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Precisionism Collage

Precisionism

Started: c.1920
Ended: c.1940
Precisionism Timeline
"I was thrilled to find America so rich with so many new motifs to be translated into a new art. Steel and electricity had created a new world."
1 of 7
Joseph Stella Signature
"In a period such as ours when only a comparatively few individuals seem to be given to religion, some form other than the Gothic cathedral must be found. Industry concerns the greatest numbers - it may be true, as has been said, that our factories are our substitute for religious expression."
2 of 7
Charles Sheeler Signature
"The artist's world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep."
3 of 7
Paul Strand Signature
"A painter shouldn't explain the meaning of his painting. The viewer has the responsibility in the communication exchange to study the work to the best of his ability. It's a two way street."
4 of 7
Charles Demuth Signature
"Paintings must be looked at and looked at and looked at...No writing, no talking, no singing, no dancing will explain them."
5 of 7
Charles Demuth Signature
"I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way - things I had no words for."
6 of 7
Georgia O'Keeffe Signature
"I don't feel obligated to reveal the forms. They may be totally absent to the viewer of the work, or even to myself, but what is there, however abstract, grows out of something I have seen. I make pictures."
7 of 7
Ralston Crawford

Summary of Precisionism

Images of factories, skyscrapers, bridges, road and rail networks, steel works, and rural scenes featuring grain elevators and depots, were the order of the day for the Precisionists. Though it never published a manifesto, or even defined itself as a coordinated "movement", this loose-knit group of American modernists were united in their vision for a truly home-grown American art. Showing a collective preference for the simplified geometric forms associated with Cubism, Futurism and Orphism, and borrowing from the sharp focus and tight cropping techniques being pioneered by America's leading art photographers, the Precisionists marked the dawning of America's brave new industrial and scientific age through a language of coolly detached semi-abstraction.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Precisionists represented their industrial American landscapes with a modern dynamism. Through their willingness to adopt strong contrast in color as a means of highlighting volumes and planes (in a way that the likes of Picasso and Braque did not), artists were able to present to the world a confident and optimistic vision of the dawning of this new era in American art and society.
  • Precisionism has been describes a "cool art" in the sense that it established an objective distance between the work of art and the viewer. Precisionist artists, who passed over scenes of individual human activity, were connected through a "cool" level of detachment whereby the artist in question rendered their man-made environments through a combination of smooth brushwork and geometric precision. For these artists, images of modern America had no need for gratuitous embellishments.
  • Analysts of a more pessimistic persuasion, have picked up on the absence of human figures in Precisionist works and interpreted this as a critique of the dehumanizing effects of the new age. But Precisionism was seen much more widely as a celebration of America's industrial and scientific prowess. Precisionism was not, then, a movement driven by social concerns but one that prioritized over everything else a tight rapport between a modern content and a modern style. In this respect, one can say that it pre-empted the global dominance of Abstract Expressionism.
  • Precisionists tended to focus on urban subjects. But figures such as George Ault, Sanford Ross, and indeed Sheeler, applied the same approach to pastoral subjects, painting starkly geometric barns, grain elevators, cottages, country roads, and farmhouses. Subjects were chosen for the clean geometry and line of their formal qualities. On entering a Shaker meeting house, for instance, Sheeler enthused "No embellishment meets the eye" and reasoned that "Beauty of line and proportion through excellence of craftsmanship [would] make the absence of ornament in no way an omission".
  • Although artists such as Morton Schamberg gravitated towards technological imagery, these objects would often be removed from their industrial setting and reduced to their raw components. Thus, the objects were transformed into an amorphous images that very often bordered on pure abstraction. Though historians have made comparisons between these pieces and those by the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, Precisionist works tended to be more sincere, or less playful and ironic, that those of their European elders.

Overview of Precisionism

Precisionism Photo

"Every age manifests itself by some external evidence", declared painter and photographer Charles Sheeler. "In a period such as ours", he continued, "when only a comparatively few individuals seem to be given to religion, some form other than the Gothic cathedral must be found", and it is the American factory that will be "our substitute for religious expression".

Do Not Miss

  • Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
  • Futurism was the most influential, mostly-Italian avant-garde movement of the twentieth century. Dedicated to the modern age, it celebrated speed, movement, machinery and violence. At first influenced by Neo-Impressionism, and later by Cubism, some of its members were also drawn to mass culture and nontraditional forms of art.
  • Orphism was a French art movement that brought together contemporary theories of philosophy and color. This movement was pioneered by Robert and Sonia Delaunays, a couple who immersed the viewer in dynamic expanses of rhythmic form and chromatic scales rather than the monochromatic Cubist experiments of the time.
  • Straight Photography is a movement centered on depicting a scene in sharp focus and detail as a way to emphasize the photographic medium and distinguish it from painting. Straight Photographers manipulated darkroom techniques to enhance the photograph with higher contrast and rich tonality.

