As the only female member of America’s (at the time) only indigenous modern-art movement, Precisionism, it would perhaps have made sense for Elsie Driggs to produce art concerned with a separation from the established order. As it were though, as with the majority of her fellow Precisionists (see the term-coiner himself, Charles Sheeler) the Connecticut born artist is nowhere to be found in her work. Rather, ‘The Javitz Center’ & ‘Pittsburgh’, along with numerous other topographically titled works of Driggs, center on the idea of place & object, approaching the familiar with a hard-edged, oft abstract vision.
‘The Javitz Center’ – 1926
We come to ‘The Javitz Centre’ from an intimidating, underside angle. A perspective that pins & perplexes the viewer; first in the optically intriguing glass that overlays the skin of the building & the sky alike, and then secondly through the sheer size of the construction. Regardless then of what this colossal feat actually holds within, the title indicating some sort of exhibition center perhaps, its sheer sense of purpose is readily apparent through its engulfing display.
Though a little gauche maybe in terms of its presentation, the underlying conceit here finds Driggs suggesting through the diaphanous form of the sky and the structure that they have achieved a new similarity of permanence. Sky scrapers and eyesores were burgeoning at the time, something slowly being realised here by Driggs as a symptom of the future rather than mere fad.
What could have been quick & gimmicky in its execution is stunningly rendered through a thoughtful approach to the catoptric elements. At the top roof section for example, where there is little visual interference, the blue of the sky fades into the glass effortlessly, creating a languid sense of the afternoon absorbed in the building itself. Down below the reflections get more quivery as the building seems to reflect in of itself. The shaky lines arching back as bars as Driggs imagines the complexity of these cast iron lines interacting with a representation of themselves.
‘Pittsburgh’ – 1927
Yet again, Driggs is taking us to the lesser seen angles of common utilities. Tellingly in ‘Pittsburgh’ we aren’t even given a form or function, rather it is these drab tunnels, these elements of machinery keeping the place running that stand for the southwestern town. There is a sense of humour here though in ‘Pittsburgh’, one found in the essence of contradiction throughout.
As the association to such a sight is initially one of hard work; a tough, sour place in which the world is kept moving.What’s unusual then is the freshness of the forms, almost as if the tubes and equipment were themselves pulled straight new from a production line, of which there are not doubt hundreds within. A comparison could even be made to the factory looking like a trumpet of sorts, the four towers as sooty, ethereal valves. Indeed the place feels at once heavy and weightless through the shifting, mercurial smog.
With this dislocation in place, Driggs does what most great art tends to do, it defamiliarise the familiar. It suggests new interpretations of the common, forgettable backdrop of my of our lives. Be it back in 1927 when this could be taken as an image of great hope & promise, or right now when the factory seems to smoke as a charred carcass.
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