Machinery (Abstract #2)

Media - 1964.1.27 - SAAM-1964.1.27_1 - 87712
Copied Paul Kelpe, Machinery (Abstract #2), 1933-1934, oil on canvas, 38 1426 38 in. (97.067.0 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the U.S. Department of Labor, 1964.1.27

Artwork Details

Machinery (Abstract #2)
Not on view
38 1426 38 in. (97.067.0 cm.)
Credit Line
Transfer from the U.S. Department of Labor
Mediums Description
oil on canvas
  • Abstract
  • Architecture — machine
  • Figure male — full length
  • Architecture — industry — factory
  • New Deal — Public Works of Art Project — Illinois
Object Number

Artwork Description

What kind of industry does the man holding the levers control in Paul Kelpe's painting Machinery. There are no hints; the smokestacks emit no smoke and no product piles up on the factory floor. In fact, Kelpe's mechanism manufactures nothing. He was actually an abstract painter whose concerns were aesthetic. In his paintings for the Public Works of Art Project, he knew that he needed to somehow address "the American Scene." "As they refused to accept 'nonrepresentational' art," he said, "I made a number of pictures with geometric machinery." But Kelpe, unlike the many PWAP artists who factually depicted industrial scenes, studied no real-life factories. He created his own independent visual world, reflecting the kind of technological progress of which Americans were proud. The artist thoughtfully balanced large and small shapes, warm and cool colors, to create a harmonious mechanistic vision. A pattern of diagonal brushstrokes on the painting’s surface catches the light to suggest action. The wheels seem to turn with the soft hum of a well-tuned machine.

1934: A New Deal for Artists exhibition label

Luce Center Label

The shadowed worker in this painting appears to be controlling the structure, suggesting man's essential role in industry and his ability to create massive, powerful machines. During the Depression, many artists celebrated human achievements in this way, to emphasize the importance of the working class and to boost morale. In 1934, Paul Kelpe worked for the Public Works of Art Project. The program did not accept abstract art, so he incorporated realistic elements such as figures, wheels, and buildings into his compositions. These images were still not "representational enough," however, and he soon gave up trying to please his bosses (Manthorne, Paul Kelpe, Abstractions and Constructions, 1925-1940, 1990).

Related Books

1934: A New Deal for Artists
During the Great Depression, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised a “new deal for the American people,” initiating government programs to foster economic recovery. Roosevelt’s pledge to help “the forgotten man” also embraced America’s artists. The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) enlisted artists to capture “the American Scene” in works of art that would embellish public buildings across the country. Although it lasted less than one year, from December 1933 to June 1934, the PWAP provided employment for thousands of artists, giving them an important role in the country’s recovery. Their legacy, captured in more than fifteen thousand artworks, helped “the American Scene” become America seen.