Important Art and Artists of Precisionism

Wall Street (1915)

Artist: Paul Strand

Wall Street is amongst the most iconic American images of the early twentieth century. It marked a clear departure for Strand, away from a style of photographic Pictorialism whereby the photographer used a camera and dark-room manipulation to produce soft-focus images that mimicked the Pictorialist style of painting. The image is an early example of Strand's move into documentary realism and abstraction, which he often incorporated within the same frame. On the one hand, Strand offers the spectator an objective - or "Straight" - record of a street scene showing walking commuters; on the other, we have a high-contrast interplay of light and dark as the shadows formed by the niches of the large Morgan Trust Bank building produce a sloping geometric pattern.

The geometric solidity of the imposing, temple-like building dwarfs the silhouetted figures who become anonymous - shapes stretched through elongated shadows. Strand was encouraged by the influential photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz to emphasise contrast, clean lines, and patterns in his works. Precisionist painters, who were also mentored by Stieglitz, were inspired by Strand's approach, reducing forms to their underlying geometry, and copying the camera's ability to crop in closely on compositions and reveal objectively the essence or core of ordinary objects and everyday scenes. Georgia O'Keeffe (to whom Strand sent love letters before she married his friend Stieglitz), in particular, shared in Strand's search for abstraction through close-up images of natural forms, but believed that painting could express something beyond the limits of the (mechanical) camera. It is said that Edward Hopper became fascinated with this image, and adopted some of the same formal techniques for his own paintings.

Morton Livingston Schamberg: Painting VI (Camera Flashlight, Machine Still Life) (1916)

Painting VI (Camera Flashlight, Machine Still Life) (1916)

Artist: Morton Livingston Schamberg

In the two or three years before his untimely death (aged 37, in the 1918 flu pandemic) Schamberg painted a series of objects sourced from illustrations in machinery catalogues (borrowed from his brother-in-law who worked for a hosiery company). Having died so prematurely, his position in the Precisionist movement is one of a forefather, who exerted especial influence over artists such as Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth, both of whom explored mechanical themes in their painting.

Born in 1881 in Philadelphia, Schamberg qualified as an architect before enrolling as a post-graduate student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) where he studied under the impressionist William Merritt Chase. Following his time at the PAFA, he undertook several tours of Europe, sometimes accompanied by Chase and Sheeler. In Europe he confirmed his appreciation for the Old Masters but also encountered the works of modernists for the first time. As the auction house Sotheby's described it, while in Paris "He came to appreciate the underlying geometry he saw in compositions by Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne, as well as Henri Matisse's use of vivid, non-associative color [and his] immersion with these modes of visual expression proved deeply influential". Sotheby's adds that although Schamberg "did not fully abandon realistic subject matter, the works he created upon his return to the United States display[ed] a new concern for the structural rather than the representational function of color and he increasingly flattened and fragmented forms".

Referring to Painting VI, Sotheby's suggests that "Although the object is undoubtedly industrial in nature, Schamberg's reductive treatment makes it difficult to immediately identify and for many years it was incorrectly identified as a 'camera flashlight.' Indeed, the artist simplifies the components of the object to their most basic, geometric forms and places the machine in an amorphous setting, dissociating it from the larger context of the factory. As Schamberg's subject approaches abstraction he invites the viewer to consider it not for its function, but rather for its distinctive shape, color and form". Citing the art historian Wilford W. Scott, Sotheby's explains that the "imagery of the painting invites comparisons with the work of Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, who similarly utilized the machine as subject matter in this period". Scott argues, however, that Schamberg "never subscribed to the satirical undertones embedded in the work of these artists" and that his formal approach avoided the "typical 'Dada' subversion of traditional art and meaning [and that in] discovering a new subject for his formal analysis, Schamberg transformed machines from objects of Dada irony and wit into objects of beauty".

Joseph Stella: Brooklyn Bridge (1919-20)

Brooklyn Bridge (1919-20)

Artist: Joseph Stella

Following his showing at the influential Armory Show in 1913, where he exhibited a Futurist-inspired painting of Coney Island, Stella, an Italian immigrant, emerged as a key figure in the New York art scene. It is often argued that his images of New York, and especially the many he made of the Brooklyn Bridge - what he called "the shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America" - were captured with an element of religiosity. Most critics and historians are in agreement that his paintings probably achieved their extraordinary power because they were viewed through the eyes of an "outsider".

Stella first painted the bridge in 1918 and returned to it repeatedly throughout his career. Rather than capturing the structure literally, Stella presents a fractured, color-saturated, Cubist/Futurist evocation of a technological wonder, an almost mystical response to its wires and cables, walkways and tunnels, arches and granite piers - all of it re-configured into a transcendent image reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral, a Renaissance altarpiece or a stained glass window. By melding contemporary progress with historical allusions, Brooklyn Bridge became for Stella a symbol of progress and human achievement. "I felt deeply moved," he said of it, "as if on the threshold of a new religion or in the presence of a new DIVINITY". The Whitney Museum of American Art added that "By combining contemporary architecture and historical allusions, Stella transformed the Brooklyn Bridge into a twentieth-century symbol of divinity, the quintessence of modern life and the Machine Age".

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Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd

"Precisionism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
Available from:
First published on 25 Mar 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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