During the Machine Age, which began in the late nineteenth century and peaked between the First and Second World Wars, technological innovations revolutionized American life. This period gave birth to the efficiencies of the factory assembly line, the wonders of gravity-defying skyscrapers, and the streamlined aesthetic of an industrial design defined by functionalism. Inspired by the modern world around them, artists associated with the Precisionist style produced compositions with a “machined” quality—incorporating smooth surfaces and geometric forms. These works reflect the beauty and the coldness, the sublimity and the strangeness of the mechanistic society in which the artists lived. Today these works hold a mirror to our own complex attitudes toward industrialization and technological progress.
THE FACTORY: EFFICIENCY & OPTIMIZATION
“Efficiency” was the reigning mantra of the Machine Age and was embodied in the philosophies and practices of two key figures from the era: industrialist Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, and mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, the “father of scientific management,” whose time studies led Ford to previously unthinkable levels of productivity. Ford’s unveiling in 1913 of the first moving assembly line—which reduced the time it took to build an entire automobile from more than twelve hours to two hours and thirty minutes—is viewed as the watershed moment when specialized labor and skilled craftsmanship were replaced by automation, mass production, and a deskilled workforce.
In 1927 the artist Charles Sheeler received a commission from the Philadelphia advertising agency N. W. Ayer & Son on behalf of Ford Motor Company to document Ford’s River Rouge plant near Dearborn, Michigan—the headquarters for the production of the Model A car and then the world’s largest and most self-sufficient industrial complex. Sheeler spent six weeks photographing the buildings and machines at the complex, and in the end submitted a group of 32 photographs. These images not only were deployed by the company for publicity purposes but also were celebrated in art circles for their abstract, formal beauty.
Charles Sheeler based this work on photographs he took as part of the N. W. Ayer & Son commission. His streamlined and abstracted rendering focuses on the factory’s cement plant, whose columnar silos and smokestack recall ancient Greek and Roman architecture—references underscored by the painting’s title. The pristine stillness of Sheeler’s view—which is devoid of human presence, let alone any sign of toil—imbues the scene with a timeless and almost spiritual quality. Not pictured are the harsh realities of factory working conditions and labor practices at Ford and elsewhere, which came under increased scrutiny during the 1930s as the nation fell deeper into the Great Depression.
Like Sheeler, Elsie Driggs was captivated by the beauty and majesty of the industrial landscape. Her Blast Furnaces represents what she described as “a potpourri of all the forms [of blast furnaces] that I saw on my way to Pittsburgh.” In the painting, these monumental structures emit thick veils of smoke that shroud the composition at left and swirl ominously up to a pallid sky. Despite the artist’s aesthetic appreciation for her industrial subjects—whose “handsome velvet forms” she described as “beautiful”—their dominant and impenetrable presence communicates a foreboding that is perhaps heightened for today’s viewers, who are aware of the environmental damage caused by industrialization.
In Incense of a New Church, Charles Demuth equated the swirling smoke of the Lukens Steel Company’s plant in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, with the burning of incense during religious worship—echoing Sheeler’s assertion that “factories are our substitute for religious expression.” His correlation of industry and religion may allude ironically to the widespread idolization of the machine in 1920s America. Brilliantly satirized by Sinclair Lewis in his 1922 novel Babbitt, the twentieth-century “religion of business” was famously encapsulated in Calvin Coolidge’s statement, “The man who builds a factory builds a temple. The man who works there worships there.”
Many of the ambivalent attitudes toward industrialization in the early twentieth century reverberate today, as we enter what many have termed a Fourth Industrial Revolution. In the knowledge-based economy of the most advanced nations, the means of production are shifting from factories to computers, robots are replacing human labor for many functions, and—echoing the demands of efficiency experts and factory foremen from a century ago—humans are often expected to function like robots, as evidenced by the rigorous working conditions that have been exposed worldwide in fulfillment centers and corporate offices alike.
THE CITY: PROGRESS & ALIENATION
The city embodied both the excitement and the apprehensions of the Machine Age. By the 1920s, the skyscraper had become a symbol of American modernity, expressing the dynamism and promise of a new era. Yet in New York City, concerns that these vertical machines would cast the streets below them into perpetual darkness resulted in a 1916 zoning law requiring setbacks in skyscraper designs. The “Skyscraper” bookcase by Austrian-born American designer Paul Frankl incorporates a series of stacked cubes and rectangles that convey the vertical thrust and distinctive stepped forms of these towering structures.
Created in 1920, Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s short experimental film Manhatta describes a day in lower Manhattan, beginning with a ferry approaching the city in early morning and ending with a sunset view from a skyscraper. In each of the film’s carefully arranged sixty-five shots, camera movements and incidental motion were minimized. In addition to exploring the relationship between photography and film, Manhatta captured the dynamism of the metropolis, from towering “cathedrals of commerce” to the rhythms of daily working life on the docks or at construction sites.
