ADAMWEINBERG: Enormous concrete grain elevators loom at the center of this painting by Charles Demuth. At the right, we see an almost elegant-looking smokestack—its plume of smoke barely discolors the clear blue sky. At the bottom left, a small chimney suggests rooftops of buildings dwarfed by the concrete structure behind them—as if the giant silos are actually pushing the older structures right off the edge of the canvas.
What does the presentation of these grain elevators tell us about the ideology behind them? The image is oddly sterile—painted in a precise, machine-like way. The surface of this painting is so pristine, you can hardly find a single brushstroke. It almost looks like a photograph. Rays of light bifurcating the canvas spotlight the building, but the light is cold, almost harsh. The painting’s title provides another clue—it’s called My Egypt. The title and the monumentality of these grain elevators suggest that Demuth is placing the architecture of American industry on par with the great monuments of the past, like the pyramids of ancient Egypt.
Many of the works in this gallery recall Americans’ enchantment with technology and industry during the 1920s. New concrete and steel construction made it possible to build on a completely new scale, and the skyline of American cities moved steadily upward. Paintings from this period, like the ones you see on view in this gallery, reflect an exuberant materialism. Buildings, bridges, and even commercial objects reflect the new landscape of American capitalism. But some artists saw something more malevolent beneath the sparkling façade. In this painting, and in others nearby, we can see both the optimism and the anxiety of the period.