Precision by the Numbers

By Jonathan Spies
August 11, 2019
Precision by the Numbers

It begins, like so many things, with Alfred Stieglitz. Well, you can trace them back further, but various strands of social and political thinking, art-making, and historical conditions began to crystalize around New York’s locus of modernism, the Little Galleries of the Photo Secession. Better known as 291: a numerical gallery for a numerical age. Numbers are important here: those strands of social and political thinking include the strands of the Progressive Era interest in a new urbanism that looked first, second, and last, at numbers. Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856 – 1915) embodied and defined this: a mechanical engineer who stood with a stopwatch on the factory floor at Bethlehem Steel Company, watching workers work—and counting. Work was streamlined into a science of human movement: Taylor broke down each gesture, like Edweard Muybridge series of photographs, and developed what Louis Brandeis coined “scientific management” – but we remember it today as the birth of the Efficiency Movement. Industry was exploding in America, as Europe girded for the first World War – but if the landscape was industrializing, what was even more obvious was that the people were, too. Taylor looked at the shop floor and saw neither machines nor men, but, for the first time, numbers.


And this is what changed, starting around 1910, when Brandeis coined “scientific management”: the key wasn’t industry, but abstraction. Not space-age spirituality, but abstracting from a soot-stained reality to the clean reality of numbers. While “modern art” would debut in full force at the 1913 Armory Show, the change that stole the imagination of the nation had already begun, and it had nothing to do with Cezanne and post-impressionism. This is what spelled the end of the almost vanishingly brief Ash Can movement: the social realists saw a gritty inner city as relevant and real, but Taylor saw a higher ideal: a mechanical sublime. And keep in mind that America was still predominantly a rural nation: the Ashcan School may have tapped a vein in the inner cities, but that wasn’t the American Scene for most of America.


And here another thread comes into play, in the form of the career path of the American artist: the gentlemanly painters of the Hudson River School were often well-born and European-born (like Cole, Moran, and Bierstadt) and set in a Jeffersonian mold: architect, archaeologist, artist, scientist. The Ashcan School were decidedly middle-class professionals, often starting their careers in journalism, in the high narrative mode of Progressive muckrakers like Upton Sinclair and Jacob Riis. Starting around 1910, a new artist-professional class was arising. They started out never as gentleman-farmers nor journalists: they began as designers and architects.


This was the scene, when, in 1911, the architect Oscar Bluemner settled a long-running lawsuit over his design for the Bronx’s Borough Courthouse. Bluemner had been contracted to design the courthouse, which opened in 1914, by a Tammany Hall goon who stiffed the Prussian immigrant for his work a decade earlier. With the small settlement, Bluemner decided to leave the crooked world of architecture for his passion: modernist painting. He wasn’t the first architect-painter in New York City: the Staten-Island born Jasper Cropsey notably designed the elevated train stations that graced 6th Avenue from 1881-1938. Cropsey and Bluemner worked in similar architectural worlds if not styles, designing civic infrastructure as well as rustic country homes. But see the difference that a generation makes in painting: Cropsey’s monomaniacal focus on canvas was the country landscape, depicting more cows than humans by a factor of 100:1. Bluemner, too, placed only a few figures in his works, over three decades of painting. But his pictures had a different subject: the buildings themselves.



In the 19th century, American art focused on what America had that Europe didn’t: a sumptuous, Arcadian landscape. But in the early years of the twentieth century, those who were paying attention saw something new on the horizon – something new that Europe didn’t have: a skyline. “I suddenly saw the Flat-Iron Building as I had never seen it before,” Alfred Stieglitz recalled. “It looked, from where I stood, as if it were moving toward me like the bow of a monster ocean steamer, a picture of the new America which was in the making.”


A critical issue that could only plague an artist like Stieglitz: Cropsey loved architecture, but he never painted it. Like the rest of his age, he thought beauty was a property of nature only. Architecture is itself  an art, so why make a picture of a building? Western art is pockmarked with depictions of buildings, but the notion of a building as the subject of a painting, as an artistic expression, is a brand new one. And it must have occurred more readily to Stieglitz, because he was a brand new kind of artist: he was a photographer. From behind the lens, anything that light falls upon is fair game, or so Stieglitz was determining. All the better, in those days of long exposure times, if the subject stands still.



