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Machine dreams in the art museum

by Sura Wood

Emma Acker, Associate Curator at the de Young Museum, speaks about the gate designed by Rene Paul Chambellan and used for the entrance to the executive suite in New York's Art Deco Chanin Building. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Emma Acker, Associate Curator at the de Young Museum, speaks about the gate designed by Rene Paul Chambellan and used for the entrance to the executive suite in New York's Art Deco Chanin Building. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

"Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art," a wearing, overly large show at the de Young Museum, surveys a breadth of responses by American artists to the Industrial Revolution of the 1920s and to the rise of the machine age between the two World Wars. It was a boom time of mass production, huge factories and assembly lines - emblems of power, ambition and hubris - that disrupted the status quo, and transformed American society. One need look no further than the gravity-defying skyscrapers that shot up like rockets in cities across the country, the accelerated speed of transport, and the surge of cinema and other new visual languages translating a fast morphing zeitgeist. Responses from artists ranged from celebration, bordering on propagandistic promotion, to critiques of the darker side of progress and apprehension about the sacrifice of humanity on the altar of technological advancement.

With their smooth surfaces, architectural planes and structured, geometric compositions, the work of the "Precisionists," as critics dubbed them, fused modern experience with abstract forms, and brought elements of European avant-garde Cubism and Futurism to American subject matter. Artists such as Charles Demuth; George Ault; Georgia O'Keeffe; and Charles Sheeler, whose paeans to factory might are ubiquitous here, captured the cold aesthetic beauty of a burgeoning mechanistic culture where efficiency was king. What could possibly go wrong? O'Keeffe's bold, angular "City Night" (1926), where a low moon, suspended in a shaft of teal night sky, peeks through the soaring edifices of Manhattan's vertical jungle, cautions that nature is constant, powerful in its own right and oblivious to human achievement.


Charles Sheeler, "Rolling Power" (1939), oil on canvas. Photo: Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco  

In our current tech revolution, fears that our creations will take over and dominate the human race are aimed at computers and A.I., but back then, robots, a term introduced in a Czech play in 1922, were the bogeymen. According to a nifty timeline at the entry to the exhibition, in 1938, Westinghouse produced Elektro the Moto-Man, a robot with 20 movements and a 700-word vocabulary. He's clunkier than the Tin Man and bears an uncanny resemblance to Gort, the eight-foot-tall "right-hand-man" of the alien in "The Day the Earth Stood Still." And who could forget the wicked female humanoid in "Metropolis" (1927), whose insidious image first danced in the head of German director Fritz Lang when he was in New York three years earlier?

The blatant championing of masculinity, evident in pervasive phallic symbolism that's difficult to miss, was oppressive for some. Painter Gerald Murphy expressed coded ambivalence about his repressed homosexuality in "Watch" (1925): a close-up of a time-piece mechanism that has a broken mainspring may be a view into his conflicted psyche. Elsie Driggs' velvety black "Blast Furnaces" (1927), with their iron octopus arms, have the monstrous beauty of a dormant creature that could wreak havoc on a dystopian universe. (Driggs was one of the few women associated with the Precisionist style.) In Clarence Holbrook Carter's dramatic statement painting "War Bride" (1940), the bride of the title, seen from the back in a white satin gown, faces an ominous steel altar in a surreal church; the missing groom is likely the casualty of profit-mad industry mobilized for mass destruction.

Conscientiously researched and informative though it is, this intermittently interesting exhibition needed some serious pruning. There's just a limit to how many images of airplanes, cement plants, belching smokestacks, meshing gears, storage tanks and bridges one can consume in a single visit, and saturation points are likely to be reached early. The inclusion of a section on nostalgia for America's agrarian roots containing Shaker furniture and paintings of snow-covered barns is a stretch, making a show of over 100 works bigger than it needed to be. It's at this point one longs for the pointed humor of Rube Goldberg, whose parodies of outrageously complicated contraptions were a welcome tonic to the worship of machine wonderment. Don't miss his invention cartoons at CJM.

All this tedious zeal for industry is happily interrupted by a sequence from Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times," a hilarious assault on the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, where his Little Tramp is swallowed and fed through the cogs of a giant machine. The show redeems itself in "Machine as Art," a gallery featuring streamlined industrial-product designs and ultra-cool toys for the rich, like Peter Muller-Munk's sleek chrome "Normandie" pitcher (1935), inspired by the prow of the French luxury ocean liner; or Norman Bel Geddes' futuristic "Motor Car No. 8" (ca.1932), a low-slung, aerodynamic, snub-nosed prototype, a cross between a great fish and a zeppelin with fins on either side. No one should ever be without a snazzy "skyscraper" cocktail shaker, a couple of which are on view. The "Nocturne" radio (1935), Walter Dorwin Teague's swanky, oversized art deco fantasy with a circular cobalt mirror surface trimmed in satin steel, is enough to make one forsake TV. But for unadulterated, vicarious pleasure, nothing compares to Gordon Buehrig's luxurious, Cord 812 Phaeton dream-mobile (1937). Lovingly restored, it's detailed with polished wood, a gleaming steering wheel as smooth as mother of pearl, a roomy red leather interior - none of this bucket-seat nonsense - creamy-beige white-wall tires, voluminous fenders and retracting headlights. Picture Cary Grant behind the wheel with a luscious Grace Kelly in the passenger seat, cruising around the French Riviera with the top down; now, will someone please hand over the keys?

Through Aug. 12. famsf.org.


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