The “Cult of the Machine” at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum spotlighted American artists’ fascination with the industrial boom roughly between the World Wars, when machines equaled progress and the future and, therefore, became a new vocabulary for the decorative and visual arts. I was hooked immediately by Morton Livingston Schamberg’s nonsense machines, precisely drawn and vividly colored, almost living objects that recalled some of Marcel Duchamp’s fantasies. Theodore Roszak did the same in sculpture, and the early section was capped by two works from the wondrous Gerald Murphy, reason enough in themselves to see the show.
Next came industrial landscapes, and I was struck by the realization that every museum of American art must have a Charles Sheeler to be complete. He is the Precisionist par excellence, and, more than anyone, stands for this era, with works that bridge Surrealism and Photorealism. The absence of human presence makes the chimney, the silo, the empty room come alive; his composition is clean, his line is pure, his colors bold and his light, in the best works, is brilliant. The interplay with his own photography is a bonus. Ralston Crawford is a poor-man’s Sheeler, but his Overseas Highway, from a private collection, was a standout; and Edmund Lewandowski, the third of this trio, also showed well.
It was fun, as always, to see two friends from Mia – Georgia O’Keeffe’s City Lights and Paul Frankl’s Skyscraper bookcase – plus a few works from the Myron Kunin Collection. The show petered out in its later galleries – does Reginald Marsh really fit here? – and it seemed to undercut its own point when it finished with a room of barns, painted by the same artists. Where did the machines go?