Bluemner wandered the waterways of New Jersey and factories of New York, filling sharp-edged cityscapes with luminous colors. Haunted cityscapes, you might say, but there was a nocturnal romance to his vision. Nocturnal romance could be the heading of a period of the career of Joseph Stella. Stella emigrated in 1896 on the notion he’d follow his older brother into the medical profession, but by 1908 had given up the scalpel for the charcoal, illustrating a survey of the very Bethlehem foundries that Taylor was revamping. The Pittsburgh Survey was classic Progressive Era stuff, complete with photographs by Lewis Hine. The meat of it, tho, was numbers: graphs, charts, maps, and demographic figures. Stella himself saw industrial Pennsylvania as “a Dantesque inferno,” and rendered his views of the hellscape, appropriately, in charcoal. Again, the difference between Stella and the Ashcan artists is instructive: while Everett Shinn produced smoldering charcoals of the railroad [Fig.: 6th Ave. El], Shinn’s was a sinuous form, in line with Honore Daumier (and who could be surprised when he turned, later to a rococo manner a la Fragonard?). Stella was another beast entirely: he allowed the workers to fall entirely out of scale; he used a straight-edge. A series of portraits were included in the survey work, but this was effectively the end of his illustration period. You can see in his Promethean Pittsburgh work that he had already stolen the fire that would light his masterwork, The Brooklyn Bridge.

But we’ll get back to that. Stella wasn’t enough of a team player to genuinely belong to the Stieglitz Circle, but he showed with Stieglitz and knew well the work of Oscar Bluemner, and of Stieglitz’s star John Marin. Marin began his career with etchings mainly of architecture in Europe [Fig. Notre Dame + Brooklyn Bridge] and upon return to New York, began to develop his own quasi-cubist idiom by applying a loosening linear technique to the rising New York Skyline. Marin was fixated on the rising city as few other artists, and he developed his own manner of expressing its rise – linear rather than planar, availing himself of a frenetic energy only rivaled by the Italian Futurists. As Marin was moving from frenetic printmaking to frenetic watercolor, Stella was ending his own short-lived romance with Futurism. And then:

I used as time “the night” which invests every element with poetry. I selected as moods of my symphony the PORT, SKY SCRAPERS, THE BRIDGE and THE WHITE WAY. I placed in the center of my composition the SKY SCRAPERS in the form of a prow of a vessel sailing to the infinite, electricity opening at the base as guide with a pair of wings . . . As a predella to this gigantic steely cathedral I opened the nets of subways and tubes [from a 1944 letter from Joseph Stella, as quoted in American Art in the Newark Museum: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture (1981), p. 42].


Stella’s words echo Stieglitz’s 1903 observations of the Flatiron, but add a Gothic Romance. Stella rendered the “gigantic steely . . . tubes” with sharp-edges and a shiny surface. A treatment not unlike that which Fernand Leger would develop in the 1920s – but applied to a dreamlike urban space of feverish intensity.

The five-panels of Stella’s Voice of the City of New York Interpreted pictures this gothic Cathedral, presenting it in the format of a medieval devotional polyptych. When Georgia O’Keeffe attempted similar subjects between 1925 and 1929, she achieved a similar dreamlike effect. Her narrow vertical canvases echoed Stella’s format, and O’Keeffe’s skyscrapers prefigure her later series of crosses in New Mexico.

George Ault was absorbed by the city in just the same moment as O’Keeffe and Stella, but his dream-scapes were decidedly cooler, calling the city “the Inferno without the fire.” A cooler palette didn’t mean a less haunted space, and Ault’s hard-edged urbanism developed into his own personal surrealism by the end of his career. This surrealist quality was expanded upon by Franciss Criss in the 1930s, and in the pre-war city scapes of Theodore Roszak – but the thread of fever-dream anxiety gave way to a different kind of industrial vision in the years leading up to the World War II.



