Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)
Property from the Collection of Dr. Herbert Kayden and Dr. Gabrielle Reem
Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)

Ore Into Iron

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)
Ore Into Iron
signed and dated 'Sheeler/1953' (lower left)--signed and dated again and inscribed with title (on the backing board)
tempera and pencil on paper laid down on board
9 x 6 7/8 in. (22.9 x 17.5 cm.), image
Painted in 1953.
The Downtown Gallery, New York.
Acquired by the late owners from the above, 1953.

Lot Essay

Ore Into Iron is a classic example of Charles Sheeler's striking, late architectonic works, which translates the modern American industrial landscape into a collaged arrangement of overlapping, geometric planes of color. Sheeler first found inspiration in modern factories and machinery in the late 1920s when he was commissioned by the Ford Motor Company to photograph their automobile plants in River Rouge, Michigan.  Sheeler spent six weeks documenting the company's plants in River Rouge, and the resulting body of work was used as part of the promotional campaign for the release of the Model A Ford. His fascination compelled him to create innovative Precisionist paintings of industrial architecture throughout his career. These compositions are his most prized work.

The present tempera, related to the oil painting Ore Into Iron in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is not only one of Sheeler’s best late compositions but also a meaningful insight into this innovative artist’s multimedia creative process. Ore Into Iron is the product of Sheeler’s 1952 visit to the U.S. Steel plant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Equally gifted as a painter and a photographer, 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. Accordingly, as with most of his late paintings, Ore Into Iron was developed from a photomontage of images Sheeler first captured with a camera. Sheeler scholars Carol Troyen and Erica Hirshler explain, “He took several photographs of the plant, selecting a low vantage point that made the furnaces appear to soar into the air in the same manner as the New York skyscrapers he had been studying. He later experimented with his photographic negatives in the darkroom, reversing and superimposing them and making composite prints…Ore Into Iron was modeled after a relatively simple composite print (Blast Furnaces, U.S. Steel, Pittsburgh, 1952, The Lane Collection) in which the same scene appears twice, once frontward and once in reverse.” (Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, Boston, Massachusetts, 1987, p. 204)

Sheeler would next transfer an idea from the photocomposite to a pencil sketch, which he then attached to the back of a small piece of glass or Plexiglas. He then painted the front of the plexi sheet with tempera to develop the color relationships in the composition. As the tempera sat on top of the glass, it could be scraped off and reapplied. This method allowed Sheeler to experiment until he had achieved what he considered a resolved composition. Once satisfied, Sheeler would transfer the outlines and colors to a final canvas. He would also detach the original drawing from the glass and paint it with tempera as a record of the large picture, creating reduced versions of the final composition, such as the present work.

In Ore Into Iron, Sheeler maintained the realism of the original photograph, but flattened and simplified the image to emphasize the rhythmic repetition of cylindrical and linear forms. With a limited palette of royal blues and aubergine purples deepening in tone where shapes overlap, he created an elegant fugue of disparate perspectives and elements, drawing the viewer’s eye in while not allowing it to fully resolve the composition into a single, comprehensible whole. When the oil version of Ore Into Iron was first exhibited in New York in 1956, it was described as “so complex in its mingling of factual suggestion and abstract distortion that it’s practically dazzling.” (as quoted in Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, p. 204) Troyen and Hirshler write of the composition, “The total effect is almost cinematic, for one image appears to be fading into another, dissolving and reforming on the surface of the canvas, just as ore is smelted into iron in the blast furnaces portrayed here. Sheeler’s title, explaining the physical process he is showing, is unusual in its descriptiveness. But he addresses more than this industrial transformation; he explores an aesthetic metamorphosis as well. Here factory forms are translated into artistic ones, photography becomes painting, and reality turns into abstraction.” (Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, p. 204)

Sheeler’s tempera studies, like the present work, have been praised 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) In an unpublished letter to the owners Dr. Kayden and Dr. Reem specifically regarding this work, Carol Troyen enthused, "Ore Into Iron looks just as good as the large oil (if not a bit better—which I've often found to be the case with the smaller, tighter tempera versions), and I've long considered Ore Into Iron one of Sheeler's best late works."

More from American Art

View All
View All