Equally gifted as a painter and a photographer, Charles Sheeler maintained a creative discourse between the two media throughout his career, often attempting to resolve issues in one by working through them in the other. The majority of the artist's later paintings were based on his architectural photomontages, which he would transfer to canvas through a multi-step process. A central component of the method, Stacks in Celebration is not only an important document of Sheeler's creative process and the bridge between his photographic and painted works, but also a compelling composition, which explores the relationship between color and form.
Process was essential to the creation of Sheeler's complex architectonic oils, such as Stacks in Celebration (fig. 1, 1954, location unknown). His method involved an initial pencil sketch from the photocomposite, which the artist would attach to the back of a small piece of glass, and later, as with Stacks in Celebration, Plexiglas, and proceed to fill it in with tempera in order to explore color relations in the composition. Glass and Plexiglas were particularly suited to this process as the tempera could be scraped off and reapplied multiple times. Once satisfied with the associations, he would transfer the outlines and colors to a larger canvas. Although he began using these glass and Plexiglas small color studies in the early 1950s, "[u]ntil about 1952, when he was persuaded of their visual appeal, Sheeler discarded the glass paintings." (C. Troyen and E.E. Hirshler, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, Boston, Massachusetts, 1987, p. 214) Today there are few in existence, other known examples include New England Irrelevancies (1953, tempera, Phillips Academy, Andover Massachusetts; oil, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts), Convolutions (1952, tempera, The Lane Collection; oil, Mathew Wolf) and Red Against White (1957, tempera on Plexiglas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts; tempera on paper, DeCordova and Dana Museum and Park, Lincoln, Massachusetts).
Having first achieved success as a photographer, it was natural that throughout his career Sheeler chose functional subjects and depicted them with sharply defined forms, capturing and abstracting existent patterns in his paintings as only a photographer could. "Sheeler's paintings, with their photographic underpinnings to reflect 'nature seen from the eyes outward' comprise nothing less than a fifty-year exploration of his understanding of reality. At the same time, they are a nostalgic attempt to bring the past forward into the present. That such an intellectually ambitious program could be visually satisfying in so many different media is a tribute to the romantic soul behind the disciplined hand that crafted them." (Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, p. 43) Sheeler's ability to find beauty in the functional and create reductive images free from superlative detail, such as Stacks in Celebration, pioneered a new American aesthetic.
Stacks in Celebration is a classic example of Sheeler's unique fusion of art, industry and the Modern American landscape. A formal exploration in which the artist has reduced the industrial landscape into a heroic vision of structure and rhythmic geometry, realism in the composition is so heightened as to border on abstraction. Sheeler omits extraneous detail to focus on the formal and geometric qualities of the image: the rhythmic repetition of cylindrical and linear forms; the rectangular and triangular echoes of windows and pitched roofs. He extracts the volume inherent in the architecture of the industrial elements into delineated crisp planes enhancing the static quality of the smoke stacks and buildings and approaches the atmosphere with the same Precisionism, abstracting the light into sharply outlined rays. He layers blocks of color to compress the space and focus on the interrelation of forms and pattern inherent to the structure, using a limited, nuanced palette to indicate spatial relationships. In contrast to earlier works in which the parallel and perpendicular relationship between the shapes and lines lead the eye to the spatial recession, the forms in Stacks and Celebration are over-layered in an elegant cacophony of disparate perspectives and elements, preventing the viewer from entering into the work.
While Sheeler's large scale oils and temperas are executed with complete detachment and all evidence of the artist's hand is eliminated by clean, even brushwork, in Stacks in Celebration there is an immediacy and sense of the artist inherent to these small temperas that are not present in Sheeler's austere oils. "Now these studies are perceived as the freshest and most spontaneous of his late work...In their crispness and delicacy, the temperas emerge as miniature masterpieces of graphic design." (Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, p. 214)