Precisionism was the first indigenous modern art movement in the United States and an early American contribution to the rise of Modernism. The Precisionist style, which first emerged after World War I and was at the height of its popularity during the 1920s and early 1930s, celebrated the new American landscape of skyscrapers, bridges, and factories in a form that has also been called "Cubist-Realism." The term "Precisionism" was first coined in the mid-1920s, possibly by Museum of Modern Art director Alfred H. Barr. Painters working in this style were also known as the "Immaculates," which was the more commonly used term at the time. The stiffness of both art-historical labels suggests the difficulties contemporary critics had in attempting to characterize these artists.
An American movement
Influenced by Cubism and Futurism, Precisionism took for its main themes industrialisation and the modernization of the American landscape, the structures of which were depicted in precise, sharply defined geometrical forms. Precisionist artists considered themselves strictly American and some were reluctant to acknowledge their European artistic influences. Yet it was readily apparent at the time that the fracturing of planes in many Precisionist paintings originates in the Cubism of Picasso and Léger; similarly, Precisionist renderings of shafts of light as rigidly drawn "lines of force" is a clear borrowing from Futurism. In the end, Precisionism was less about pure originality of expression and more about an energetic American use and amalgamation of certain European modernist techniques. Part of precisionism's originality is found in its subject matter and outlook.
There is a degree of reverence for the industrial age in the movement, but social commentary was not fundamental to the style. Like Pop Art, Precisionism has on occasion been interpreted as a criticism of the de-natured society it portrays, though its artists did not often feel comfortable with this reading of their work. Elsie Driggs' Pittsburgh (1926) illustrates this gap in perception. A painting of black and gray steel-mill smokestacks, thick piping, and crisscrossing wires, with only clouds of smoke to relieve the severity of the image, viewers have been tempted to see this dark painting as a statement of environmental concern. To the contrary, Driggs always claimed that she intended an ironic beauty in the image and referred to it as "my El Greco." Upon seeing the painting, Charles Daniel dubbed her "one of the new classicists." More often than not, Precisionism implicitly celebrated man-made dynamism and new technologies. Possible exceptions to this statement are some of the darker, more claustrophobic city paintings of Louis Lozowick and the comic anti-capitalist satires of Preston Dickinson.
As might be expected, varying degrees of abstraction are found in Precisionist works. The Figure 5 in Gold (1928) by Charles Demuth, a clamorous hommage to William Carlos Williams' imagist poem about a fire truck is abstract and stylized, while the paintings of Charles Sheeler sometimes verge on a form of photorealism. (In addition to his meticulously detailed paintings like River Rouge Plant and American Landscape, Sheeler, like his friend Paul Strand, also created sharp-focus photographs of factories and public buildings.) The majority of Precisionist paintings and drawings, however, present no obstacles in identifying their imagery. Some Precisionist work tended toward a "highly controlled approach to technique and form" as well as an application of "hard-edged style to long-familiar American scenes". Precisionist artists aimed to convey the geometric and psychological essence of a scene or a structure but intended that essence to be almost immediately accessible.
Most Precisionist imagery is urban: office towers, apartment houses, bridges, tunnels, subway platforms, streets, the skyline and grid of the modern city. Other artists, however, such as Charles Demuth, Niles Spencer, Ralston Crawford, Sanford Ross, and Charles Sheeler, applied the same approach to more pastoral settings and painted starkly geometric renderings of barns, cottages, country roads, and farm houses. Artists such as Stuart Davis and Gerald Murphy painted Precisionist still lifes as well.
Many American artists worked in a Precisionist style over a twenty-year period. George Ault, Ralston Crawford, Francis Criss, Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Preston Dickinson, Elsie Driggs, Louis Lozowick, Gerald Murphy, Charles Sheeler, Niles Spencer, Morton Schamberg and Joseph Stella, were among the most prominent Precisionists. Examples of their work can be found in most major American museum collections. Dale Nichols, Millard Sheets, Virginia Berresford, Henry Billings, Peter Blume, Stefan Hirsch, Edmund Lewandowski, John Storrs, Miklos Suba, Sandor Bernath, Herman Trunk, Arnold Wiltz, Clarence Holbrook Carter, Edgar Corbridge and the photographers Paul Strand and Lewis Hine were other artists associated with Precisionism. The movement had no major presence outside the United States, although it did influence Australian art where Jeffrey Smart adopted its principles. Although no manifesto was ever created, some of the artists were friends and frequently exhibited at the same galleries. Georgia O'Keeffe, especially with paintings like New York City with Moon (1926) and The Shelton With Sun Spots (1926), created her own more sensuous version of Precisionism, although her best-known works are not closely related to Precisionism, and it would be inaccurate to state that O'Keeffe (who vehemently resisted movement ties) was closely aligned with the Precisionist movement. Her husband, photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz, was a highly regarded mentor for the group and was especially supportive of Paul Strand.
Precisionist art would have an indirect influence on the later styles known as magic realism, pop art, and photorealism, but it was largely considered a dated "period style" by the 1950s, though its influence on advertising imagery and stage and set design continued throughout the twentieth century. Its two most famous practitioners are Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler.
- "America is the country of the art of the future. ... Look at the skyscrapers! Has Europe anything to show more beautiful than this?" – Marcel Duchamp, 1915
- "Since machinery is the soul of the modern world, and since the genius of machinery attains its highest expression in America, why is it not reasonable to believe that in America the art of the future will flower most brilliantly?" – Francis Picabia, 1915
- Milton Brown, American Painting from the Armory Show to the Depression (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), p. 114-115.
- Gail Stavitsky, Precisionism in America, 1915-1941: Reordering Reality (New York: Abrams, 1994), p. 21.
- Stavitsky, p. 19.
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
- For a fuller discussion of Pittsburgh, see Constance Kimmerle, Elsie Driggs: The Quick and the Classical (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), pp. 31-33 and John Loughery, "Blending the Classical and the Modern: The Art of Elsie Driggs," Women's Art Journal (Winter 1987), p 24.
- Kimmerle, p. 32.
- Charles Sheeler photo, retrieved online November 9, 2008
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
- The New York Times, Roberta Smith, ART VIEW: Precisionism And a Few Of Its Friends," October 26, 2008
- The Hilbert Museum reveals treasures of California Scene Painting, Liz Goldner, February 24, 2016 KCET https://www.kcet.org/
- Friedman, Martin L. The Precisionist View in American Art. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1960.
- Harnsberger, R.S. Ten Precisionist Artists: Annotated Bibliographies [Art Reference Collection no. 14]. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.
- Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. New York; Knopf, 1994.
- Kimmerle, Constance. Elsie Driggs: The Quick and the Classical. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
- Stavitsky, Gail. Precisionism in America, 1915–1941: Reordering Reality. New York: Abrams, 1994.
- Tsujimoto, K. Images of America: Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982.