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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays


The artists who came to be known as the Precisionists never formally organized themselves as a group or issued a manifesto; rather, they were associated through their common style and subjects. Around 1920, a number of artists in the United States began experimenting with a highly controlled approach to technique and form. They consistently reduced their compositions to simple shapes and underlying geometrical structures, with clear outlines, minimal detail, and smooth handling of surfaces. Their paintings, drawings, and prints also showed the influence of recent work by American photographers, such as Paul Strand, who were utilizing sharp focus and lighting, unexpected viewpoints and cropping, and emphasis on the abstract form of the subject.

The Precisionists borrowed freely from recent movements in European art, including Purism’s call to visual order and clarity and Futurism’s celebration of technology and expression of speed through dynamic compositions. Charles Demuth adapted Cubism‘s geometric simplifications and faceted, overlapping planes (1984.433.156), while Morton Schamberg can be linked to Dada through his use of machinery as nontraditional subject matter (68.115.1).

In other respects, however, the Precisionists defined themselves as distinctively American artists. Artists such as Charles Sheeler, Elsie Driggs, Ralston Crawford, and Louis Lozowick, as well as Demuth, distanced themselves from European influences by selecting subjects from the American landscape and regional American culture. These subjects included elements unique to early twentieth-century life, including urban settings (particularly the dramatic engineering advances of skyscrapers and suspension bridges) and the sprawling industrial locales of steel mills, coal mines, and factory complexes (40.111.102; 67.238; 49.59.2). Many of the same artists also applied their new, hard-edged style to long-familiar American scenes, such as agricultural structures or local crafts and domestic architecture (33.43.259; 64.310). Even such conventional motifs as a still life of fruit or flowers were treated to a fresh assessment in the Precisionist style (1995.547.3).

The connections between the Precisionist approach and a wider social context were strong ones. In the later 1910s and 1920s, the United States was expanding its communications technology, industrial production, and construction in urban settings. The changing cityscape was documented by Strand and Sheeler in 1920, in their short film Manhatta. However, as the country experienced a psychological reaction to the mass destruction wrought overseas by the World War I and, later, the economic hardships of the Great Depression within its own borders, the United States entered a period of political isolationism. Cultural critics voiced a need for America to seek and shape its national identity through its own history, landscape, artifacts, and regional traditions. This attitude was also reflected in a revival of interest in American folk art. The functional design of Shaker furniture, for example, was now taken as evidence of preindustrial self-sufficiency, and was also seen as proto-modern in its simplicity (1992.24.8).

Accordingly, there existed two opposing views of the machine’s place in contemporary American society, both of which were embodied by Precisionist art. One view was the utopian ideal of technology bringing order to the modern world by enhancing the speed, efficiency, and cleanliness of everyday life (49.128). It is worth noting that Precisionism coincided with the landmark Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in Paris in 1925, and the like-minded Machine-Age Exposition hosted by the city of New York in 1927, both of which endorsed the amalgamation of art, design, and industry in streamlined products for everyday use. The opposing view stressed the dehumanizing effects of technology, warning that it would replace workers, create pollution, and dominate the landscape in a destructive manner. Occasionally, these two attitudes coexisted in an ambiguous tension within a single work of art (50.31.4).

Initially, no single label existed for this loosely associated group of artists of the Machine Age. They were frequently called “the Immaculates” or “modern classicists” throughout the 1920s. Although the “precision” and the “precise line” of their art were often noted in written reviews, it was not until 1927 that Alfred H. Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, officially used the name “Precisionists” to describe them as a group. Other early sponsors of the style in New York City included Charles Daniel of the Daniel Gallery, who exhibited the work of Charles Demuth, Niles Spencer, Charles Sheeler, and Preston Dickinson; Stephen Bourgeois of the Bourgeois Gallery, who promoted Joseph Stella and George Ault; and arts patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and her Whitney Studio Club.

Some of these artists, such as Demuth, Stella, and Sheeler, continued to work in a Precisionist style for several decades. Meanwhile, a second generation of Precisionists emerged during the 1930s. While still taking the American industrial landscape as a frequent subject, they tended more toward abstraction (50.31.3) or Surrealism (42.155) in their depictions of modernity. With the close of the 1930s, furthermore, the United States was approaching involvement in the World War II; the use of the atomic bomb in that war would give rise to widespread unease about technology’s power to destroy, undermining the confident outlook that had made the Precisionist mode possible.