The process of transforming European modernist art ideas into Precisionism, a truly American idiom, was achieved in steps of assimilation, conversion, and modification. It began as a search for the architectural structure underlying reality, which was a reaction against the formlessness of Impressionism. Elements taken from Cubism, photography, the use of color to shape form, and Italian Futurism merged to create Precisionism. An acquaintance with European Cubism gave American artists a tool that allowed the world to be depicted both perceptually and conceptually. Another tool was provided by Synchromism, a programmatic investigation of color harmonies developed between 1913-1916 by the American artists Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Morgan Russell. Stressing color as a structural device for handling form, Synchromism lent itself to architectural compositions while helping them to become less fragmented and more readable than those of Cubism.; Photography exhibitions at Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen’s Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (1905-1917), known as ‘291’, contributed an awareness of new compositional options like close framing, the lighting of a subject from varied angles, and the use of light and shadow as pattern in a composition. Developments in film also made artists think about how to achieve images with motion like those derived from the cinema and chrono-photography. Combining Cubist compositional ideas with those derived from photography, artists envisioned how to achieve simultaneous multiple views of a subject, as well as how to present differences of time and place. Added into this mix of ideas were those of the Italian Futurists who thought of the city as a machine with its own pace and rhythm.
The Precisionist artists’ desire to find the structure underlying reality contributed to their focus on architectural and mechanical subjects. This subject matter proved popular with art audiences as it reflected American inventions for industry in both urban and rural environments. These subjects also connected to American admiration of science and engineering, delight in speed and efficiency, and presented a positive belief in the virtues and rewards of an industrial civilization. In executing their architectural and mechanical subjects, the Precisionists incorporated the static light and undisturbed atmosphere of photography and a photographer’s careful selection of subject and composition in which much is eliminated through cropping and exposure time. Precision and control of execution became the outward manifestations of this new American art style. The first museum recognition of Precisionism was at The Phillips Memorial Art Gallery in Washington, DC in 1926. The exhibition grouped architectural paintings together to demonstrate American modifications of European art discoveries.
Two of the first Precisionists, Morton Schamberg and Miklos Suba, studied architecture. Others like Charles Sheeler, Louis Lozowick, and Niles Spencer were strongly linked to industry through their backgrounds or work experience. Other Precisionists like Konrad Cramer, Ralston Crawford, Man Ray, Theodore Roszak, and Charles Sheeler investigated photography as part of their oeuvre. During the 1920s the Precisionists exhibited at the Whitney Studio Club and the Charles Daniel Gallery, both in New York. The Daniel Gallery artists included Charles Demuth, Preston Dickinson, Charles Sheeler, Niles Spencer, Henry Billings, Peter Blume, Elsie Driggs, and Charles Goeller. When the Daniel Gallery closed in 1932, Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery became the showcase for Precisionism. As the Precisionists did not constitute a discrete group, inclusion depends on the subjective decisions of individual scholars as to who and what was Precisionist.
Our exhibition is focused on paintings executed from the 1920s to the 1940s with architectural subjects. Rather than organize our exhibition on a specific set of artists, the paintings were selected because they exhibited the following characteristics of Precisionism: carefully edited, hard-edged architectural elements within static, balanced, and smoothly painted compositions of interlocking designs. In a selection of paintings with an architectural focus, we aim to show that these Precisionist characteristics used by artists of the 1930s-1940s were modified only slightly by new narratives contributed by national and international social events.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, particularly in paintings with architectural compositions, one sees works executed with the precision and control of detail that connect to Precisionist ideas. In our exhibition we aim to demonstrate that an artist can paint a Precisionist painting and still reflect his time and point of view. How can this be when Precisionism is distinguished by its refusal to analyze social significance in its compositions and distances itself from narrative? During the 1930s-1940s it is a question of degree that separates Precisionist paintings from those of the American Scene, Social Realism, Folk Art, Surrealism or Magic Realism. Precisionists select what is most appropriate to their essentially geometric vision, retaining the precision of the camera and eliminating unnecessary detail. Their paintings for the most part ignore the tension and struggle of the modern world. They are modified only slightly by internal or external social events. Although those events may shape the Precisionist subject, they do not dominate it, though traces of events or group association identifying a work’s time of execution may be discerned. Our exhibition aims to demonstrate that the continuation of Precisionism during the 1930s and 1940s can be identified in works maintaining both geometric forms and realistic representations of America in their subject matter. This is because Precisionist paintings had a different function in the 1930s and 1940s than in the 1920s.
