(Click on images to enlarge.)
In 1946, Sheeler had begun to experiment with composite photography as a basis for his paintings. He superimposed photographic negatives, sometimes reversing them, to arrive at evocative compositions. In “On a Shaker Theme,” Sheeler overlaid two images, one slightly smaller and in reverse, of the portion of the laundry and machine shop depicted in “Shaker Detail.” He also radically simplified the details of the building so that windows and doors are reduced to rectangles. Sheeler’s method of overlapping images resulted in a complicated scaffolding of diagonals and verticals. “On a Shaker Theme” celebrates the refined geometric forms that underlie Shaker design, although its compositional intricacy eschews the Shaker virtues of purity and simplicity. This complexity, however, becomes integral to the piece if we consider the title of the painting to be musical – Sheeler had used musical titles starting in 1940 with “Fugue” [40.780] – as in Brahms’s “Variations on a Theme by Haydn.” Some of Brahms’s variations on a simple theme become quite complex with the addition of contrasting but parallel melodic lines played along with the theme. Thus Sheeler took the simple geometric shapes that he admired in Shaker architecture as his theme, and by using composite photography created an intricate tribute to a beloved building.
Janet Comey, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston