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Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculptural Form at the James A. Michener Art Museum

Worth, Evening Coat, 1924, cherry red voided velvet and ermine. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Mrs. Paul Pennoyer, 1982. 82.34.

I can remember the first fashion exhibition I saw, probably around 1995.  At that time very few museums were staging exhibitions dedicated purely to fashion, and one pretty much had to go to New York or London to see historical dress shows. But by the mid 1990s, museums that had collections of clothing started realizing that fashion attracted viewers, and so now we are living in a time when many museums treat us to all sorts of fashion-based exhibitions.

That first exhibition I saw was on shoes. It was, simply put, a room lined with shelves on which all sorts of old shoes were displayed, along with short descriptions and dates. I can’t help but think of how far museums have traveled in the twenty-five or so years since I was first thrilled to see a room dedicated to shoes.

Today, while some major institutions are still hung up on proving fashion is art, others are putting on exhibitions that show the larger relationship between fashion and art. Several years ago the Andy Warhol Museum put together a fantastic show highlighting the relationship between the artist and designer Halston. Currently at the Brooklyn Museum, one can explore the style of artist Georgia O’Keefe. And at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA, visitors are currently being treated to the role of fashion in the career of American Modernist painter and photographer, Charles Sheeler.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Criss-Crossed Conveyers, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company, 1927. Black and white print. 9 ¼ x 7 3/8 in. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Until I got an interesting email from friend and fellow blogger Mod Betty, I had no idea there was a connection between Sheeler and fashion. I knew him as a painter and photographer of the industrial. But Mod Betty had been to the preview for Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculptural Form and she knew I’d be interested in it.

As Sheeler was working to establish himself as a painter and photographer, he took a job as photographer at Condé  Nast, the publisher of Vogue and Vanity Fair.  Between 1926 and 1931 he photographed society women and actresses wearing the latest fashions.  The question is, how did this work, which he disliked, influence his other art? Can one see a connection between the fashion Sheeler photographed and his later work?

I found several Sheeler photos in the July 1, 1926 issue of Vogue. These early fashion works by Sheeler seem to be similar to other fashion photography of the day.  But as time went on, Sheeler developed a style that was more in keeping with his other work.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Bobbe Arnst, Vanity Fair, July 1, 1928. © Condé Nast.

This 1928 photo of Bobbe Arnst has an almost sculptural feel.  Sheeler was as interested in the geometry present in this picture of a woman and her dress as he was in his photograph of a Ford industrial complex seen above. It was a feature of his work that continued through the years.

Worth, Evening Dress, 1924-27, ivory satin, silver metallic machine-made lace, mine-cut brilliants. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Mr. Robert Winthrop, 1986. 86.60.38.

There is also the intriguing idea that the designs of 1920s fashions with their geometric motifs also influenced Sheeler’s work. To show this, clothing was borrowed from other museums and was placed in context with Sheeler’s photographs and enlargements of details in his work. In the exhibition, the Worth dress above is placed before a backdrop of an enlarged section of a Sheeler painting.  To see how effective this is, Mod Betty has posted some of her photos of the exhibition on Flickr.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Helen Menken, Vanity Fair, October 1, 1931. © Condé Nast.

The exhibition also shows some dresses with photographs that show similar styles.  Sheeler took the above photo in 1931.  The designer of the dress is unknown.

Gilbert Adrian for MGM Studios, Evening gown, 1931, silk, velvet, and metal. Gift of Mrs. Thomas E. Burns Jr., The Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection at Drexel University. Image courtesy of the Drexel Digital Museum Project. Photograph by Dave Gehosky.

But a similar dress is on view, this one designed by Adrian in 1931, worn by Greta Garbo in Inspiration.

Another interesting aspect of Sheeler’s career was that, for a short time in the early 1930s, he designed knit fabrics for William Heller, a New York textile company.  The museum did not include a photo of the textile designs in their press kit, but you can see examples on Mod Betty’s flickr page. They are geometrical in nature, and one can see echoes of the designs in paintings made years later.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Barn Abstraction, 1946, tempera on paperboard, 21 ½ x 28 3/8 inches. Collection of Joseph P. Carroll and Dr. Roberta Carroll, Courtesy Forum Gallery, New York.

Unfortunately I’m not going to be in the Doylesville area this summer, but I do hope some of you will be and can take in what looks to be a fantastic show. And thanks to Mod Betty, I have two exhibition passes to give away to someone who will use them.  So if you are in the Doylesville or Philadelphia area, or will be traveling there before July 9 when the exhibition closes, please email me at thevintagetraveler@gmail.com before April 6, 2017.  If more than one person can use the passes, I’ll put the names in a hat and do a drawing.

Thanks so much to Mod Betty for sharing the exhibition, and for the passes.  And thanks to curator Kirsten Jensen at the James A. Michener Art Museum for bringing this important aspect of Sheeler’s career to light.

 

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