Oil on Canvas, 1929, by Charles Sheeler (1883 - 1965)
I keep coming back to this painting, hanging in the modernist section of the museum. When you first encounter it you tend to pass it by in favour of the company it keeps – the stunning Red and Pink by Georgia O’Keefe, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled (The Cow Jumps Over the Moon) and Paul Klee’s Hot Pursuit, all undoubtedly more arresting and aesthetically stimulating than what appears to be an engineer or draughtsman’s drawing for the machine parts of a ship. And yet Upper Deck has a strange and quiet magnetism to it, its calm muted colours used to pacify what is in essence crude, bulky, industrial. Scrape away the glossy paint and you are exposed to raw iron, sharp metal, cold machinery. It makes us realise the paradoxical encumbrance of the modern age: that which drives our human comforts, our efficiencies, our luxuries, is inevitably fashioned from a far more brutal and unforgiving source. Perhaps that is the pay off? You cannot help but gaze at the massive multi-sectioned structure which occupies the vast majority of the canvas, all inlets and outlets, ventilation and exhaust pipes, and wonder whether this is a large mechanical heart, or just an invention of man’s ingenuity which will come to replace what is human in us, the animate morphing into the inanimate. Almost a century on, how much control do we really have over the machinery we deploy to run our lives?
For me there is something grotesquely capitalist about Sheeler’s entire intentions as a preeminent figure of the Precisionist art movement. While his other continental modernist contemporaries were reeling from the cataclysmic breakdown in thought and art which the Great War had precipitated, while they were moving towards abstract expressionism, Dadaism and surrealism as a means of grappling with the mass dissolution of human sanity, in other words, while their artistic expression was fragmenting, you have an American artist like Sheeler working towards its very polar opposite: quasi-photographic realism. One wonders whether his “way of seeing” complex multi-faceted structure, all its constituent parts neatly fitting together, perfectly complimenting one another, was in a way a reflection of his national sense of patriotism in viewing the expansionist project of America’s industrial and military might? It’s admittedly a wayward theory, but you cannot help but sense that Sheeler’s glorification of engineering precision is coated with nationalist pride. Then there is the date of the composition: 1929. Then you think: I bet he didn’t know what was around the corner: the collapse of Wall Street, followed by the greatest economic depression in the country’s history. Viewed retrospectively, then, the painting takes on a romantic idealism which echoes, prophetically, an uncanny tragedy. It’s a paean to the fragility of human hope and belief in all that we know to be true and stable: in a human heartbeat it can all collapse, except of course if that heart is cast in metal and iron. Rank capitalism always wins out at the end of the day: there is undiminished value in human exploitation, and undoubtedly in minerals too.
That aside, there is also something very strange and brilliant about this painting which captures the invincibility of such materials in the complete absence of all human presence. Looking closely, it becomes apparent that Sheeler has stripped away every single detail which suggests any human interaction has occurred with his bulky ship motor: there are no rivets to hold anything together, no bolts are in place to lock it down, no steam pours from the exhausts, no one stands about tending to it. In isolation, it looks almost akin to some kind of sacred altar. As such he has produced an image that focuses on the totality of industry as the most significant expression of the modern age, even raising it to a kind of semi-religiosity, something to be celebrated beyond the bounds of its status as mere human invention, human limitation. We cannot help but gaze on Upper Deck and know that we now pay homage to a new kind of lord and master, and an entirely new age of aesthetics.
Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.