Following his first major one-man show at the prestigious Downtown Gallery in 1931, Sheeler stood out on the New York art scene as one of the most prominent figures of the post-Armory Show generation. A few years later, in 1939, The Museum of Modern Art staged a monographic exhibition of his oeuvre, which brought him relative commercial success and allowed him to abandon advertising jobs and concentrate more on his painting. Towards the end of his life the painter moved into a grand mansion in Ridgefield, Connecticut, though he never lost contact with New York city and kept his studio open.
In Canyons, executed in 1951, Charles Sheeler depicts one of his favourite themes: the urban landscape of New York. In 1920, a year after arriving in the then incipient metropolis, Sheeler collaborated with the photographer Paul Strand in the legendary black-and-white documentary film lasting nearly ten minutes entitled Manhatta, which explored the city’s buildings. The documentary was based on Walt Whitman’s poem Manhatta — the original name of the New York island — from the collection of poems Leaves of Grass, the lines of which served as subtitles of the images. Thenceforward streets and modern buildings became a recurring theme in his photographs and paintings.
Sheeler transforms the streets of New York into deep gorges on account of the height of the skyscrapers. Although, as in other paintings, there are indications that it is inspired by earlier photographs of his and that certain technical effects are borrowed from photography, such as the transparency and double exposures, the image depicted by his paintbrush goes much further than that captured with his camera.
Sheeler wrote that “one-, two-, and three-dimensional space, color, light and dark, dynamic power, gravitation or magnetic forces, the frictional resistance of surfaces and their absorptive qualities, all qualities capable of visual communication, are material for the plastic artist, and he is free to use as many or as few as the moment concern him.” Indeed, in the present painting he flattens and simplifies the buildings to the point of reducing them to their abstract qualities and converting them into mere impersonal constructions. With his particular Precisionist style, which is sometimes defined as Abstract Realism, he renders the basic geometric forms of the skyscrapers using meticulous brushwork and a dull palette of arbitrary and unreal colours. However, his precise, almost mathematic style is combined with an unreal, visionary illumination that makes this painting a melancholic and timeless evocation of the city.