The Amon Carter Museum presented Chimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth’s Late Paintings of Lancaster, an intimate exhibition of the work of one of American’s greatest modernists, from August 18–October 14, 2007. Between 1927 and 1933, Charles Demuth (1883–1935) created a series of paintings depicting industrial sites in his hometown of Lancaster, Penn. Today, this landmark body of work represents one of America’s most influential artistic achievements.
“Demuth’s late Precisionist paintings inspired by industrial sites are among the most important in the history of American modernism,”_ said Dr. Betsy Fahlman, guest curator of the exhibition and principal author of the accompanying publication. “While he possessed an astute understanding of the latest aesthetic developments in Europe, these paintings affirm the importance of place to a painter who, as part of a broad cultural discussion, reassessed what it meant to be an American artist.”
After its run at the Carter, the exhibition traveled to the Norton Museum of Art where it was on view November 10, 2007–January 20, 2008, and then to the Whitney Museum of American Art February 23–April 27, 2008.
Demuth typically sketched out the main details of his compositions ahead of time, and a number of these sketches are featured in the exhibition as well. Comparing the paintings with these loose and spontaneous studies, which were highly personal and not intended for exhibition, dramatically demonstrates how the artist conceptualized his ideas.
Demuth was deeply attached to Lancaster and selected primarily local industrial sites—the Armstrong Cork Company, grain elevators, smokestacks—as the subjects of his last artistic expressions. By seeking inspiration in such American themes, Demuth was much like other artists of his generation. No longer intimidated by their European counterparts, American artists in the early 20th century were confident in their technical abilities and aesthetic sophistication. Demuth’s ideas were nurtured in this climate by the intellectual and artistic circles he experienced in New York City, where he exhibited in two of Alfred Stieglitz’s galleries. He also traveled to Paris on three occasions, which, ironically, only strengthened his uniquely American approach.
(ca. 1931, Dallas Museum of Art);
And the Home of the Brave (1931, Art Institute of Chicago);
The exhibition took as its centerpiece the Amon Carter Museum’s masterwork Chimney and Water Tower (1931).
The other paintings in the series that were also examined are:
My Egypt (1927, Whitney Museum of American Art);
Buildings, Lancaster (1930, Whitney Museum of American Art);
and the last oil the artist is known to have completed, the enigmatic After All (1933, Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida).
Seen together, Demuth’s late architectural paintings form a remarkable body of work, and they are made all the more extraordinary for the sheer force of will they represent for an artist weakened by diabetes. Demuth’s diagnosis in the early 1920s came on the brink of a major medical milestone: the discovery of insulin. Demuth was among the first American patients to receive the hormone; but while the treatment improved his condition, the strict regimen required repeated trips to the sanitarium, and his severe loss of weight and energy colored the last decade of his life. He died in 1935 at the age of 52.
Chimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth’s Late Paintings of Lancaster was accompanied by a publication of the same title that reveals new scholarship about many aspects of the artist’s life and work, including his attachment to Lancaster, his diabetes and the disease’s effect on his career. Claire Barry, the Carter’s chief paintings conservator, contributed the first published technical study of these works.
“Like many of the works in the Carter’s collection, Demuth’s Chimney and Water Tower is a painting of such distinction that it lends itself to rich layers of interpretation,”_ said Jane Myers, senior curator of prints and drawings. “This narrowly focused exhibition and its accompanying publication provide fascinating new information about a major American artist by looking at his work from such diverse perspectives as the history of American medicine, modernist poetry, and the impact of new technologies on the artist’s method and his choice of subject.”_
Chimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth’s Late Paintings of Lancaster was organized by the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.