Sheeler first turned to American industry for his subject matter when he received an important commission to photograph the Ford Motor Company plant in River Rouge, Michigan, in 1927. His resulting images of industrial architecture and machinery brought acclaim, and Sheeler came to admire the...
Sheeler first turned to American industry for his subject matter when he received an important commission to photograph the Ford Motor Company plant in River Rouge, Michigan, in 1927. His resulting images of industrial architecture and machinery brought acclaim, and Sheeler came to admire the functional, utilitarian beauty of industrial design. He continued to paint and photograph it throughout his career, using its familiar vocabulary to explore each of his new stylistic interests. Ore into Iron displays the fascination with overlapping, transparent planes that Sheeler developed in the last decade of his career. When it was first exhibited in New York in 1956, this painting was described as “so complex in its mingling of factual suggestion and abstract distortion that it’s practically dazzling.”  Ore into Iron depicts the blast furnaces of the U.S. Steel plant in Pittsburgh, which Sheeler visited in 1952. 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[JMS1] ) in which the same scene appears twice, once frontward and once in reverse. Aerial Gyrations (1953, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) is a companion piece to Ore into Iron; it was based on the same photographs in a different combination. Four years later, Sheeler depicted the subject matter again in Continuity (location unknown).  All three pictures have related studies in tempera on paper and in tempera on Plexiglas. Sheeler undermines the massive bulk of the heavy machinery by rendering it with an extremely delicate touch: the paint is applied thinly and precisely, and is confined to discrete areas by neatly drawn pencil outlines. Color enhances the airy, light effect, as the deep violet-blue used for the one image blends into the pinkish brown of the other. Large opaque areas of pigment at the bottom of the composition become translucent at the center and top. The outlines of the furnaces and catwalks meld into one another, their function succumbing to intricate pattern. Dense at the bottom of the picture and more delicate at the top, the forms of the blast furnaces become ethereal. 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. Notes 1. Robert M. Coates, “The Art Galleries: Gauguin and Sheeler,” The New Yorker, April 14, 1956, 112. 2. Sotheby’s New York, American Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture, May 24, 1989, Lot 00233. This text was adapted from Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987). [JMS1]L-R 2571.2001. Include as supplemental illustration, if possible. Karen Haas in PDP can advise on rights.
Lower right: Sheeler-1953; Reverse, on backing board: Charles Sheeler/1953-/Do not remove this board.
1953, with Downtown Gallery, New York; 1953, sold by the Downtown Gallery to William H. Lane (1914-1995); 1990, partial purchase and gift of William H. and Saundra B. Lane to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 27, 1990)
Gift of William H. and Saundra B. Lane and Henry H. and Zoe Oliver Sherman Fund