Bringing the art of Charles Sheeler to life

A view of the exhibit “Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculptural Form” at the Michener Museum.

Maybe this story begins with a mother and a daughter and a passion for fashion. In their home in Chester County, the two explore fabrics and seams, stocking stitches and selvage, knitting and spinning. They search for patterns. They find them.

The daughter, Kirsten Jensen, will grow up to fill her closets (and the closets of others) with her own Ravelry knitting creations, get a Ph.D. in art history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and lay the foundation for a career that will take her to the Frick, the Hudson River Museum, and the John F. Folinsbee Catalogue Raisonné, before being named the Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest chief curator of the James A. Michener Art Museum, in Doylestown in 2014.

Kirsten M. Jensen surveys the Sheeler exhibition

The mother, Marilynn Cowgill, will commute to New York City to pursue, in her mid-50s, a degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology. There she will begin to comb through the Condé Nast archives as she explores the architectural nature of 1920s fashion design. In the process, she’ll stumble upon the fashion photography of the modernist artist Charles Sheeler — a find she’ll share with her daughter and plant the seeds for a major Sheeler retrospective.

Or maybe this story begins with Sheeler. In the early 20th century, he’ll be living in a house in Doylestown. He’ll find the house to be supremely photogenic — its planes, its shapes, its shadows — and apply himself to documenting what he sees. Something in this series of domestic photographs will intrigue Sheeler’s friend Edward Steichen, then the chief photographer for Condé Nast Publications. Soon, invited to New York City to work for Steichen, Sheeler will embark on something new and vital, even if some of it can sometimes feel, in Sheeler’s words, like a mere “day job.”

From 1926 through 1931, Sheeler will work primarily in Steichen’s studio at 80 W. 40th Street. He will document the stars and the starlets, the coy and the cool; that’s his job. But he’ll also absorb the beat of the city — and experiment with the forms that anticipate his later, industrial-minded work. The outtakes from these photo sessions will be tucked away for decades — a mostly unknown chapter of a famous artist’s life.

Or maybe all attempts at pinpointing the start of something as complex and ultimately personal as the new Michener Museum exhibition, Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculptural Form (running through July 9), are folly. Because just as there can be no museum show without the original made things — the photographs, the paintings, the textiles — there can be no show without a curatorial passion. Mounting an exhibition is research-heavy and resource-intensive — part fund-raising, part detective work, part negotiation, part stagecraft, part copy-writing, and many parts problem-solving. If you are not all in, you might as well not be in at all.

Reproduction of 1930s day dress, 2016-17, wool jersey, fabric knit by Claire Beevers after a 1933 design by Charles Sheeler. Dress sewn from a 1937 McCall’s pattern by Marilyn Cowgill of Sticka Vava Studio.

During the two years that Jensen has been at work assembling this show and editing the gorgeous accompanying catalog, she has been fantastically all-in. She has studied the more than 300 Sheeler photographs in the Condé Nast archives. She has peeled back the tissue paper in drawers upon drawers of period costumes owned by the Museum of the City of New York and Drexel University’s Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection.

She has bought mannequins at a discount price, assembled their arms and legs, and decorated their mannequin ears with her own vintage jewelry. She has engaged Claire Beevers in the re-creation of a Sheeler-inspired fabric knit, bought a vintage McCall’s pattern off the internet, and then asked her mother if she might sew a 1930s day dress for the show. She has borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney, and others, corrected the historical facts of at least one previously misattributed photograph, discovered existing patterns and posited her own, and been grateful for the support of funders like the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

Most of all, Jensen has brought her lifelong passion for textiles and motifs to her understanding of Sheeler, an artist who shares most-beloved status with Georgia O’Keeffe in the Jensen canon. In Sheeler’s previously unheralded fashion photos, Jensen saw, she told me recently, “a real connection to the work Sheeler had done in the past, as well as work he still would do.” Jensen points to the “geometric and columnar in his work, his interest in surface detail.” She speaks of how he treated his models as if they were themselves art objects, or still lifes.

Art, Jensen says, is never created in a vacuum. Artists are attuned to the world around them. Sheeler’s world, she says, was a Jazz Age world, a machine-age world, a world that made room for the great theatrical productions of Martha Graham. It was a world in which department stores like Lord & Taylor would mount art exhibitions to draw customers in.

A fluid artist comfortable among many media, Sheeler used photographs, paintings, and textiles to explore and explain that era, Jensen says. His work in one medium elevated and presaged his work in others.

In mounting this show, Jensen sought to create an experience — to lead visitors down imagined New York City streets, in which movie stars are trailing down steps or pausing in their sequin dresses, or going out on the town in their velvet and ermine. Jensen’s commitment to creating a lasting experience in a temporary exhibition is inspiring, uplifting, a standard to which any artist should aspire. She points out discovered relationships between fabrics and forms, paintings and textiles, and gives you everything you’d ever need to see what she has seen in Sheeler.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 21 books and the cofounder of Juncture Workshops, www.junctureworkshops.com

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