Precisionism: Rise of the Machine

Tour Guide
Stories November 12, 2020 Precisionism: Rise of the Machine

The year is Nineteen Hundred and Twenty, and the Immaculates are among us.

You might not be able to recognize the Immaculates because they have no definition, nothing to set them aside from anyone else. Everyone believes either one of two things…

  • art and design should embrace and strive towards mechanical perfection, OR
  • the machine is dehumanizing us and we should resist its allure before we lose our souls.

Okay, so this article isn’t actually about the plot of a new Terminator film or even one of those straight to Netflix sci-fi shows that seem to grow wildly popular out of nowhere.

Today, we’re talking about Precisionism.

Precisionism was a loosely defined and somewhat lesser-known American art movement that happened between WWI and WWII. But it doesn’t sound nearly as cool or ominous if you introduce it like that….

A Whole New World

Back at the turn of the (twentieth) century, the world was changing.

Not that the world isn’t ALWAYS changing, but suddenly, at that time, things were getting a lot different a lot faster. Buildings were getting taller. Massive bridges were connecting the world together. Jobs were being lost to automation. Previously unviable technology was making its way into the home.

Sound familiar? If you haven’t been living in a bunker for the past two decades, you might have noticed similar things happening during the most recent tech boom. Innovations such Netflix, Instagram, and the iPhone popped up, in a larger historical sense, overnight.

Each one of those is those innovations is only about ten years old. Seriously, go look it up! It’s pretty mind-blowing if you stop to think about how quickly the world has changed in such a short period.

Rapid change might not seem so crazy to us today because many of us have lived in the tech age our entire lives.

But to the people of the early 1900s, rapid innovations must have seemed insane. Suddenly, history was moving MUCH faster than it ever had before, which, according to some scholars, is why we had two world wars back to back. Yup.

One book in particular, called The Culture of Time and Space by Stephen Kern, posits that something inside people’s brains snapped due to the sudden rapid acceleration of technology around the turn of the twentieth century. While our technology was improving, we were remaining physiologically the same which caused some problems, which caused some more problems, which led to the entire world going to war. Twice.

But in between those two conflicts, we got the Precisionists. And what did they want?

Ummm…well, they didn’t really know. Unlike most art movements, the Precisionists didn’t write a manifesto, or a formal and public declaration of how to be part of their club and what their goals were.

So, in the immortal words of the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter: “Where to put them?”

These precisionist artists weren’t quite involved in the Art Deco architectural movement nor were they part of the Cubist movement. But they sure did like both of those artistic styles.

They weren’t even originally called  “The Precisionists”. For a while they were called the “Immaculates,” then the “Sterilists,” and then the “Cubist-Realists,” but none of those names had quite the same ring as “Precisionists”… I guess. Eventually, “Precisionists” stuck, partly due to the precise nature of the lines in their artwork.

The Precisionists were artists that were amazed and inspired by the sudden and dramatic changes around them. Basically, it’s like if someone realized how weird it was that everyone suddenly had smartphones and decided to paint about it. (I secretly hope there is someone who’s doing that.)

A lot of the precisionism paintings focused on capturing the industrialism of the time in a, well, precise, manner. Lots of sharp angels. Lots of contrasting colors. No people. That’s right, most Precisionist drawings didn’t have anyone in them, which left art critics a little stumped.

Without people for context, it left the art world a little unsure what social commentary the Precisionists were trying to make.

Some claimed that the Precisionists were promoting the future and showing in plain detail what it looked like. Others claimed that they were showing de-humanized world, one that was lacking a soul due to the encroaching wave of new inventions. And a third camp said, “Hey, maybe they just like to draw skyscrapers and car parts, so get off their backs!”

Okay, so there was no real third camp, but that’s what I thought when reviewing their art.

One of the more prominent artists of the Precisionist movement was Charles Sheeler, a self-taught master photographer who took photos of product for the Ford Motor Company. Sheeler loved the machine age and wanted to celebrate it.

I mean, how cool is the concept of a skyscraper if you really take some time to think about it? I say pretty cool. 

Another artist that joined the precisionism movement was someone that you might not except: Georgia O’Keefe.

That’s right, the artist best known for drawing beautiful flowers was also into drawing machines for a while. O’Keefe took the same stylistic approach she learned by drawing the industrial world and translated it to the natural one. Ultimately, O’Keefe resisted giving labels to her art and hated being associated with any particular art movement. Since it’s not well known that O’Keefe was a precisionist at some point, I’d say she succeeded.

In the grand scale of things, the Precisionists might not have made the biggest or most memorable splash on the art world, but they did what they wanted to and didn’t let anyone tell them otherwise. They didn’t set out to change the world; they just wanted to paint a changing world.

Shameless Plug Time

If you want to learn more about these artists or see some pretty cool paintings, come check out The Cult of the Machine exhibit currently at the de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

And if you like what you see you could stick around and see one of Museum Hack’s Un-highlight tours of the de Young.

Hint Hint.

Notes & Citations 📌

written with 💖 by Julian Vercoutere

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