Original Document
Original Document
Charles Sheeler on the Beauty and Functionality of Barns, 1959

MARTIN FRIEDMAN: A quality that underlies most of your painting is a quality of stillness and, to a great extent, openness. I wonder again about this; is it maybe a result of a single motif? Or is it a matter of placement? This is a quality that I get and that I think is often mistaken for a kind of haunted or haunting surrealist quality. This is something that invites contemplation, the absence of people, the austerity. I don't feel these are austere but often there is a kind of isolation.

CHARLES SHEELER: Well, you can see in the long range of my work, as has been said by others, that I'm interested in a manmade world. Bill Williams refers to that in a recent [inaud.]. My inhuman forms, as he calls them. But never cool off the [inaud.].

MARTIN FRIEDMAN: I don't think they're inhuman.

CHARLES SHEELER: Well, in the sense that he means, that is, absolutely there's never a person.

MARTIN FRIEDMAN: Depopulated landscape.

CHARLES SHEELER: Yes. Depopulated landscape. Well, it's my illustration of what a beautiful world it would be if there were no people in it.

MARTIN FRIEDMAN: I'm not sure that I really accept that completely. You seem to be far too gregarious for that. But I wonder, for instance, in the painting of barns and in the painting of -- they more or less break up into barns and industrial things and so on, does this, does your interest in architecture extend to an interest in development of today, for instance, something like the Mies van der Rohe Seagram Building, have any effect on you? Would that be an interesting subject for you as a painting?

CHARLES SHEELER: Which is this?

MARTIN FRIEDMAN: The big Seagram Building downtown.

CHARLES SHEELER: No, I hate that building.

MARTIN FRIEDMAN: Why? I'm just curious.

CHARLES SHEELER: Well, it just doesn't seem to be inspired architecture.

MARTIN FRIEDMAN: So the architecture that you paint is in a sense architecture that is accidental to some extent?

CHARLES SHEELER: Well, are you referring to barns?

MARTIN FRIEDMAN: I'm referring to barns, I'm referring to factories.

CHARLES SHEELER: Well, people -- they built their own barns largely, that is, I mean the community built the barns for the individual, and they always had, first of all, its utility in mind; and that wasn't accidental because they knew how the barn had to function for their purpose. They weren't building a work of art. That is as a family objective. If it's beautiful to some of us afterwards, it's beautiful because it functioned. The functional intention was very beautifully realized.

Credit: Oral History Interview with Charles Sheeler (Interviewed by Martin Friedman), June 18, 1959.  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
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