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Totems in Steel

1935
3 11/16 x 5 1/8 in. (9.4 x 13 cm)

Charles Sheeler
American (Philadelphia, PA, 1883 - 1965, Dobbs Ferry, NY)

Object Type: Watercolor
Medium and Support: Gouache
Credit Line: Gift of Peter Iselin and his sister, Emilie Iselin Wiggin
Accession Number: 1974.94
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Location: Not currently on view

This image of a New York City construction site is based on a film still from Charles Sheeler’s 1920 film collaboration with photographer Paul Strand, Manhatta. In the ten-minute film, the artists track the dynamism of Manhattan through the course of a day, focusing on the unique pulse and geometry of the city’s machinery, vehicles, and architecture. Manhatta provided Sheeler with numerous images from which he later painted.

The title of this painting, Totems in Steel, frames modern engineering, industry, and architecture in quasi-religious terms. Sheeler wrote, “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.”

[label text for Modern Icon: The Machine As Subject in American Art exhibition, February 3 – March 6, 2012]

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Artist's signature, lower right: Charles Sheeler

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Manhatta: A Film by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler In 1920 Paul Strand and artist Charles Sheeler collaborated on Manhatta, a short silent film that presents a day in the life of lower Manhattan. Inspired by Walt Whitman's book Leaves of Grass, the film includes multiple segments that express the character of New York. The sequences display a similar approach to the still photography of both artists. Attracted by the cityscape and its visual design, Strand and Sheeler favored extreme camera angles to capture New York's dynamic qualities. Although influenced by Romanticism in its view of the urban environment, Manhatta is considered the first American avant-garde film.


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