In Focus

Charles Sheeler's Power Series

In 1938, at the height of his career, acclaimed American Modernist Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) was commissioned by Fortune magazine to explore the theme of power in a series of works to be reproduced as a portfolio in the magazine. Although today Fortune is ubiquitous as one of the preeminent American business journals—with its famous annual list of the top 500 public corporations in the United States—in 1930 it was a radical innovation. Only four months after the stock market crash of 1929, the February 1930 debut issue of Fortune heralded a new kind of magazine. Publishing entrepreneur Henry R. Luce believed that business was "the distinctive expression of the American genius." Thus, from the beginning, he chose a different model than existing business newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, seeking to marry business genius with artistic genius. instead of economists, Luce hired the literary talents of the day to write articles. He also hired artists to illustrate covers and feature stories, including Charles Burchfield, Fernand Léger, Diego Rivera, Miguel Covarrubias, Margaret Bourke-White, Ben Shahn, and, of course, Charles Sheeler, who had ten works reproduced in Fortune between 1939 and 1948. Luce's formula paid off; by 1935, Fortune's circulation had jumped from 10,000 to over 100,000.

The original commission for Fortune specified eleven paintings of the artist's own choosing. Over the next two years, Sheeler completed six paintings (five oils, one tempera) for the series, which was published in Fortune in the December 1940 issue. These iconic images explored humanity's attempt to harness the forces of nature to its own ends. The paintings were also exhibited at the Downtown Gallery in New York from December 2 to 21 of the same year.

To prepare for Power, Sheeler traveled to Nevada, New York, and Alabama in 1939. The artist took photographs of several sites, which he used as studies for four of the paintings. Sheeler's final choices for the portfolio encompassed steam, water, electricity, and combustion. With only one exception—Primitive Power—he emphasized the fastest, largest, and most powerful example of each of his subjects, all done in his characteristic smooth, highly finished style. If the majority of the subjects in Power were modern, so were Sheeler's working methods, as he embraced the possibilities of exploring the same material in both photography and paint.

Reception of the Power series at the Downtown Gallery was mixed. Milton Brown, the art critic for Parnassus, was particularly severe, reproducing Conversation—Sky and Earth with the caption, "Is this a painting or a photograph?" Brown criticized Sheeler for ignoring the history of photography's epic struggle to be regarded as an independent art form, thereby suggesting that one of the pioneers of modern photography had done the medium a disservice. Yet, if anything, Sheeler's embrace of both photography and painting was singularly appropriate; the protean nature of his subject matter required Sheeler to deploy two types of artistic power to achieve the goal of the commission—to detail humanity's varied attempts at understanding and using power.

Excerpt from

William Keyse Rudolph, Charles Sheeler's Power Series brochure, 2006.

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