“This superb example of Sheeler’s work is a vital addition to our holdings of this important and versatile artist, who until now has been represented in our collection by one drawing, five prints, and six photographs,” says Dr. Ron Tyler, director.
Sheeler, long recognized as a founder of American modernism, was inspired and influenced by the country’s changing industrialism in the first half of the 20th century, nowhere more notably than in the Carter’s new acquisition. With its crisp rendering and cropping and its absence of any allusion to movement, the painting juxtaposes transmission towers and wires against the backdrop of the Hoover Dam, which had been completed only four years before and was both the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant and tallest concrete structure. A crystalline sky looms over two-thirds of the painting, which is rendered with extraordinarily controlled brushwork.
“The acquisition of this famous landmark painting strengthens the museum’s collection in important ways,” says Rebecca Lawton, curator of paintings and sculpture. “It is beautifully executed, daring in its conception, and highly provocative in its evocation of a photographic source.”
It was prior to completing Conversation—Sky and Earth that the artist made a professional shift from photography to painting. His highly successful works, including a commissioned series of photographs of Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant (1927), served as the foundation for a series of later paintings.
In 1938, Fortune magazine commissioned Sheeler to produce a pictorial essay that celebrated America’s industrial power. To prepare for the series, Sheeler photographed power stations across the nation and chose subjects to reflect the power theme—a water wheel (Primitive Power, 1939), a steam turbine (Steam Turbine, 1939), the railroad (Rolling Power, 1939), a hydroelectric turbine (Suspended Power, 1939), an airplane (Yankee Clipper, 1939) and a dam (Conversation—Sky and Earth). These paintings, collectively known as “Power,” were reproduced in color in a portfolio supplement to the December 1940 issue of Fortune. They now reside in the permanent collections of the Dallas Museum of Art (Suspended Power); Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence (Yankee Clipper); The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio (Steam Turbine); Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis (Primitive Power); and Smith College Museum of Art, Northhampton, Mass. (Rolling Power).
According to Lawton, the Carter’s Sheeler epitomizes the aesthetics of Precisionism, a style that until now had been under-represented in the museum’s paintings collection. Sheeler effectively invented this crisp, clean and hard-edged style. Lawton notes that Conversation—Sky and Earth will resonate well with the museum’s Chimney and Water Tower, 1931, by Charles Demuth. Both are on view in the upstairs paintings and sculpture galleries.
About Charles Sheeler
Born in Philadelphia on July 16, 1883, Charles Sheeler studied at the School of Industrial Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he was a pupil of painter William Merritt Chase. Sheeler became friends with a fellow student, Morton Schamberg, and toured Europe with Schamberg in the early 1900s. In Paris, Sheeler was introduced to the then-new Cubist style of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, and it would strongly influence his work.
Sheeler established a studio in Philadelphia, where he supported himself as a commercial photographer. Though he felt that his paintings were more aesthetically important, Sheeler’s photography was highly regarded. The clean lines of light and shadow in his photos would carry over into his paintings, which are known for their precise, geometric quality.
Sheeler was part of the early 20th-century New York avant-garde art world that included Demuth, Louis Lozowick and Joseph Stella. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he focused on American subjects and not European subjects. Sheeler’s favorite subjects tended to be urban or industrial structures, rural architecture or aspects of nature. His paintings and photographs are not emotional or sentimental, and his paintings rarely involved people.
He died in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., in 1965.