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Press release

The Photography of Charles Sheeler

Exhibition Dates: June 3—August 17, 2003
Exhibition Location: Drawings, Prints, and Photographs Galleries,
Press Preview: Monday, June 2, 10 a.m. – noon

Nearly 100 works, including 90 photographs, by Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), one of the most important American artists of the first half of the 20th century and a pioneer of American modernism, will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from June 3 through August 17, 2003. The Photography of Charles Sheeler, is the first major exhibition to concentrate on each of Sheeler's landmark photographic series made between 1915 and 1939, and will consist of rare vintage prints. The exhibition will reveal the full significance of Sheeler's photographs as the foundation from which his better-known works in other mediums were derived.

The exhibition is made possible in part by Kenneth P. Siegel.

It was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photographs were drawn from The Lane Collection.

The exhibition focuses in depth on Sheeler's inventive intertwining of the American vernacular with European abstraction, beginning with Cubist-inspired photographs of a simple farmhouse in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (1915-1917). Sheeler became familiar with the latest European artistic innovations during a trip to Europe with his friend and fellow artist Morton Schamberg in 1908-1909 and from his association with members of the American avant-garde, whom he encountered at the home of collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg in the late 1910s and the 1920s. As he adapted the lessons of Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Marcel Duchamp—artists whose work he saw and photographed at the Arensberg apartment—to his own interests, he created work in a number of mediums simultaneously. All were vital in formulating his artistic approach, as suggested by the selected paintings and drawings that punctuate The Photography of Charles Sheeler.

As his next two series—Nudes (1918-19) and New York (1920)— reveal, however, photography formed the foundation of his pictorial expression, especially in the early years of his career. On view will be the complete set of semi-abstract photographs of his first wife Katharine—the only nude photographs Sheeler is known to have taken—which were created from a now-lost film produced in about 1918 with a 35mm hand-cranked movie camera.

Also on continuous view in the galleries will be the groundbreaking Manhatta made by Sheeler and Paul Strand in 1920 and considered the first American avant-garde film. In about ten minutes, Manhatta spans an imaginary day in the life of New York City, beginning with footage of Staten Island Ferry commuters and culminating with the sun setting over the Hudson River. Brief shots and dramatic camera angles emphasize the city's photogenic disposition, and 14 still photographs made from the footage are in the exhibition. Shortly after making the film, Sheeler produced large-format photographs of New York—seven views of Broadway that employ a particularly cinematic effect. One of the photographs, New York, Park Row Building (1920), intones a visual duet with the painting Skyscrapers (1922, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) displayed alongside it.

The Photography of Charles Sheeler includes an extensive selection of the images Sheeler made at the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge plant, near Detroit, in 1927. Created to celebrate the introduction of the Model A automobile, this series is regarded by many as the high point of American machine-age photography. Criss-Crossed Conveyors—one of Sheeler's best-known works and an icon of modern photography—is featured alongside such images as Pulverizer Building and Blast Furnace Interior. Sheeler documented the many functional design elements of the vast complex, conveying the mysterious beauty of the machines rather than trying to capture the expanse of the plant. The River Rouge pictures make a fascinating contrast to Sheeler's views of Chartres Cathedral made in France in 1929, also featured in the exhibition. Consistent with his modernist approach, Sheeler chose to focus on the Gothic cathedral's architectural details.

With the painting Upper Deck (1929, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums)—included in the exhibition and heralded by many as a masterpiece of American modernism—Sheeler began to enfold his photographic activity into the process of his painting. The full transition occurred during the 1930s, when Sheeler's photographic series became ever more personal, as he focused on the various aspects of Americana that interested him. Included in the exhibition are photographs of antique and Shaker furnishings in his own home, as well as the painting Americana (1931, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), depicting the same subject matter.

By the late 1930s, Sheeler had ceased to practice photography as an independent creative endeavor. Instead, it had become part of a systematic and increasingly complicated technique that conflated the processes of painting and photography, as in the series Power (1939), made on commission for Fortune magazine. Taken during his travels to such places as the Boulder Dam and the Tennessee Valley, these photographs—including the iconic Wheels—were made as studies for closely related paintings. The paintings were then reproduced in the magazine.

Photographs in the exhibition are drawn from The Lane Collection. In the early 1950s, the late William H. Lane (1914–1995), owner of a small Massachusetts manufacturing plant, formed a noteworthy collection of American modernist painting, which included numerous works by Charles Sheeler, Arthur G. Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, Stuart Davis, Hans Hofmann, and Franz Kline. During the 1960s, Lane and his wife Saundra turned to collecting photography, acquiring the entire photographic estate of their friend Charles Sheeler in 1965 in order to preserve treasures that few people at the time appreciated.

Prior to its showing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Photography of Charles Sheeler was on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It is scheduled to travel to Fotomuseum, Winterthur, Switzerland (September 5- November 2, 2003), Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt, Germany (February 4- April 11, 2004), Detroit Institute of Arts (September 8 - December 5, 2004), and The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe (January 14 - May 1, 2005).

The exhibition has been selected and organized by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., Distinguished Fellow and Consultative Curator of American Art, Harvard University Art Museums, Gilles Mora, an independent French curator, and Karen Haas, Curator of The Lane Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. At the Metropolitan Museum, the exhibition is organized by Lisa Hostetler, Research Associate, with Malcolm Daniel, Acting Associate Curator-in-Charge, in the Metropolitan's Department of Photographs.

The exhibition design is by Michael Batista, Exhibit Designer, with graphic design by Sue Koch, Senior Graphic Designer, and lighting by Zack Zanolli, Lighting Designer, all of the Museum's Design Department.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by Bulfinch Press in English and by Editions du Seuil in French, with essays by Stebbins, Mora, and Haas. The English edition will be available in the Museum's book shop for $75

The Metropolitan Museum will offer a full range of educational programs in conjunction with the exhibition, including gallery talks given by Lisa Hostetler at 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, June 10; Wednesday, June 18; Friday, June 27; Tuesday, July 8; Wednesday, July 16; Thursday, July 24; Wednesday, August 6; and Thursday, August 14. "The Photographs of Charles Sheeler," a lecture by Karen Haas, Curator of The Lane Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, will take place in the Uris Center Auditorium on Friday, June 20, at 6:00 p.m.

The exhibition will be featured on the Museum's Web site (, where the landmark film Manhatta can also be viewed in a new electronic feature, "Artists View New York," located in the site's Explore and Learn section.

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