Museum  March 27, 2018  Chandra Noyes

Machine Age Art in the Spotlight at the de Young's Precisionism Survey

Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Photograph by Richard Stoner, © Estate of Clarence Carter

Clarence Holbrook Carter, "War Bride," 1940. Oil on canvas, 36 x 54 in. (91.4 x 137.2 cm). Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Richard M. Scaife American Painting Fund and Paintings Acquisition Fund, 82.6.

Opening this month at the de Young in San Francisco is “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art.” This comprehensive survey of America’s first homegrown art movement showcases art of the machine age. Known for its clean lines and smooth surfaces, these works celebrated the industrial age and presented a distinctly American point of view. Including decorative arts in addition to painting and photography, "Cult of the Machine" gives an in-depth and scholarly view of this movement that has not seen a major exhibition in 20 years.

Ralph Steiner, "Power Switches," ca. 1930
Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, © Ralph Steiner, compliments of Estate

Ralph Steiner, "Power Switches," ca. 1930. Gelatin silver print, 7 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. (19.1 x 21.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987, 1987.1100.277.

Charles Sheeler, "Golden Gate," 1955
Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Charles Sheeler, "Golden Gate," 1955. Oil on canvas, 25 1/8 x 34 in. (63.8 x 86.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, George A. Hearn Fund, 1955, 55.99

Auburn Automobile Company, Cord 812 Phaeton, 1937
Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Photography by Randy Dodson

Auburn Automobile Company, Cord 812 Phaeton, 1937. Iron, steel, copper, brass, chrome, rubber, glass, leather, vinyl, wool, plastics and paint, 58 in. x 70 in. x 16 ft. (147.3 x 177.8 505.5 cm). Academy of Art University Automobile Museum, San Francisco.

Paul Strand, "Wall Street, New York," 1915
Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Photograph by Randy Dodson © Aperture Foundation, Inc, Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand, "Wall Street, New York," 1915. Platinum/palladium print, 9 5/8 x 12 5/8 in. (24.4 x 32.1 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Michael E. Hoffman, New York, in honor of Mr. Joseph Folberg for his generous support and commitment to photographers and photography, 1992.96.2.

Georgia O'Keeffe, "Lake George Barns," 1926
Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, © 2017 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georgia O'Keeffe, "Lake George Barns," 1926. Oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 32 in. (53.9 x 81.4 cm). Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Gift of the T. B. Walker Foundation, 1954, 1954.9.

Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, © The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, From Estate of Elsie Driggs

Elsie Driggs, "Aeroplane," 1928. Oil on canvas, 44 x 38 in. (111.8 x 96.5 cm) The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by the Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment Fund, 2006.297.

At its height in the 1920s and 30s, Precisionism borrowed from Cubism and Futurism to create its own Modernist vision. Sometimes called “Immaculates” for their detailed style of painting, these artists excelled at depicting the gleaming metals of industrialization. Though their reverence for modern marvels and urbanity is a common subject matter, this aesthetic was also applied to still lifes, pastoral scenes, and abstractions. Prominent Precisionists include Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, and at times Georgia O’Keeffe. Working in a palate of steely greys, they captured a specific moment in American history, when spires of skyscrapers and glistening metal machinery was awe-inspiring and a source of national pride.

“Cult of the Machine” is on view at the de Young through August 12. The exhibition will then travel to the Dallas Museum of Art, where it will be on view from September 9, 2018, through January 6, 2019. For more information visit

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is the former Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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