A friend of the precisionist painter Charles Sheeler, Morton Schamberg traveled with Sheeler in Europe, and they shared a studio in Philadelphia, before Schamberg's untimely death in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Both artists shared a fascination with modernist developments in art. Schamberg's paintings in particular were among the most advanced of his day, and he even exhibited five works in the famous Amory Show of 1913. In one respect, his modernism was more precocious than Sheeler's, for Schamberg began to incorporate machine age imagery in his art at a much earlier date. (W. C. Agee, Morton Livingston Schamberg, New York, 1982, p. 4)
According to Milton Brown, "Schamberg, more than any other American of that period, utilized mechanical objects as the basis of his art. Although Picabia is generally given credit for this innovation... it should be remembered that Schamberg was painting similar subjects... at the same time, and certainly before Léger. Schamberg, like the majority of Americans... was more simple and direct in his approach to the machine world. Unlike Giorgio de Chirico, or even Duchamp and Picabia, who contrived mechanical-looking objects, or the later Constructivists, who made new mechanical contrivances, Schamberg dealt with the commonly recognizable objects of our machine age. These objects were to him simply machine forms, neither clever constructions to mock the mechanical world nor fantastic inventions of minds steeped in mechanics yet lacking reason for mechanical creation. Like Léger in France, Schamberg saw in the machine a rich new source, not of theoretical disquisition, but of artistic inspiration. This was true in varying degrees of all the Cubist-Realists. The machine, which is both a part of our lives and symbol of modern civilization, to them was not an object for esthetic juggling but had an integrity of its own. They allowed the machine to dictate in a sense the form which its artistic realization should take." (American Painting from the Armory Show to the Depression, Princeton, New Jersey, 1955, p. 117-8)
Late in his career, Schamberg produced a remarkable series of pastels of abstracted machines. Among them is the present pastel, which William Agee describes as "one of Schamberg's truly masterful works, the fabric is depicted flowing over a spool propelled by a cam, cam shaft, and drive wheel. This and the other pastels with lines of force depicting the machine in motion, therefore should be considered in the context of Futurism in America." Consistent with the ruggedness of his subject, the pastel harmonies are sharply contrasting and bright. A highly original conception, Composition I transforms a common industrial object into an image of beauty, and a totem of industrial optimism for the products of a modern age. (W.C. Agee, The Machine Pastels, New York, 1986, n.p.).