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Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art is one of the year’s major exhibitions. It was organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco to be shown at the de Young Museum before traveling to the Dallas Museum of Art. The exhibition takes a new look at the American painters who, in the years after World War I, developed an art expressive of American modern life by making use of the flattened, geometric, simplified forms of European modernism. Cult of the Machine places Precisionism against a wide variety of art forms; the 126 works shown in San Francisco include decorative and industrial arts, graphic art, photography, film—all responses to a technological era.
The exhibition’s lavishly illustrated catalogue features essays by Emma Acker, Sue Canterbury, Adrian Daub, and Lauren Palmor, each of whom examine Precisionism from a variety of contextual vantage points. The authors note Precisionism’s debt to Cubism and to works produced during the 1910s by Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. The essays explain the support provided by the collecting and exhibiting of Alfred Stieglitz, Walter Arensberg, and Alfred Barr. They also explore the Precisionists’ connection to industrial subjects, to the aesthetic of efficiency, and to the irony of a style that was both deeply personal in its creation and strangely empty in its imagery. The essays are followed by a pictorial section on six themes, “The Impulse for Order: Precisionism Takes Form,” “The Mechanical Eye: Photography and Its Influence,” “Machined: An Aesthetic of Efficiency,” “Skyscraper Primitives: Precisionism and the City,” “In the American Grain: Finding a Past for the Present,” and “The Soul of Human Life: Technology and Modernity.” Each section is accompanied by a quotation and is followed by illustrations of works from the exhibition. The catalogue ends with a timeline from 1910 to 1950, which sets events in the world of art against various developments in industry, engineering, and technology.
Cult of the Machine owes a debt to two important predecessors: The Machine Age in America, the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition of 1986, and The Great American Thing, Wanda Corn’s book of 1999. Like the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition, Cult of the Machine assembles art and objects across media, including a number featured in that show. It appropriates the term “machine” to connote industrialization, technology, modern engineering, and streamlined efficiency. It also adopts the premise that the machine provided utopian imagery. Cult of the Machine’s focus on cultural concerns follows the approach of Corn’s The Great American Thing, which shows American artists creating a new idiom from the wide-ranging stimuli of the modern world. And like The Machine Age in America and The Great American Thing, the exhibition claims that the issues raised in America’s formative modern age continue today.
Although both The Machine Age in America and The Great American Thing made use of Precisionist art, the former was mainly an exhibition of design and the latter a book about the modern image of America. Cult of the Machine puts Precisionist painting front and center. Its roster of Precisionists are those defined in 1960 by Martin Friedman in the first museum retrospective of Precisionism: George Ault, Peter Blume, Francis Criss, Ralston Crawford, Charles Demuth, Preston Dickinson, Elsie Driggs, Charles Goeller, Stefan Hirsch, Edmund Lewandowski, Louis Lozowick, Georgia O’Keeffe, Morton Schamberg, Charles Sheeler, Niles Spencer, and Joseph Stella. However, this exhibition’s organizers have done some tweaking: they have added names: Victoria Huntley, Armin Landeck, Helen Torr, and Bumpei Usui. They have also extended the timeline of Precisionism beyond the interwar years; the latest work in the show is Sheeler’s painting Golden Gate, 1955.
As an installation of Precisionist art, Cult of the Machine claims new ground by its broad artistic and cultural context. The exhibition opens with the catalogue’s timeline as a wall mural. After seeing film footage of factory production, visitors enter galleries arranged according to the thematic categories of the catalogue. Here, Precisionist works are surrounded by films, books, graphic art, industrial and decorative arts, and supplemental paintings. Gallery walls bear a continuous stream of commentary, past and present, from Theodore Roosevelt to Steve Jobs, amplifying the catalogue’s provocative quotations and reminding viewers that the promises and quandaries of the machine are still with us. Video screens in each gallery pose questions about the lasting effects of a machine era that is here to stay.
“Precisionism” does not define an artistic movement as much as a tendency and a shared impulse. The term usefully describes a style distinct from its European precedents and from other strains in American art developing at the same time. As an exhibition, Cult of the Machine does not dwell on styles, and this is particularly clear in the explanatory material provided in the installation. Except for a cursory definition in the introductory wall label, a decision seems to have been made to avoid stylistic explanations in the show itself, leading the inexpert into ambiguities about Precisionism.
Heightening those ambiguities is the inclusion in the show of material by artists not considered Precisionists, among them Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Fernand Léger, Gerald Murphy, Reginald Marsh, and Clarence Carter. Their works stand as a reminder that practitioners of Dada, Cubism, Social Realism, and Surrealism were likewise motivated by the mechanistic modern age. Yet when an exhibition’s installation forswears stylistic information, visitors can easily wonder if these other artists are Precisionists, too. Midway through the show is a gallery presenting the social cost of embracing the machine. Set against a cinematic projection of the conveyor belt scene from Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times are troubling comments about automation and a few art works, including John Langley Howard’s Embarcadero and City Street, 1935, depicting an unemployment line. How Precisionism fits is not clear.
A similar problem arises from the label “Cult of the Machine.” Without further guidance, viewers can easily expect a show about machines. Yet the de Young’s introductory film clips depict assembly lines—a process, not a machine. Crawford’s roads are not machines. Especially perplexing is the gallery of the rural scenes. Canvases by Ault, Blume, O’Keeffe, and Sheeler depict isolated, simply built barns and farmhouses. On display are an old iron stove and rustic furniture as depicted in some of the surrounding paintings. Such imagery played a central role in Precisionist art, as explained in the catalogue. However, if one has not read the catalogue and expects an exhibition about machines, this material doesn’t fit.
Glitches of interpretation aside, Cult of the Machine offers ample opportunity for close observation and visual thrill. By any measure, the contextual material is magnificent; Rene Chambellan’s iron and bronze office-building gate, Walter Teague’s cobalt-blue “Nocturne” floor-model radio, and Gordon Boehrig’s Cord 812 Phaeton automobile come close to stealing the show. They create contrasts of scale that remind us how tiny, almost private, were the show’s early experiments by painters and photographers. Iconic paintings such as O’Keeffe’s City Night of 1926 and Sheeler’s Classic Landscape of 1931 are accompanied by visually compelling discoveries such as Drigg’s Blast Furnace of 1927 and Lewandowski’s Circuit Breakers of 1947. The breadth of stylistic experiment is a revelation, as in the sensual textures created by Driggs, Stella, and Demuth. At every turn, the installation offers surprising pairings. One of the best features of the show is the opportunity to see a cinematic projection of Sheeler and Paul Strand’s 1920 film Manhatta alongside their paintings and photographs of the same time.
This exhibition sets Precisionism, with its embrace of stripped-down geometries, against the currents of an age that owed its existence to technological advancement—in factories, mechanical equipment, industrial production, machine-made goods, transport. The result was a visually new urban environment and a revised American self-identification. What comes across in this exhibition is the complexity of American visual culture in the modern era of machines and how a generation of artists and designers were determined to fit a new suit of clothing on an already changed world.
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of California, Davis
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