CHARLES SHEELER (1883–1965)
Watercolor on paper, 6 3/4 x 12 1/4 in.
Signed and dated (at lower left): Charles Sheeler–1947
EX COLL: Dorothy Dillon Eweson (1913–2005), Far Hills, New Jersey, 1948; sale, Sotheby’s, New York, May 24, 2006, lot 124; to private collection, 2006 until the present
By the late 1940s, Sheeler was imbuing his paintings with a heightened sense of abstraction, interpreting his motifs in terms of flat, overlapping color planes, as in Wings (1949; Yale University Art Gallery). He also returned to his earlier interest in vernacular barn subjects interpreted through a cubist idiom. This aspect of his oeuvre is apparent in Polyphony, in which Sheeler melds abstraction with recognizable subject matter, in this case a large Pennsylvania-German barn flanked on either side by slightly smaller structures, and on the right, various outbuildings. Simplification is the keynote of this image, with its basic shapes, limited palette, and crisp handling, but Sheeler––drawing on his familiarity with Synthetic Cubism––adds texture and nuance to the composition by subtly denoting the vertical board and batten siding in two of the buildings, as well as a patch of grass in the foreground. However, what catches the viewer’s eye, first and foremost, are the melodic rhythms (cleverly alluded to in the title) created by the intersecting lines and planes and by the artist’s artful handling of positive and negative space, the opaque areas of black and white creating a dynamic push-pull effect. (Sheeler began using titles with allusions to music in about 1940.) Certainly, this intimate vignette underscores Sheeler’s practice of reducing form to its very essence. As the artist once said: “the pictures I reproduce are attempts to put down the inherent beauty of the subject with as little personal interference as possible, spoken in a language of general use rather than an exotic one."