American Scene painting became visible in American art by 1925. As America moved into economic depression, interest in developing an international art style faded and a nationalism developed that desired an art with American subjects executed in a style capable of speaking to all Americans. This was achieved through the modernization of the Hudson River School’s idea of site-specific place. We see Precisionist ideas merged into expressions of the American Scene movement in rural site-specific architectural subjects offered in our exhibition like Ernest Fiene’s (1894-1965) Entrance to The Village of Woodstock
, 1925 and Hudson Riverboat II
, 1928; Allan Gould’s (1908-1988) Wittenberg, New York
, 1932; and Dale Nichols’s (1904-1995) When the Grass Grows Green
, David City, Nebraska, 1939. This can be shown in urban subjects too such as Kansas Gas Station
, c.1938 by Harry Dix (1908-1968); New York Rooftops
, 1928 by Joseph Stella (1877-1946); New York Rooftops
, 1935 by Emil Ganso (1895-1941); and Dawn
, Sandy Hook, Connecticut by Martin Lewis (1881-1962).
Social Realists focused on man as a social being. Acting as critics, Social Realists pointed out specific problems in society to be fixed. In The Factory
, 1935 by Gregorio Prestopino (1907-1984), the message of long hours of exhaustive labor is made within a carefully constructed architectural setting. The negative effect of material culture on people or places is shown through the artist’s choice of objects, colors, and textures used to signal the time of day and desired mood.
In addition to the American Scene and Social Realists of the 1930s and 1940s, there was a group who hoped to build a national style of art out of American craft traditions and Folk Art. They found links between America’s industrial present and its arts and crafts traditions. They saw that at the heart of the machine age lay a division of labor and society between those who work with their hands and those who work with their heads. Folk Art was seen by these artists as the result of the joining of head and hand. In paintings such as American Farm
, Woodstock, 1930 by Allan Gould (1908-1988); Pastoral
, 1938 by Doris Lee (1905-1983); Stony Hollow, Woodstock
, 1931 by Konrad Cramer (1888-1963) and Cigar Store Indian with War Bond Posters
by Miklos Suba (1880-1944), Precisionist ideas combine easily with the unornamented absolute forms of Folk Art and American vernacular architecture to add functional simplicity of vision and directness of statement.
European Surrealism reached America in the 1930s. Surrealism saw man as a machine without will or meaning. The spirit of Surrealism probes the depths of the mind to reveal both constructive and destructive elements. Surrealism provided a tool that allowed artists to break out of the Cubist grid. Its free and obvious distortions of natural forms could convey emotions and act as symbols. Some Precisionists heightened their narratives with Surrealist touches. The best example of this within our exhibition is Allan Gould’s (1908-1988) painting Landscape with Objects
, 1933. It is a Surrealist dreamscape about the creative capacity of man with a site-specific location, the Ashokan reservoir near Woodstock.
As the political climate became more hostile in Europe, the American art world gained an influx of immigrant artists and architects who believed in a new unity for art and technology, the legacy of the Bauhaus. They became teachers who transformed America. Their teachings connected with the Precisionist interest in geometric, architectural forms. László Moholy-Nagy established the Institute of Design in Chicago, Walter Gropius became Chairman of the Department of Architecture at Harvard, and Josef Albers headed the art department at Black Mountain College and then became Chairman of the Art Department at Yale. Piet Mondrian in New York developed a following for Constructivism. By 1936 American modernists had established their own radical group, the American Abstract Artists, and began to exhibit together in New York. Bauhaus and Constructivist influences began to enter Precisionist art making it even more geometrically organized in pattern, texture, and shape. Examples of this can be seen in paintings like Industrial Scene
by Miklos Suba (1880-1944) and Houses and Street
, 1946 by O. Louis Guglielmi (1906-1956) in our exhibition. Each work exhibits both flat and deep patterns that play against each other. Our exhibition ends with two paintings by Irene Rice Pereira (1902-1971) that take viewers to the edge of abstraction.
Art and its audience are developed over time. Changes in social attitudes affect subject matter and new subject matter releases waves of feelings and new formal experiments. America’s entrance into World War II began a reaction against narrow nationalism and isolationism. American realism succumbed to abstraction and to internationalism by 1945. Precisionism had kept the door open to international modernism through its architectural subject matter and suppression of details. It served as a bridge between American realism and a modern vision.