November 10, 2014

Machines in Art

Francis Picabia, Pompe a combustible, 1922; ink and gouache on paper, 30 1/8 x 22 1/8 in. 
image courtesy MoMA

A few days ago, a Facebook friend, the artist Richard Staub, posted this beautiful work by Francis Picabia. During his Dada period, Picabia painted many machine pictures, often with an ironic point of view, using machine parts to stand in for human body parts. Pompe a combustible (which might translate as fuel pump) seems a more straightforward abstraction. Because I'm a painter of machines, I became interested in researching Picabia's machine paintings, and that of other artists whose imagery involved machines. I didn't find too many, so please add any additional names in comments.

Francis Picabia, Balance, c. 1919; oil on cardboard, 23 1/2 x 17 1/4 in.
image courtesy Wikiart

Like the drawing above, this work uses crisp, machine-like shapes to create its balanced composition.

Francis Picabia, Love Parade, 1917; oil on cardboard, 37 1/2 x 28 1/4 in. 
Image courtesy WikiArt 

In the animated forms, we can see machines as a stand-in for human interaction; which is male, which female? is that black apparatus at center strangling or hammering at its mate? The parade is loud and clamorous, and none too loving. The form is reminiscent of Duchamp's Large Glass, a masterpiece of the period, which is also a sexual encounter, its full name being The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.

Francis Picabia, Very Rare Picture on the Earth, 1915; oil and metallic paint on board, and silver and gold leaf on wood, 49 1/2 x 38 1/2 in. Photo courtesy Guggenheim Museum

I love this painting/construction; the forms are so beautifully satisfying. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like at the beginning of the Machine Age, when machines large and small were becoming pervasive and changing lives. Some saw it as a force for good; others were not so sure and had feelings of ambivalence towards it.

Fernand Leger, Mechanical Elements, 1920; oil on canvas, 36 1/8 x 23 1/2 in. 

Many of Leger's cubist paintings have figures interacting with structural elements in the compositions and feel very much in love with modern life; this painting focuses on abstraction arising from machine parts. It is full of life and energy.

Morton Shamberg, Painting (formerly Machine), 1916; oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 22 3/4 in. 
image courtesy WikiArt

Morton Shamberg, Painting VIII (Mechanical Abstraction), 1916; oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 20 1/4 in. 

Although I knew his name, I was not familiar with Morton Shamberg's work, so was very happy to find these strong paintings which use the shapes of machinery as pictorial elements, full of an understated dramatic presence. In their central positioning and flowing curves, the paintings are quite elegant.

Charles Demuth, Machinery, 1920; gouache and graphite on paperboard, 24 x 19 7/8 in. 

I've long loved this drawing by Demuth, which looks more like an animated silo than a machine.

Ida York Abelman, Man and Machine, 1935-43, published by WPA; lithograph, 10 x 12 in. 

In Abelman's print, a man seems subsumed by the machine, overpowered by it, yet his large hand grasps its side so perhaps he is in control. This is a dramatic expression of an ambivalent attitude toward the machine.

Charles Sheeler, Steam Turbine, 1939; oil on canvas, 22 x 18 in. 

Charles Sheeler, Suspended Power, 1939; oil on canvas, 33 x 26 in.

Charles Sheeler is one of my art heroes. His precisionist style, industrial subject matter, and use of his own photographs as source material brings his work close to my heart. His Power series was commissioned by Fortune magazine in 1938 to symbolize, as Fortune wrote "exquisite manifestations of human reason". Although the writers of the catalog Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler claim an unease on Sheeler's part toward the machines he pictured above, in 1929 he expressed optimism about industrialization while painting the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge plant:

Every age manifests itself by some external evidence. In a period such as ours when only a comparatively few individuals seem to be given to religion, some form other than the Gothic cathedral must be found. Industry concerns the greatest numbers––it may be true, as has been said, that our factories are our substitute for religious expression.

Walter Tandy Murch, Car Heater, 1957
Image courtesy Painting Perceptions

Walter Tandy Murch, Carburetor, 1957
Image courtesy Painting Perceptions

Walter Tandy Murch, Car Lock, c. 1962; oil on canvas on Masonite, 26 3/4 x 18 1/2 in.
Image courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Art

Walter Murch is a very interesting under-known artist who I was very aware of when in art school. He painted a kind of softened, viewed through a haze, still life, with machinery being one of his main subjects. Looking at his work you get a sense that the complexity of forms, and their unexpectedness, is what attracted him. Whether a force for good or ill, machines can provide compelling images with multiple meanings.


  1. I really enjoyed these, thanks Altoon.

    1. You're welcome, Ravenna. I enjoyed putting this together.

  2. Sheeler and Demuth have always been at the top of my list. I never tire of seeing their work. Demuth particularly interests me since his florals are such a contrast to his machinery.

    1. I agree, Roberta, and the other American Precisionists also interest me.

  3. Oversize monograph on Walter Murch to be published, we hope, Spring 2017

  4. Still working on Murch book—hope to publish in late 2017 or early 2018.