ANDOVER — The Industrial Revolution began in England, which never really embraced it. In writing of “dark Satanic Mills,” William Blake articulated a national attitude that has endured for more than two centuries. America, at least until recently, has had fewer qualms.
With a continent to tame and huddled masses eager to unhuddle alongside assembly lines, this country viewed industry more with excitement and wonder than fear and trembling. Each of those responses, and others besides, is on display in “Industrial Strength: Selections from the Collection.” It opens Saturday at the Addison Gallery of American Art and runs through April 13.
Curator Allison Kemmerer has brought together more than 110 items from the Addison’s permanent collection: photographs, paintings, drawings, even a few sculptures. One of the latter, Siah Armajani’s “Elements #15” is certainly industrial in its materials: aluminum, steel, brick, rope. And its symmetrical balance of burdens is a dream of industrial rationalism, as is its balance of strength and geometry.
Dreams take many forms. A nightmare is one, and “Industrial Strength” offers no unreserved paean to engineering and commerce. The subject matter is alternately presented as heroic, menacing, perplexing, monumental, functional, dehumanizing, and sometimes a combination of all the above. Some artists celebrate industrial technology, as Margaret Bourke-White does in two photographs from 1933. But Ray Mortenson’s suite of 16 photographs of the New Jersey Meadowlands — yes, hard by where the Super Bowl was played on Sunday — bear mute testament to nature debased, defiled, and disregarded by the profit motive.
Mortenson’s photographs are one of several serial works. No one documented the Big Dig more scrupulously or vividly than Peter Vanderwarker, and the Addison has nearly two dozen of those photographs on display. There are nine austerely glorious images from Walker Evans’s photographic portfolio of the Brooklyn Bridge. Evans makes of the bridge something sculptural. There is, in fact, so often a sculptural quality to the pictures here, regardless of medium. In strictly visual terms, industry comprises a vast collection of mighty objects or sites full of them: not just bridges, but rail systems, locomotives, factories, smokestacks, dams, grain elevators. All are seen here.
Alvin Langdon Coburn’s “Station Roofs, Pittsburgh,” from 1910, turns a collection of rail sheds into a pattern of quasi-geometric abstraction. Harry Sternberg’s agit-prop print from 1932, “Construction,” turns its noble worker into a different kind of statuary. It’s across a doorway from a Winslow Homer etching of factory hands leaving work, and it’s all the more affecting for being straightforward.
Homer sketched the scene in Lawrence. Although industry can be rural as well as urban (note the earlier reference to grain elevators), it’s most often associated with cities. Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, New York: All are here. Also, though, in a nod to Essex County neighbors, so are a Charles Sheeler painting, “Ballardvale,” and several photographs of Lawrence. The most startling — and subversive — is Abelardo’s Morell’s camera obscura juxtaposition of a corporate conference room with Duck Bridge over the Merrimack and 19th-century mill buildings. One can almost see Homer’s workers in the background — and imagine the empty leather chairs filled with empty suits.
The presence of some items here is unsurprising: Lewis Hine photographs of child laborers, an O. Winston Link locomotive. Others are unexpected: an
Edward Hopper painting of a train, a
Minor White photograph of a sandblaster. In a class of its own is Hugh
Ferriss’s charcoal drawing “Explosion — The Trestle.” Ferriss, best known for his grandiose/misterioso renderings of skyscrapers, makes the explosion look so dramatic it seems less disaster than theatrical event.
Susan C. Faxon, the Addison’s acting director, has put together some four dozen portraits for “Eye on the Collection: Artful Poses.” Opening Saturday, it runs through March 30. Paintings predominate, but there are photographs as well. Some of the portraits are much known to regular Addison visitors (George Bellows’s “Anne in Purple Wrap,” Thomas Eakins’s “Professor Henry A. Rowland”). Others are less familiar. The young Walker Evans and the young Russell Crowe were look-alikes, or so the former’s self-portrait here indicates.
The photographer Dawoud Bey accounts for nearly a quarter of the show. Ten of his 11 images here are from his “Harlem, U.S.A.” series, from the late ’70s. In documenting the residents of that New York neighborhood, Bey follows in a distinguished photographic line that extends to Aaron Siskind and Roy DeCarava (whose magnificent “Graduation Day” is in the show).
Equally alert to character and locale, Bey situates his subjects in space. Many are identifiable by trade: a barber, nurses on break, a short-order cook. All are identifiable as individuals. The photographs are clean, simple, elegantly strong. “Industrial Strength” is upstairs. Down here, on the first floor, these artful poses of Bey’s sitters and so many of the rest demonstrate something even better: human strength.Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney