WHAT’S OLD IS NEW: Recognized as he was as a fashion photographer and artist, Charles Sheeler also dabbled in textile design and now those seldom-seen items are being shown at the James A. Michener Art Museum.
Chief curator Kirsten Jensen said, “There was this brief period in the Thirties when a number of modern artists — Stuart Davis, Edward Steichen — were designing textiles and this was not unique to America. A number of European ones were, too. There was a real interest in applying modernism to textile design.
In 1933, Sheeler delved into textiles after he had ended his five-year run shooting for Condé Nast in 1931. Around that time, he wrote to his patron Louise Arensberg that he was designing fabrics for women’s sportswear, Jensen said. The Doylestown, Pa., exhibition features some of his knit fabrics as well as his woven cotton and linen samples. The textiles have not been exhibited since 1939 when Sheeler had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (for which his friend William Carlos Williams wrote the catalogue). During a visit in Connecticut, Sheeler showed them to another pal Marcel Duchamp who “really loved them,” Jensen said. “It’s significant that the Museum of Modern Art included three of his textiles samples in his retrospective. At that point in time, they considered it a significant part of his oeuvre. It’s kind of been forgotten until now,” she said. “These really haven’t been seen at all.”
Jensen took a trip to the Archives of American Art to look at Sheeler’s textiles designs and whether any of the photographs from Vogue might have influenced his designs. “I think we have a pretty clear case in the exhibition of that with at least one of his photographs — his gallerist Edith Halpert standing between two of his paintings, ‘View of New York’ and ‘Classic Landscape’, wearing a dress made of fabric designed by Sheeler,” Jensen said. Another one of the modernist’s geometric designs is reminiscent of his 1922 painting “Skyscrapers.”
After finding dress sleeves and a bodice designed by Sheeler, the museum enlisted Philadelphia University Prof. Claire Beevers to help re-create the dress including the geometric-designed textile. Despite advances in sewing technology, they were surprised to find that today’s machinery could not exactly duplicate the intricate pattern. “The fabric turned out to be a warp knit which we’re actually not capable of. It was very simple, very elegant but I can’t do that here,” she said.
On view through July 9, “Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography and Sculptural Form” also features paintings and photographs including such fashion ones as Francis Hope wearing a sheared lambskin Chanel coat at the racetrack holding binoculars to her eyes. Jensen said, “He really was particularly interested in 1920s fashion and design, which in many ways mirrored all the streamlining and Deco, architecture and design. When you think about the Columnar dresses and all the surface decoration with beading and rhinestone, some of the dresses we have on the exhibition look like they could be on the top of the Chrysler Building in terms of how they’re decorated.”
But Halpert seemed to sway Sheeler from textiles design, as she had with photography, so that the artist would focus on his painting. Sheeler would go on to other ventures, though, including a commission for General Motors with Eero Saarinen in the late Fifties.