New England Irrelevancies
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
73.66 x 58.42 cm (29 x 23 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Not On View
In 1946, Charles Sheeler spent six weeks as artist in residence at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts. Two years later, he visited the Currier Gallery of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, for two weeks, again as artist in residence. Although Sheeler, who was in his sixties, was respected and nationally recognized, he was then garnering less attention from the galleries and art press than the ascendant Abstract Expressionists. These brief sojourns reinvigorated him. During his visits, Sheeler photographed a decrepit woolen mill building in Ballardvale, on the outskirts of Andover, and the abandoned textile mills of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester. These decayed buildings inspired new ideas, and between 1946 and 1953 Sheeler produced over twenty images in oil, tempera, ink wash, and Conté crayon based upon either Ballardvale or the Amoskeag mills. These culminated in New England Irrelevancies, which combines forms from both sites.
The title of this painting presumably alludes to the once-impressive buildings and prosperous industries that had dominated Andover and Manchester but were now obsolete. The sense of the buildings’ irrelevance may have struck Sheeler personally, too: by the time he completed this painting, he was seventy years old and remote from the artistic mainstream. However, New England Irrelevancies is far from grim or moribund. Painted in the opalescent hues that give so many of Sheeler’s industrial subjects an astonishing optimism, the picture shows these dilapidated nineteenth-century mill buildings as though they were vibrant contemporary skyscrapers.
Sheeler worked out the composition of New England Irrelevancies by superimposing, manipulating, and printing several photographic negatives he had taken at Manchester and Ballardvale. He planned the composition in a small study of the same title using tempera on glass (1953, Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts). In the left half, Sheeler reintroduced the forms of his painting Ballardvale (1946, Addison Gallery of American Art). The right half reflects in reverse one of his photographs of Manchester, Millyard Passage, Manchester, New Hampshire (possibly 1949, gelatin silver print, The Lane Collection)[JMS1] . That image features fire escapes climbing the facades of buildings; in New England Irrelevancies the fire escapes are absent and the buildings are represented only as wedges of color. The two flat, sliced-off squares in maroon and purple near the center of the painting are in fact two small buildings, one behind the other, dwarfed by the steep walls of the mills on either side. The snaky form emanating from the ladder at center is the outline of a change in the pattern of the cobblestones on the mill yard floor. The composition is highly energized—quite different from the relative placidity of Sheeler’s other mill pictures. The overlapping shapes and shadows, skewed angle of vision, and ruthless cropping create an animated, somewhat disorienting picture.
Sheeler’s process of arriving at a composition by superimposing photographic images solved an important expressive problem. The artist believed that our understanding of the natural order is based not on immediate observation alone but on observation combined with visual memory. Photography was the ideal medium for linking the memory and the present perception: it preserved details, of course, and in Sheeler’s innovative use of the medium, it could weld together in physical form two experiences linked in the mind, as Manchester and Ballardvale were for him. New England Irrelevancies, with its combination of images that Sheeler had used before and its evocation of the skyscrapers he had recently photographed, not only preserved the memory of the two mill towns but brought them, at least pictorially, into the present.
This text was adapted and expanded by Janet L. Comey from Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, exh. cat. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987).
[JMS1]L-R 3146.2001. Include as supplemental illustration, if possible. Karen Haas in PDP can advise on rights.
Lower right: Sheeler 1953.; Reverse: Charles Sheeler-1953; on backing board: Charles Sheeler/1953/Do not remove this board
1953, with Downtown Gallery, New York; 1953, sold by the Downtown Gallery to William H. Lane (1914-1995); 1990, partial purchase and gift of William H. and Saundra B. Lane to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 27, 1990)
Gift of William H. and Saundra B. Lane and Henry H. and Zoe Oliver Sherman Fund