, which describes an experience by the poet after seeing a fire engine so emblazoned in Manhattan. This painting is often cited as a precursor to the Pop-Art movement, although there had been earlier works like Stuart Davis’s Odol 1924, which drew upon commercial advertising.

Charles Demuth, Figure 5 in Gold, 1927

Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) was married to the famous American photographer Alfred Stieglitz, a key figure in the Precisionist movement, which is how she became friends with people like Charles Demuth and Paul Strand. Although her early work in the 1920s included the kind of architectural works preferred by the precisionists, her later work can best be describers as organic or botanical with sexual overtones, quite different from the austere linear and geometric style of her companions. The painting, New York with Moon, below, is striking and powerful, the sky suggesting a hint of surrealism, and the negative shape of the sky carved out of the buildings becomes a major design element of the work.

Georgia O’Keefe, New York with Moon, 1925

In 1929, O’keefe travelled to New Mexico and fell in love with the landscape, spending a great deal of her time there before settling permanently in 1949, after the death of her husband. Her subject matter became focused on the natural world of flowers, rocks and shells rather than the architectural subjects of her earlier years. The video below shows organic and flower flower paintings from her later years.

Ralston Crawford (1906-1978) was born in Canada but spent his childhood in Buffalo, New York. In 1927 he studied art in California and worked in the Disney studios. He was, perhaps, the most abstract of the precisionist painters, selecting the bare minimum of flat design elements from the urban landscape to produce forceful and elegant pictorial designs. With a few strongly contrasting tones, he creates the sunlit volume and weight of a concrete structure in the painting Maitland Bridge, below. The absence of detail and alienating feeling is reminiscent of de Chirico’s Red Tower, also shown below, but without the half-tones or the slightest of human references.

Ralston Crawford, Maitland Bridge, 1938

De Chirico, Red Tower, 1913

The subject matter of Lights in an Aircraft Plant is not evident from the painting, which comprises a set of lines and planes leading to a vanishing point and few, seemingly arbitrary geometrical figures in the foreground to create the illusion of space. The result is a minimalist construction which exists purely for aesthetic enjoyment, or the contrary.

Ralston Crawford, Lights in an Aircraft Plant, 1945

For the most part, the precisionist painters projected an optimistic vision of America, entirely consistent with the power of its economy at the time and the political aspirations of its people. To this extent, the view from the early and middle periods of the 20th Century was a fairly accurate one, even after the tragedies of the WWII, the Cold War and the travails of Empire that presently beset the USA. However, it is Sheeler’s visions of industrial power and perfection that have proved false from our vantage point in the 21st Century. The video about the economic demise of Detroit, below, shows the alternative beauty and tragedy of decay associated with an industrial civilization in decline.


Tony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: philosophy, writing fiction, poetry, and blogging.



One response to “Waking from the American Dream”

  1. nerosunero says:

    a great pleasure for the eyes and the souls. great scholarly paper! congratulations to Tony Thomas and everybody involved with this

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