Installation view of "Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art". Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

De Cult of Machine Comes to De Young Museum

The San Francisco Bay Area has long been intrigued by cults of any and all kinds, so it should come as small surprise that the current exhibit at the De Young Museum is such a hit this year. The Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art displays many images and artifacts dear to any ferry rider.

One of the more enchanting aspects of the show is found in the gallery featuring Precisionist views of the urban landscapes of the early twentieth century, replete with soaring skyscrapers and bridges, elevated train and subway tracks, and industrial waterways.

Ferry riders will note that this gallery also includes a screening of Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s short film Manhatta (1920), which showcases the early twentieth-century city as its subject. The first frames of the movie show a ferry boat teeming with passengers eager to disembark and begin their urban adventure.

The vertiginous bird’s-eye perspectives of many of the compositions in this gallery capture the dramatic scale of the buildings, which dominate the landscape both physically and metaphorically, towering over their human counterparts. Decorative arts objects that were inspired by the vertical forms of the modern skyscraper are also on display.

“The responses to industrialization in these works are particularly fascinating and relevant to contemporary audiences who find themselves in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution,” says Emma Acker, associate curator of American art for the Fine Arts Museums. “They hold up a mirror to our own complicated responses to the legacies of industrialization and technological progress as we continue to navigate our relationships with the ever-multiplying devices that surround us and shape our daily existence.”

The catalogue, buy the way, is extraordinary. In addition to making a meaningful contribution to the resurging interest in Modernism and its revisionist narratives, this book offers copious connections between the past and our present day, poised on the verge of a fourth industrial revolution.