Precisionist art is people-less. Precisionist art is purposive. It is clear-cut, axiomatic and peculiarly American. The Precisionists were patriots.
Their crisp and shining pictures are now on exhibition in "Images of America: Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography" at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
In the '20s and the '30s, the Precisionists were known as "The Immaculates." The older term is better. It has a cleaner ring.
The Immaculates, though modernists, would not go all the way. Puritans of sorts, they shunned radical abstraction. Their art is prim and staid as a whitewashed clapboard steeple in a clear New England sky.
Many of the best of them, both painters and photographers--Berenice Abbott, Ralston Crawford, Preston Dickinson, Elsie Driggs, Walker Evans, Louis Lozowick, Morton Schamberg, Niles Spencer, Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler--went to Europe after World War I to seek out modern art.
Much of what they found there they intentionally rejected. Though they trusted in the future, in dynamism, progress, none of them could stomach the nihilistic bombast of the Futurist Italians. Much as they admired the shatterings and planes they saw in Cubist painting, they remained at heart suspicious of abstruse French abstraction. They would not accept the dogmas of the Bauhaus theoreticians. And their art is less religious, less mystically ecstatic, than the noble hard-edge painting of Malevich and Mondrian.
America retrieved them. They found their themes in the cities of the East and the Midwest, in storage tanks and smokestacks, in skyscrapers and bridges, in the light and shadow underneath the el. They found them in the country, too, in the cylinders of silos and the frank lines of old barns. They loved the products of the factories, and all machines that moved--locomotives, dynamos, ocean liners, cars.
They searched America for order, yet in some ways they were blind.
Louis Lozowick did not see that soot that poured from smoke stacks. Miklos Suba, the little-known Brooklyn artist whose painting is among the sweetest in the show, chose not to see the litter swirling underneath the el. Sheeler's wondrous locomotives are free of grease and rust. So are Paul Strand's steel cogs and gears and Paul Outerbridge's crank shafts. No tired workers labor in Ralston Crawford's tank farms. No deckhands man the ships one sees in the photographs of Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyke and John Paul Edwards. No farmers grunt and sweat in Georgia O'Keeffe's barns.
These pictures of America never show Americans. One cannot find a face, a tragedy or joke in the 150 objects in this show.
Many other artists, some earlier, some later, also have been loyal to geometry and measure. The painter Thomas Eakins, who explored the human soul, had a trust in precision that was just as deep. So did Norman Rockwell, that lover of community, and William Michael Harnett, that lover of old things. These artists and a dozen more--Ellsworth Kelly, Sol Lewitt--might well be described as precisionists of sorts. They, too, were more attached to subject than to style. But this is not a show in which their art would fit.
Frequently it frightens. Its confidence is steely. Behind its marching rectangles, one can almost hear the distant tread of jackboots. Sheeler's smokestacks feel like cannon. The concrete dams and bridges photographed by Margaret Bourke-White have the look of fortifications, and Lozowick's machines recall those used in war.
These pictures may be beautiful, but their beauty chills. Halfway through the show the viewer starts to yearn for the warm, the inefficient. Crawford's art is saved by its underlying wit, Demuth's by its delicacy, Suba's by its intimacy. Walker Evans' art is not entirely Precisionist; though his pictures in this show do not portray people, one can sense their presence just beyond the frame. Too many of the other objects on display harbor in their sparkle something inhumane.
The American Precisionists were only partly bold. Running through their art is an undertone of fear, fear of turmoil, of failure, fear of the illegible, even fear of size. Though they often show the huge--skyscrapers, the Brooklyn Bridge, locomotives, dams--their tightly ordered pictures have the feel of still lifes.
There is something missing in this show. While Americans have long liked the uninflected--the classical simplicities of Greek Revival architecture, the fast ball and the grid--we like the juicy, too.
There is an old and constant conflict--between the spare and the profuse, the clean and the messy--in American esthetics. Bogart's cool restraint fights Barrymore's histrionics; the terse, stripped prose of Hemingway battles Faulkner's sinuosities. The pictures of the Precisionists, made between the wars, were soon enough attacked, not only by the socially conscious art of the Depression, but by the hotter, bigger, myth-laden abstraction yet to come. When hard-edge color painting flourished in the '60s, the tide of battle turned. Now, in the 1980s, with expressionism booming, cleanliness and order are being challenged once again.
The Precisionist show was organized by Karen Tsujimoto for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She was wise to include photographs, and though she picked them well, she chose a few too many. And Tsujimoto's eye is sharper than her writing. "Images of America: Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography" will remain in Baltimore through April 25.