Cult of the Machine features over 100 masterworks of American Precisionism by such artists as Charles Sheeler, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Demuth. Precisionism emerged in the 1910s and flourished in the United States during the next two decades. Artists associated with the style typically produced highly structured, geometric compositions with smooth surfaces and lucid forms to create a streamlined, “machined” aesthetic, with themes ranging from the urban and industrial to the pastoral. Reconciling realist imagery with abstracted forms, Precisionism married the influence of avant-garde European art styles such as Purism, Cubism, and Futurism with American subject matter.
The majority of Precisionist works were created during the tumultuous period between the World Wars, decades when the country’s new technologies and industries were met with multiple and contrary responses in the arts, literature, and popular culture. There was a general excitement in the United States about technology’s capacity to engender opportunity and improve the conditions of daily life. Yet these attitudes co-existed—particularly as the Great Depression took root—with widespread fears that it would supplant human labor and deaden the natural rhythms of life.
Precisionist artists reflected such contradictions and complexities in their work, capturing a sense of the beauty and the coldness, the sublimity and the strangeness, of the mechanistic society in which they lived. Today, these works can hold up a mirror to our own complicated and sometimes ambivalent positions on the legacies of industrialization and technological progress as we continue to navigate our relationships with the ever-multiplying devices that surround us and shape our daily existence.