SAN FRANCISCO — The dominant trend in America, beneath all the chaos and confusion, is toward order and organization. The outward sign of this can be found in the aesthetics of the tech giants’ interfaces: in the hypnotic downward scroll of your Facebook feed; in the matchless equanimity of Siri; in the left-and-right-swipe erotica of Tinder; and in the severe, impersonal beauty of the algorithm. Today’s best artists will objectify these phenomena in ways that endure. The whole world is affected by the tech giants’ innovations, so if the artist can make her work clear in its intention, convincing in its reality, inevitable in its logic, her potential audience will be practically universal.
Okay, reader. Time to ’fess up. These blowzy exhortations are not mine. They’re my rewording of, and my rather lame attempt to update, something originally written by the artist Louis Lozowick in 1927. Lozowick’s words appear as a preamble to “Cult of the Machine,” a surprisingly timely exhibition at the de Young in San Francisco.
The show is an overview of precisionism, the modern American movement that fetishized factories, ball bearings, silos and skyscrapers in an attempt to merge American realism with European abstraction. The movement flourished in America between the two world wars. It emerged at a time when movies, radio, moving assembly lines, transatlantic flights and telephones were all in their earliest infancy.
Precisionist painters (often linked with art deco designers) celebrated industrial and technological advances in a streamlined idiom that aspired to the frictionless condition of stainless steel and the sublime tautness of clock gears. So instead of swipes, scrolls and algorithms, Lozowick wrote swooningly of “the verticals” of the American city’s “smoke stacks,” “the parallels of its car tracks,” “the cubes of its factories” and “the cylinders of its gas tanks.” He painted — and drew — what he preached.
What’s great about the de Young show — a massive effort brilliantly organized by Emma Acker — is not just that it includes so much vital context in the form of influential works by Duchamp, Picabia and Léger, early cinema footage, modernist photographs, and ravishing examples of art deco and streamline design (including a sleek 1937 car designed by Gordon Buehrig for the Auburn Automobile Co.).
It’s that it makes so many provocative and cogent connections between the upheavals of the ’20s and ’30s and those of our own era. There are so many parallels, and the show’s layout and wall labels skillfully tease them out.
People in the ’20s and ’30s, it turns out, were just as anxious about the encroachment of technology into life and work as we are today.
The key idea, both then and now, is ambivalence. Even as we get giddy about what machines make possible, we loathe the way they eat into our innermost being, sucking us away from family, fresh air — even from meaningful solitude. It was the same then. Whether inadvertently or deliberately, the empty industrial vistas of the precisionists, which can make the world look deader than a de Chirico, capture a very familiar anxiety about Machine-Age alienation.
In all honesty, I have always thought precisionism was a bit ridiculous. Yes, some powerful individual artists crossed paths with it: Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth. But by and large, like most technophile visions, precisionism aged badly. It came to look not just dated but naively misguided. (A lot of these pictures, from certain angles, can look like propaganda for war readiness.)
That’s okay. Great artists often are naively misguided. What’s harder to forgive about precisionism is that it looks so sterile. There are no people in these paintings, no mess, no texture. It’s a style, instead, that’s all about efficiency: Clean shapes. Hygienic lines. A cool, photographic distance from things. (It’s the very antithesis of the “soft painting” — all Whistlerian blur and poetic imprecision — that dominated American art at the end of the 19th century.) There is something not just fastidious but fanatical about the results.
Nothing has changed my mind. With a few exceptions (most of them by Sheeler), I don’t like the paintings at all.
But what the show has to say about the whole precisionist project — which was, in the end, an attempt to make art that comes to grips with the brute realities that undergird modern existence — fascinates me more and more.
Think of it this way: If you travel to a great city — let’s say New York or Tokyo — you probably have an idea of the parts of it that attract you. Many, inevitably, will tend toward the nostalgic. Cafes, cobbled streets, old architecture, intimate sushi joints, diners, bookstores, museums maybe.
But it’s worth asking: What relation do the things you take pleasure in have to what you saw from the air as you flew in or glimpsed from the train coming from the airport? I mean the fuel tanks and power stations, the smoke stacks and sewage plants, the telecommunications towers, intermodal shipping containers, water reservoirs, freeways, factory warehouses, and freight trains? You know your way around downtown, sure. But how much about these other things could you explain to a child?
But they’re the very things that make your cute little dream of New York or Tokyo possible! And this applies not just to travel, but to every aspect of our daily existence, wherever we live. These awesome industrial structures, all-pervasive information technologies, and incomprehensibly complex systems are not in themselves cute. But they’re the reality. And if we want to be at home in the world, we must face that reality.
Something like this, anyway, is what I take to have been the precisionist program. They were trying to face the world honestly. They weren’t necessarily propagandists for it. But they weren’t sour on it, either. They were ready to find beauty in it. They refused to be nostalgic. They were saying: This is modernity, this is the stuff that makes your life possible.
Alfred Barr, the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, put it neatly in 1934: “If . . . we are to ‘end the divorce’ between our industry and our culture we must assimilate the machine aesthetically as well as economically.”
But the precisionists weren’t merely realists. They were trying to find a style to match their sense of modernity. Not just to say “This is what it looks like!” but “This is how it feels.”
I don’t think they succeeded. They were visibly influenced by the idealism and playfulness that undergirded early 20th century abstraction — from cubism and Russian constructivism to Duchamp, Picabia and Léger. But in trying to combine this with a brand of sober American realism they fell between stools.
The best tended to eschew abstraction in favor of a stubborn fidelity to how things actually look. Sheeler’s “City Interior,” from 1936, and his “Rolling Power” and “Suspended Power,” both from 1939, are masterpieces of the movement. Sheeler’s handling of light makes his pictures at once credible and intensely beautiful. But you also feel, in the case of the 1939 pictures (which depict a locomotive truck and a water turbine), that if someone were to take them apart, the pictures would give you enough to go on to put them back together again.
What would it look like if today’s artists advanced a program similar to the precisionists? How would they try to “assimilate the machine aesthetically”?
Plenty of artists are trying. One problem they face, as the curators note, is that while it was easy to see the connections between the forms of the precisionists’ industrial machines and their functions, the workings of today’s most transformative technologies — algorithms, code, “clouds” — are mostly invisible.
How, if you are an artist, do you depict what cannot be seen? If you paint in metaphors, will it have the same punch?
The best precisionist artist — although he didn’t particularly identify with the movement — may well have been Gerald Murphy. But Murphy was barely active. He and his wife, Sara, were too busy hosting immortal parties on the French Riviera and inspiring the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Only six of his 14 paintings survive.
His enormous masterpiece, “Watch” (1925), on loan from Dallas, is a symphony of circles and gears in a key of sky blue, black, yellow, brown and gray. It’s a paean to the Machine Age, a triumph of pure style. It opens the show, providing a high point it never quite ascends to again.
Still, see “Cult of the Machine” if you can. You may not warm, exactly, to the art. But it’s so ambitious that you can’t help but be impressed, and there are more smart ideas at the show’s heart than anything I’ve seen in a long while.
Cult of the Machine Through Aug 12 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. deyoung.famsf.org.