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By Miles Orvell

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Sample text

Sheeler's engagement with science and the modern reaches its most complex and ambiguous state in the photographs he made at Henry Ford's River Rouge plant and the paintings that followed. W. Ayer & Son, was commissioned to make a series of photographs to be used in Ayer's promotion of the new Ford factoryand its new carat River Rouge. Sheeler continued to work for Ayer and Ford for a couple of years after the Rouge assignment, and he returned to the subject in several of his most important paintings, among the most outstanding examples of Precisionism.

In its most extreme form, the work of industrial construction was itself viewed as the highest art, with the engineer as the new artist. It was in this spirit that a writer in the avant-garde magazine, The Soil, declared, in 1916, "I have already turned from an Art Exhibition to marvel at the co-ordination and the real art of a steam shovel, ripping out great handfuls of boulders and earth . . There are splendid curves in steam lines, in belts, and in all moving machinery" (Vos, 17). Ten years later, Jane Heap, introducing the special issue of The Little Review that served as the catalogue for the ''Machine-Age Exposition" (1927), affirmed, "There is a great new race of men in America: the Engineer.

Let me pause a moment over that last word, "culture": My subjects range from the high end of visual and literary culture, in which the individual aesthetic sensibility captures our attention; to photography, a potentially mass form practiced by individual personalities who may or may not think of themselves as "artists"; to popular culture, the product, usually, of a corporate imagination that succeeds in capturing our collective attention. But, as these studies demonstrate, the boundaries between these categories have eroded in the twentieth century, offering a variety of permutations and borrowings at both ends and across the middle.

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