Charles Sheeler mined stills from Manhatta as source material for a group of works—including this painting, in which he presented a bird’s-eye vantage on the Church Street elevated railway from the Empire Building in lower Manhattan. Sheeler radically abstracted his urban subject matter, stripping the composition of any extraneous detail and using Cubist-inspired planes of overlapping color and form to emphasize the underlying geometries of the scene. In addition to conveying the formal beauty of the metropolis, static and depopulated Precisionist city scenes such as this captured a key emotional facet of urban life—its capacity to instill in its inhabitants a sense of loneliness and alienation.
In the relatively few Precisionist works that are populated, the figures often convey tensions between humans and their modern environment. With its austere depiction of two black-clad nuns posed in an otherwise surreally empty streetscape, Francis Criss’s Astor Place evokes the more alienating aspects of urban American life. The nuns, one angled entirely away from the viewer and the other shown in profile, appear frozen in a moment of silence that echoes the stillness of their surroundings—whose manmade nature is underscored by the massive billboard at the center of the composition emblazoned with the word “STEEL” and an image of a worker operating a crane.
A testament to human ingenuity and a reminder of its moral limits, the twentieth-century metropolis engendered ambivalence about modernization. These attitudes compare today to our simultaneous celebration of and anxiety about the technological devices that surround us and shape our daily existence. Smartphones and other gadgets connect us to a vast and constantly changing network of information, ideas, imagery, sensory experiences, and interpersonal communications. Yet amid the rush of endless opportunity is the potential for alienation—from one another and, perhaps, ourselves. That these inputs and innovations can be overwhelming is clear from the popularity of mindfulness workshops, “digital detox” retreats, and other stress-reducing mechanisms.
THE MACHINE: WORSHIPPED OR FEARED
In 1915 the French painter and poet Francis Picabia stated, “Since machinery is the soul of the modern world, and since the genius of machinery attains its highest expression in America, why is it not reasonable to believe that in America the art of the future will flower most brilliantly?” Reflecting the widespread embrace of mechanistic subjects in art during the Machine Age that Picabia so presciently anticipated, the photographer and avant-garde cinematographer Ralph Steiner presented an abstract meditation on the precise, repetitive motions of industrial parts such as gears and pistons in his short experimental film Mechanical Principles (1930). The rhythmic movements of the various mechanisms Steiner filmed have a mesmerizing, almost balletic quality.
In 1927—the same year that Sheeler received his commission from Ford—the landmark Machine-Age Exposition was mounted in New York. This event embodied the utopian zeal for industry and technology that permeated both popular and elite culture in the United States throughout the 1920s. Seeking to unite “the Engineer . . . the architect and the artist,” the exhibition radically displayed fine art alongside industrial objects. Among the works shown was Louis Lozowick’s Machine Ornament No. 2 (1927). With its stark palette of black and white and its bold, abstract forms thrusting diagonally into the viewer’s space, the work conveys the forceful power of industry.
Machinery made an even bigger impact in art circles with The Museum of Modern Art’s groundbreaking 1934 Machine Art exhibition, which featured only industrially manufactured objects, which were selected and celebrated by the curators for their intrinsic aesthetic merit. A “beauty contest” was judged by aviator Amelia Earhart, philosopher and education reformer John Dewey, and museum professional Charles Richards, who awarded first, second, and third prizes to exhibition objects on the basis of their formal appeal. Gracing the striking cover of the exhibition catalogue, which was designed by Josef Albers, was Sven Winquist’s Self-Aligning Ball Bearing (1907), which won third place.
Four years after the Machine Art exhibition, Charles Sheeler created the iconic “Power” series, commissioned by Fortune magazine and published in its December 1940 issue. The series included six paintings based on photographs of what Fortune termed the nation’s “instruments of power,” including power plants, planes, and trains. While other works in the series are devoid of people, focused exclusively on the geometric forms and gleaming surfaces of the featured structures, Sheeler placed laborers in Suspended Power shown behind and below the hydroelectric turbine. Their inclusion highlights the massive scale of the machine and conveys a sublime sense of its awesome and even terrifying might.
A century after the emergence of a Machine Age aesthetic, we face questions that are surprisingly similar to those addressed by the Precisionists concerning the ways in which we benefit from, resist, and relate to technology. That era’s anxieties about the impacts of industrialization—expressed so comically in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), in which his character becomes a literal “cog in the machine”—are echoed in current dystopian science-fiction films such as Ex Machina (2015), which grapples with technology’s ethical limits. Ultimately, we realize that it is up to us to use technology in a positive manner. As the sociologist Lewis Mumford wrote in 1927, “Whether machines are good or bad, . . . helpful or inimical depends on the purpose for which they are used.”
The exhibition "Cult of the Machine" was shown at the de Young museum from March 24 – August 12, 2018.