During the Machine Age (ca. 1880–1945), technological innovations revolutionized American life. This period gave birth to the efficiencies of the factory assembly line; gravity-defying skyscrapers; and the streamlined aesthetic of an industrial design defined by functionalism. Inspired by the modern world around them, Precisionist artists such as Charles Demuth, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Sheeler produced structured, geometric compositions with smooth surfaces and lucid forms—reconciling the influence of avant-garde European art styles such as Purism, Cubism, and Futurism with American subjects ranging from the urban and the industrial to the rural.
As the mechanization of society accelerated in the early twentieth century, artists from the United States and abroad increasingly found inspiration in the industrial machines surrounding them. The pioneers of what came to be known as a Precisionist style were affiliated with the group of American and expatriate European artists, writers, and intellectuals who frequently met for lively exchanges at the Manhattan apartment of the art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg. Duchamp, who had emigrated from France, was a constant presence at these gatherings—along with other members of the conceptually minded, avant-garde New York Dada group such as fellow Frenchman Francis Picabia—and extolled the virtues of America’s technological achievements and “cold and scientific nature.” These Dadaists’ embrace of mechanistic subjects influenced the Precisionists to depict the industrial “gear and girder” world of early twentieth-century America.
Machined: An Aesthetic of Efficiency
The smooth, streamlined aesthetic of Precisionist painting—in which brushstrokes are often barely perceptible and the works seem almost machine made—can be seen as a response not only to the sleek forms and polished surfaces of the machine, but also to the era’s new methods of industrial production. Capturing what Sheeler termed “the spirit of the age,” the Precisionists replaced the expressive visual language and gestural brushwork of turn-of the-century American art movements such as the Ashcan School with crisply painted forms that belied the intensive labor their artistic production entailed. The “machined” quality of these works thus reflects not just the outward visual effects of industrialization, but also conveys the impersonality of both mass production and human experience in an automated age.
Power or Powerlessness?
The lack of a human presence in most Precisionist scenes—notable in depictions of factories and cities, which are in reality teeming with humanity—was acknowledged by Sheeler when he wryly described his work as “my illustration of what a beautiful world it would be if there were no people in it.” Historically, these scenes have been interpreted as “proud symbols of technological splendor” that celebrate the nation’s industries, focusing on their formal beauty and awesome power rather than social content. Yet more recently, scholars have argued that many of these works reflect—and perhaps even subtly critique—the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and urbanization.
Precisionism and the City
By the 1920s, skyscrapers had become symbols of American modernity. These towering “cathedrals of commerce” expressed the dynamism and promise of a new era, and their sleek and vertical forms were a ubiquitous influence on the fine and decorative arts of the period. 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—and anxieties abounded about the effects of urban overcrowding on the physical and psychological health of citizens.
In the American Grain: Finding a Past for the Present
Just as the Precisionists reflected and celebrated America’s cultural identity by embracing as subjects the nation’s urban and industrial landscapes, so too did they draw inspiration from its agrarian roots and design traditions. Artists such as Sheeler, O’Keeffe, and George Ault found aesthetic inspiration in the simple geometries of a barn or Shaker interior. The prevalence in Precisionist art of such rural subjects, which harkened back to the nation’s pre-industrial roots, reflected a larger national narrative that claimed the functionalism and efficiency of the modern era could be traced to the colonial period.
The Soul of Human Life
In the relatively few Precisionist works that are populated, the figures often convey tensions between humans and their modern, industrial environment. In some, human and mechanical attributes are merged or conflated, recalling the Dadaist mechanomorphs pioneered by Duchamp and Picabia. Precisionist artists’ representations of their own and others’ identities with such imagery may signal an attempt to reassert their humanity within an automated age.
A century after the emergence of a Machine Age aesthetic, we face surprisingly similar questions to the ones that the Precisionists addressed with such nuance and intelligence. Although their carefully constructed works evoke the sense of impersonal order and control associated with mechanical processes, they also ask us to consider the fundamental relationship between humans and machines—the ways in which we benefit from, resist, and co-exist with technology.