Stacks in Procession is a classic example of Charles Sheeler's unique fusion of art, industry and the Modern American landscape. In this exploration of form, the artist has abstracted the industrial landscape into a heroic vision of structure and rhythmic geometry. The work embodies both organic and man-made forms, suggesting the confluence with, and distinction between, the machine and the natural world presaging the role of industry in America.
In works such as Stacks in Procession, Sheeler depicts industrial subjects as the temples of urban modernity, eliminating the unattractive side of industry and reducing it to a pristine, Utopian ideal. The shape and rhythmic intervals of the magisterial smoke stacks evoke the columns of a Greek temple imbuing them with a prescient permanence which speaks to America's future. Indeed, nature is relegated to the periphery of the composition, subsumed by the industrial elements. Against the irregularity of the natural landscape, the smoke stacks and industrial structure appear regimented and efficient. This is underscored by the mottled blues and greens of the landscape and the meticulously delineated, utilitarian whites and grays of the industrial structure. Stacks in Procession depicts an inverse relationship to that found in Hudson River School paintings of the second half of the nineteenth century. Nature is no longer colossal to diminutive Man, now Man's creation has dwarfed Nature. This representational shift speaks to the changing American landscape, the inevitability of which is underscored by the title of the work.
In Stacks in Procession, Sheeler expresses his reverence of industry and technology as deities of modernity. This view of technology was in conflict with that held by many of his contemporaries, "His interpretations did not find fault with technology at a time when many artists and writers were beginning to brood about industry's harsh transformation of the environment and its regimenting and dulling effects on people's lives." (M.L. Friedman, Charles Sheeler, New York, 1975, p. 65) In the present work, the smoke stacks dominate the composition, their monumentality and regimented procession into the receding space of the composition evokes the suggestion that they are the pillars of progress.
Stacks in Procession is not only a commentary on the role of industry in America, but also a formal exploration in which realism is so heightened as to border on abstraction. Sheeler extracts the volume inherent in the architecture of the industrial elements into delineated crisp planes enhancing the static quality of the massive smoke stacks and factory roof. He flattens the forms, using a limited, nuanced palette to indicate spatial relationships, and omits extraneous detail to focus on the formal and geometric qualities of the image: the rhythmic repetition of cylindrical and linear forms; the rectangular echo of windows and roof hatches; the parallel and perpendicular relationship between the lines, which lead the eye to the spatial recession.
As with many of his best works, Sheeler depicts the industrial subject of Stacks in Procession with complete detachment. Human presence is absent, and only subtly suggested as the creator of the monumentalized industrial forms. All evidence of the artist's hand is eliminated by clean, even brushwork, heightened by the thin and seamless character of the tempera medium. "Underlying this seemingly dispassionate attitude was an idealism about America's history and destiny. Indeed, many critics have regarded him as an artist whose work epitomizes a clear-eyed native, visual tradition; he has been considered a pragmatic Yankee whose no-nonsense, efficient approach to picturemaking reflects America's historic virtues. He seemed to fit the stereotype. 'Sheeler is truly an American with American ancestors behind him,'" wrote Forbes Watson." (M. Friedman, Charles Sheeler, Paintings, Drawings , Photographs, New York, 1975, p. 209)
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." (C. Troyan, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, Boston, Massachusetts, 1987, p. 43) Sheeler's ability to find beauty in the functional and create reductive images free from superlative detail, such as Stacks in Procession, spoke both to the nation's Puritan history and its industrial future, pioneering a new American aesthetic.