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Charles Goeller (1901 – 1955)

El by Night, c. 1930s, crayon on paper, signed lower right, 21 ½ x 12 ½ inches, exhibited: 1) Emotion Expressed Through Precision: The Art of Charles Goeller, Franklin Riehlman Fine Art, New York, 2003; 2)Charles Goeller, Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina, July 3 – August 29, 2004 (label verso); literature: Gail Stavitsky, Emotion Expressed Through Precision: The Art of Charles Goeller, New York: Franklin Riehlman Fine Art and Megan Moynihan Fine Art, 2003, unpaginated (illustrated); provenance: estate of the artist, descent in the family


About the Drawing

Charles Goeller was a master draftsman, particularly when working with conte crayon. Another of his early drawings has been in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art since 1934. Like his fellow Precisionist, Charles Sheeler, Goeller often turned to architecture as a fertile source of subject matter. In El by Night, Goeller is at his best. His clean lines, tight rendering and careful tonality create a convincing, but mysterious, New York City night scene. Writing about this work in connection with Goeller’s retrospective at Franklin Riehlman Fine Art in 2003, noted precisionist scholar Gail Stavitsky observed, “The phrase ‘Strange mood’ evokes the haunting, disquieting aspect that pervades the varied subjects of Goeller’s paintings and drawings, including . . . El by Night . . . . Defying easy categorization, this quality brings to mind the work of Francs Criss, who exhibited with Goeller in the 1938 Whitney Annual. Criss was described in 1937 as ‘another precisionist who thrusts a quirk’ into his paintings. The affinities of mood and technique between Goeller . . . and of Criss, Blume, Hirsch, and particularly George Ault, reflect the differing directions Precisionism took from the 1930s onwards, particularly towards Surrealism and Magic Realism.”

About the Artist

Charles Goeller was a significant modernist who worked primarily in the Precisionist and Magic Realist styles. The art historian William Gerdts referred to Goeller as “the other major Precisionist in New Jersey” [in addition to Elsie Driggs]. Goeller was initially educated in engineering, mathematics, and architecture at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before he decamped to France in 1923 for six years of study at the Ecole Americaine de Fontainebleau and the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere. Goeller’s time in Europe coincided with a great classicizing “call to order” which gave rise to Purism in France and New Objectivity in Germany, two influences which would have a clear impact on Goeller’s work. While in France, Goeller exhibited at the Salon of the Societe des Artistes Francais and the Salon d’Automne in Paris.

Upon his return to the United States, Goeller lived in New York where his work caught the attention of both Lloyd Goodrich (future Director of the Whitney) and Charles Daniel, who represented the young artist until 1932, when his gallery closed. Goeller found himself in important company since the Daniel Gallery artists included Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Preston Dickinson, Niles Spencer, Peter Blume, Henry Billings and Goeller’s friend, Elsie Driggs. The Daniel Gallery first exhibited Goeller in 1929, when his Checked Tablecloth was heralded as a painting “to challenge any of the Immaculates.” The following year, Goeller’s work was selected for inclusion in one of the Museum of Modern Art’s first exhibitions of American paintings, An exhibition of Work of 46 Painters and Sculptors under 35 Years of Age. The Daniel Gallery representation and his inclusion in the MOMA show cemented Goeller’s reputation as a Precisionist painter. In his Art in America: A Complete Survey, Holger Cahill included Goeller in a “group of painters which interprets the American scene in a highly selective realism, amounting almost to a form purism . . . [their work] is characterized by clarity of design and excellent feeling for architectonic arrangement.” In 1934, Goeller worked for the first and short-lived New Deal art program, the Public Works of Art Project, during which he produced another magical New York scene, Perspective View of Third Avenue, which is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Despite his early success, as the Great Depression tightened its grip on the nation, Goeller found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. It likely did not help matters that Goeller was a slow and meticulous artist, who likely produced no more than seventy oil paintings and a lesser number of fully realized drawings. To support himself, Goeller moved back to New Jersey where he initially worked in his family’s steel fabricating business before landing a job in the aerospace industry at the Fleetwings Graphic Illustration Department. During this period, Goeller continued to produce fine art during his off hours, creating some of his most interesting Magic Realist works.

He was given two solo exhibitions at New York’s Bonestell Gallery in 1945 and 1947 and showed his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Newark Museum, the Montclair Museum, the New Jersey State Museum, and the National Academies Gallery. Goeller died young in 1955 at the age of 54. He was honored in 1956 with a memorial exhibition at the Hunterdon Art Center. The last two major surveys of Precisionism, Precisionism in America 1915 – 1941: Reordering Reality (1994-95) and The Cult of the Machine (2018-19) have included Goeller as a defining member of this uniquely American genre. His works have also been the subject of retrospectives at Franklin Riehlman Fine Art in 2003 and Menconi & Schoelkopf Gallery in 2022. Goeller is listed in Who Was Who in American Art and all other standard references. CW American Modernism is proud to represent a large body of Goeller’s work, most of which comes from members of his family.

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