In the mid-1910s, Alfred Stieglitz began publishing a large format magazine to focus on the modernists that he found himself in the midst of. His first publishing venture was named after his chosen medium and the circle around him at the turn of the century – Camera Work – but by 1915, his gallery had become ground zero for modern art in all media. The first issue of the magazine named for the gallery – a numerical magazine for a numerical gallery: 291 – was covered with a portrait of Alfred Stieglitz by Francis Picabia. Picabia presented the impresario as a camera – vaguely anthropomorphic but entirely mechanical. Picabia’s portrais (he also did Paul Haviland and Marius de Zayas as spark plugs) was joined the next year by Morton Schomberg’s ultimate statement on the theme: a big of plumbing attached to a miter box, which he called God. The new deity was shiny, metal, impersonal, and industrially-designed.


Add to this another quality: commercially available. What god couldn’t create in a week, America churned out on assembly lines. Gerald Murphy celebrated these with his short career: the safety match. And, with perhaps a nod back to Taylor, a vision of the pocketwatch. A portrait of man as a camera, a sparkplug—or the very timekeeping device by which he is measured. Murphy gave up painting after a few years to run – what else? – a very efficient leather good manufacturer. Murphy engineered one of the earliest examples of product placement in a film when his friend Alfred Hitchcock agreed to place one of his firm’s handbags in the arms of Grace Kelly in Rear Window.


That sounds like a digression, but it’s really the theme: this is the birth of the brand logo. Charles Demuth opened the world of branding to fine art with Figure 5 in Gold, and years later Stuart Davis brought the sharp-edge treatment of brands as a subject in themselves. Davis considered the explosive power of capitalism with a wary Marxist critique, and depicted carefully the modern temple of consumerism: the supermarket. Charles Demuth alluded to the other end of the Biblical subject by naming his precisionist masterpiece My Egypt – a land of bondage and captivity, embodied by a shiny Lancaster factory.


Another element of Stuart Davis’s political convictions was a commitment to a certain international solidarity. In this regard, Precisionism joined an international movement of celebration of industry in a perfectly secular manner. The hard-edged style would find expression in abstraction as well, but the figurative subjects of industry, both urban and rural, can be found across America and beyond.


Ralston Crawford’s work began in just that manner: a secular celebration of rural industry. Demuth and Sheeler both made dramatic renderings of barns and grain elevators, and Crawford, younger but still early enough to join the party in the pre-WWII years, created some of the most lasting images in the Precisionist movement. Shiny steel; unpeople landscapes; sharp edges and blue skys. For the first time, the WPA overpasses and bridges that were snaking across America were their own subject matter, the source of civic pride in addition to good construction jobs as America dug out from the depression. How distant this artform is from a generation earlier! Ralston Crawford’s cheery evocation of freshly-poured concrete in Maitland Bridge compared to Everett Shinn’s pictures of breadlines. But Crawford’s sunny disposition didn’t survive the war. In addition to observing the bombed-out European cities, he was the sole artist to witness the testing of atomic weapons in the South Pacific after the war. This fractured not only the clean lines and flat planes of color with which he had worked for a decade, but also shook him from the shiny, new, and fabricated. Now he turned his canvas, and increasingly, his camera, to scenes of destruction and decay: scrap-yards, bomb-sites, and cemeteries.


Which perhaps properly concludes the arc of this uniquely American artform: the rise and fall of an industrial American scene, that celebrated the art of architects and designers with paintings that filled straight-edged geometric shapes with planes of pure, optimistic color. By the early 1960s, Stuart Davis – a painter who had shown at the 1913 Armory Show and was in the room when the term “Ashcan” was coined – looked out at a country turned upside down. One of his final paintings, Anyside, holds on to some of the pictorial devices of Precisionism, but the subject matter is more difficult to make out. It is a simplification of a painting by Glenn O. Coleman, from 1926, Downtown Street. Downtown Street takes as its subject the very elevated train station designed by Jasper Cropsey in the 1870s – but surrounded now by sagging tenement buildings. Davis for his part, took the scene and distilled it into clean planes of Christmas-y red and greens. But the scene is entirely obscured in Davis’s sketches: the people are reduced to strange squiggles, the subway station become a simple black-and-white grid – and the entire composition has been turned upside down. Looking back across the heart of a century of industrialization, modernization, and disintegration, Davis’s final remarks were ambivalent about progress.