Industrial Architecture, 1931
Conté crayon and graphite on paper mounted to board
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
For six weeks in 1927, Charles Sheeler photographed the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Plant outside Detroit for an advertising campaign introducing the new Model A. The result was a fresh body of photographs that would continue resonating with the artist when, a few years later, he produced a series of paintings and drawings based on the River Rouge project.
Industrial Architecture is a nearly identical conté-crayon translation of one of Sheeler's photographs of the plant. He preferred the precise detail offered by photography to sketches done on site. In this drawing, the artist successfully adapted aspects of photography's distinctive character: the varying intensities of tonal contrasts, cropping, incisive shapes and patterns, and the immediacy of a dramatic perspective. Sheeler's image is rigid and calculated, yet it implies the actual bustling nature of Ford's enterprise through the prominent placement of four massive converging and crisscrossing shapes. Cutting diagonally across the composition at top and bottom are conveyors, part of the complex network for moving coal in and out of the large structure known as the Pulverizer Building. To the left is the crane that unloaded the coal for transfer to railroad cars on the overhead track shown beneath it. There is a notable absence of action; Sheeler chose to limit movement to the man wearing a hat, barely perceptible in the lower-left corner. Remarkably, even on a diminutive scale and depicting a quiet moment, Sheeler captures the energy, efficiency, and majesty of the massive plant, which contained fifty-three thousand machines and seventy-five thousand employees.
Born in Philadelphia, Charles Sheeler (1883--1965) studied at the School of Industrial Design, located in his hometown, from 1900 to 1903 before enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He embraced European modern art and in 1908 traveled to Europe with his friend the abstract painter Morton Schamberg (1881--1918). In New York's Armory Show of 1913, Sheeler exhibited Cézanne-inspired landscapes and still lifes. Shortly thereafter he became increasingly drawn to abstract qualities inherent in familiar objects and structures, painting the innate geometry of a Shaker chair, a Buck County barn, or examples of America's new industrial architecture. He took up commercial photography around 1910 and became a respected specialist in architectural subjects. His important 1927 commission to photograph the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Plant led to a series of drawings and paintings that demonstrate how deftly he managed to merge photography and painting over the course of his career. Sheeler applied the abstract-design principles of modern painting to his photographs, while imparting the precision of the camera to his paintings and graphic work. In 1939, he was accorded a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.