Part of a breathing human scene

The barns are that warm and comfortable color we call ''barn red.'' In spite of the bits of bright blue sky around the shaded white clouds, gray roofs, and road, we would tend to remember this painting as simply that red and the greens of summer - yellowish, bleached out greens in the foreground grasses, a heavy viridian in the massive trees. Summer might well be a secondary subject recalling a fragment from Charles Sheeler's notebook, ''The trees in mid-summer with their opulence of celebration.''

As is characteristic with almost all of Sheeler's paintings, people do not appear. In the same era, the ''objectivists'' in poetry were doing the same thing - spotlighting objects rather than their makers and users. William Carlos Williams was a good friend of the artist. In this particular work, however, one does not feel a lack. The buildings are gently time-weathered. An unfamiliar, small, bridgelike structure in the right foreground reminded my 83-year-old neighbor of a similar one on the road beside her grandfather's farm. The rich milk, fresh from his herd, was poured into tall metal cans to be set out on such a wooden platform. The wagon from the butter factory (before fluid milk processing) picked up the cans in the morning, returning them with skimmed milk for the hogs in the evening.

So, unlike some of Sheeler's technological subjects which seem to exist in a rarefied atmosphere, these barns are very much a part of a breathing human scene.

The technique used in this painting is not quite as ''precisionist'' or as abstract as his industrial or skyscraper landscapes. That is to say, the paint is not applied as evenly, with color masses as flatly designed and objects formalized into tight geometric shapes. He has other paintings, drawings, and photographs of barns (a favorite subject of his) which are much more abstract. In this work, the foreground is loosely executed. Interestingly, the distant hill partakes of this casual brushing on the right of the ventilating cupola on the hay barn roof, while to the left of it, a more monumental, flat stroke joins the hill with the great trees and the buildings. Whichever style he employed, Sheeler was ever the thoughtful craftsman.

This painting has its own curious history. It was painted in 1934 under the New Deal Public Works Project. Sheeler, having already achieved much reputation as a painter and photographer, lent credibility to the idea of federal support for artists. The painting was ''lost'' for decades, coming to light only in 1982 after being ''found'' in the recesses of a closet, appropriately enough in the Department of Interior. To make the story even stranger, the handsome volume produced by the National Collection of Fine Arts of the Smithsonian Institution in 1968 for a major retrospective exhibition does not list the painting or even mention Sheeler's participation in the Federal Arts Project in the excellent and detailed biographic notes.

This indicates that ''Connecticut Barns in Landscape'' may have been the only work done by Sheeler for the Federal Arts Project. But for a painter who delighted in recording with clarity and respectful admiration Shaker furniture, barns and farmhouses, as well as machine-age, high-rise America, it must have pleased his sense of interaction with the history of his country as he lived through it to have participated in that landmark project.

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