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The Mechanical Muse

Charles Sheeler, Ballet Mechanique, 1931

Charles Sheeler, Ballet Mechanique, 1931, Conte crayon on paper, Gift of Peter Iselin and his sister, Emilie Iselin Wiggin, 74.96

For the past five years or so, I have wanted to plan a show about ‘the machine.’  Certain pieces in our collection, like Charles Sheeler’s Ballet Mechanique, (figure 1) Louis Lozowick’s Aeroplane, Image Thrown on a Screen, (figure 2) and John Wenrich’s Asphalt Plant, Painted Post, N.Y., (figure 3) have always appealed to me.  These potent, machine-age idealizations long formed the kernel of my concept for this show.  But beyond those sleek, clean, perfect machines and industrial complexes, was there another story that wanted to be told?

When I began to organize the exhibit in earnest, I gleefully combed through our collection for work to complement this core group.  I was surprised and excited to find artists’ responses to the machine that were so much more varied and nuanced than I had anticipated they would be.  Upon closer inspection, even the Sheeler, Lozowick and Wenrich I had always perceived as unadulterated celebrations of the machine unfolded in complex, layered narratives of the awe and anxiety evoked by industrialization in the early 20th century.

Louis Lozowick, Aeroplane, Image Thrown on a Screen, ca. 1926-1927

Figure 2 Louis Lozowick, Aeroplane, Image Thrown on a Screen, ca. 1926-1927, Graphite and black ink with white paint, Anonymous gift, 2004.1

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright gave an address to the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society on March 4, 1901.  To this group united by a belief in the importance of handmade beauty and an inherent distrust of growing industrialization, Wright said, “We must look to the artist brain, of all brains, to grasp the significance to society of this thing we call the Machine.” Inspired by Wright’s words, I brought together the work I selected for the show, and I watched, fascinated, as a portrait of the mechanical muse of the 20th century, both creator and destroyer, grew from this uncanny intersection where art meets machine.

To see more, visit Modern Icon: The Machine as Subject in American Art on view in the Lockhart Gallery of the Memorial Art Gallery until May 6, 2012.  The exhibit, drawn primarily from MAG’s permanent collection, consists of 24 works of art from 1913-2004.

Jessica Marten, Assistant Curator

John C. Wenrich, Asphalt Plant, Painted Post, N.Y.

Figure 3 John C. Wenrich, Asphalt Plant, Painted Post, N.Y., Watercolor, Marion Stratton Gould Fund, 68.43



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