The word "precisionist" was applied to a number of American artists of the last century, but it has also been argued that only one of them may have truly warranted the word. That is Charles Sheeler. Precision in his work seems virtually a passion – a motivation both rigorous and exhaustive. It is as if something cool and architectonic has been transformed by an intense, strongly felt exactness.
An exhibition of Sheeler's work, which started at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, traveled to Chicago, and is now at the De Young Museum in San Francisco (until May 6), explores the fact that this artist expressed his meticulous vision in various media – photography, drawing, painting, and film, not to mention photomontage.
He crossed boundaries between these different media, thus the title of the exhibition: "Charles Sheeler: Across Media." He recognized and exploited both technical similarities and differences in making his images. Today he surely would have added a computer into the equation.
He effectively disregarded the assumption that some media were, aesthetically, more important – or more artistic – than others. For him, photography, for example, was clearly not a poor relation of painting.
Among his earlier works was a series of photographs of the interior of "Doylestown House," a mid-18th-century Quaker-built house in Pennsylvania he shared with fellow artist Morton Schamberg from 1910 to 1926.
These photographs were not casual in any way. They were lighted with great care, and anything that might detract from clear composition of spaces, edges, and cast shadows was removed.
Some of these highly calculated photographs continued to inspire Sheeler for many years, as is shown by two items in the exhibition: "Doylestown House – Stairway With Chair" (1917) and "The Upstairs" (1938).
The earlier – a gelatin-silver photographic print – was unquestionably the basis for the later oil painting. Yet the painting is not merely a replica with color added. The more you compare the two, the more you can recognize the fine differences between them. They have equal validity, but the painting is a step closer to an abstract idealism. To reconsider the original photograph using paint and brush rather than lens allowed Sheeler even more finesse in the interplay of line, space, angle, corner, light, and shadow. He could make his image even more precisely what he wanted.