In Focus: Charles Sheeler’s cool take on ‘America without that damned French flavor’

An exhibition at the Ashmoleon brings together a wonderful collection of American avant-garde works rarely seen on this side of the Atlantic. Lilias Wigan takes an in-depth look at one of the key works: Water, by Charles Sheeler.

Water, by Charles Wheeler ©Estate of Charles Wheeler, via the Ashmoleon

Water, by Charles Sheeler ©Estate of Charles Sheeler, via the Ashmoleon

During the interwar periods of the 1920s and 30s, American artists like Edward Hopper, George Ault, Marsden Hartley and Charles Sheeler crossed the Atlantic to experience art of the Italian, French and German masters.

Inspired, they returned home and sought a separate language from their European counterparts, aiming to achieve a style which the avant-garde photographer Alfred Stieglitz described as, America without that damned French flavor!

They moved away from figurative art and instead made geometric, abstract depictions of the modern world. Their paintings are detached, often with vast planes of uninterrupted colour or form. A new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is bringing the distinctive aesthetic of the American avant-garde to Britain: America’s Cool Modernism; O’Keeffe to Hopper celebrates all the artists mentioned above, including some Stieglitz’s photography.

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Charles Sheeler’s ‘cool’ response to modernity shows in the work on this page, Water, an austere depiction of a water distribution plant.

Painted in 1945, toward the end of World War II and in the shadow of the world’s first deployment of an atomic bomb, the scene in Water is, ironically, bone-dry. Machinery details are reduced to simple forms, their uniformity uncompromising.

The sheer scale of the plant dominates a cropped composition, which is devoid of any human activity. Sheeler highlights this absence of the natural, suggesting a sense of anxiety toward industrial change.

Water, by Charles Wheeler ©Estate of Charles Wheeler, via the Ashmoleon

His career in commercial photography plays a significant part in his painted work; he explores light, using hard-edged shadows to intensify the construction’s intrusive character. Although playful light dances on the surface of the metal – a seductive style used in advertising – the vast tubular forms lie under an ominous cloud.

Some artists in this exhibition echo Sheeler’s apprehensive voice around modernity – Edward Hopper with his eerie cityscapes, for example. Others champion the buoyancy of modern developments.

What is most arresting though is that, despite their broad spread across the United States, these artists shaped a harmonised American vision. Many of these pictures are not in British collections and are consequently little-known here. This is a chance to familiarise yourself with their radical interpretations before they are returned.

America’s Cool Modernism; O’Keeffe to Hopper is at the Ashmoleon Museum, Oxford until July 22. Tickets £13.50 for non-members, under 12s free.

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