There it is: a white wall, a few brown stairs in the frame of an opendoor, just a fraction of a red chair on lower right. Hello, what do we have here? Art. Art who? Art from Charles Sheeler.
There is a problem, a disconnect, at this new exhibit at the de Young Museum. You may find yourself staring at the dry, minimalist (at times virtually empty), angular works in "Charles Sheeler: Across Media," and listen at the same time with amazement to the outpouring of love and admiration for these strange objects from Timothy Burgard. Worse yet, if you don’t have the curator of American art at your side, heaping praise on this "great American artist," pointing out tiny details that are revealed only as the result of a lifetime of work and learning — well, then you’re on your own.
On your own, and in the company of 99.99 percent of the world, totally ignorant of this peculiar, powerful artist, active almost a century ago, one who never gave a thought to popularity, commercial gain or fame. But here is the thing about Sheeler: it is possible, even likely, to move from a place of unfamiliarity toward Burgard’s enthusiasm — if only you walk through the show ... no, that doesn’t do the trick. Walk and look and ponder, and then look again. You may well get hooked. But let’s be honest. This takes attention and work. Sheeler is definitely an acquired taste. As such, however, it’s a rewarding one.
Sheeler was born in 1863, his greatest works come from the first third of the 20th century, and he lived to become a centenarian-plus, until his death in 1965. Photography was his first medium, coincidentally with the emergence of photography as an art form.
Sheeler’s 1917 photographs of 18th-century Quaker homes in Doylestown, Pa.; his amazing film "Manhatta" (made in 1920, with Paul Strand, and presented in its seven-minute entirety in the show); his best-known images of the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant and others are exhibited alongside Sheeler’s unique paintings that "copy" the photographs, and bring themto vibrant life.
Sheeler chronicled the emergence of industrialized America, with photographs and paintings virtually devoid of humans, of New York, with its canyons of skyscrapers, dwarfing and obliterating ant colonies of people. Sheeler photographed and painted "portraits" of objects, in such works as "The Stove and Stairway with Chair," "The Open Door," and "The Upstairs." Photographs and paintings of the same subject are displayed side by side, and watching the subtle, minute transfiguration of objects becomes the way to his appreciation.
One cannot guarantee that you come away from the exhibit echoing Burgard’s observations about "enigmatic masterpieces ... magnificent works ... seminal photographs ... magnificent conté drawings ... intriguing achievements." On the other hand, you will assuredly become a member of the 0.01 percent illuminati knowing about Sheeler, and perhaps even treasuring him.
Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; closes May 6
Tickets: $10 general; $7 seniors; $6 ages 13-17; free for children 12 and under
Contact: (415) 863-3330 or www.thinker.org/deyoung