Rouge reverence

Oct 20, 2004 at 12:00 am

Industrial mythology:

President Calvin Coolidge once wrote, “The man who builds a factory builds a temple … the man who works there worships there … to each is due, not scorn and blame, but reverence and praise.”

Likewise, modern artist Charles Sheeler commented that American factories are “our substitute for religious expression.” Architect Albert Kahn referred to his creation for Henry Ford, the mammoth Rouge Plant, as a “cathedral of industry.”

Henry Ford’s mammoth Rouge assembly complex casts a spell over many who cross its path. During the last 80 years, the iconic industrial palace has functioned not only as the model of mass production, fertile grounds for the union movement, a birthplace of the labor class and the charcoal briquette, but also as the headquarters for a stunning industrial empire and a devastating source of pollution. It has inspired generations of artists.

The Rouge begs for hyperbole and poetry. It’s the ultimate conjunction of man and machine, an awe-inspiring futuristic sculpture that greets visitors with both menacing smokestacks and sci-fi wonder.

Designed by classic industrial architect and Detroiter Albert Kahn, the Rouge was groundbreaking when built in 1917. It was the largest plant in the world, the first entirely self-reliant manufacturing machine, a place where raw iron and coal were dumped in one end and came out as a car on the other, a steel village that employed 100,000 people by 1929. Covering two square miles, it included a foundry, glass plant, cement plant, tire plant and stamping shop. Later, engineers’ workshops, a hospital, a shipping fleet and an airport were added.

Its creation was a grand stimulant for suburbanization. Ford thought the city center was a dying, unproductive concept and he needed a large piece of land for his sprawling experiment in one-story manufacturing — more efficient, Ford decided, than moving materials between floors. Marshland in Dearborn — then called the Village of Springwells and surrounded by farms — was cheaper than property in bustling Detroit. By the early 1930s more people drove Model A’s to work at the Rouge than rode the trains and buses; finding one’s car among 70,000 nearly identical ones in the parking lot reportedly was quite a hassle.

In so many ways the plant is the nexus of Detroit’s history, and since its inception has inspired artists and propagandists to wax poetic in its midst.

Photographers, in particular, have had a field day at the plant. Now it’s getting a grand coming-out party as it confronts the future, complete with two related photography shows in Detroit’s Cultural Center. And they’re coupled with sold-out, daily tours of the Rouge’s sparkling new white, orange and yellow truck assembly plant, complete with its plant-covered roof — an experiment in environmental/industrial economics.

Industrial art

Showing at the DIA is a collection of Rouge photographs, black-and-white gelatin silver prints by Charles Sheeler that are considered the first masterworks of modern fine art photography.

It’s only due to the industrious diligence of a DIA curator that the series, including never exhibited works, is stopping in Detroit. It was slated for elsewhere on its inaugural national tour until Nancy Barr, a mover/shaker in art photography, got on the horn.

“It’s a prestige collection; we were fortunate there was an opening” in the tour, Barr says. “The Detroit collection should be here.”

Sheeler is well-known as an important modern painter, but is also among the crème de la crème of modern photographers. The DIA exhibit begins with his nighttime shots of a rural farmhouse in Pennsylvania — works that concentrate on line, composition and shape, moving toward pure abstraction. “This was a super radical idea of photography as art,” Barr says. “Sheeler was the first to do it.”

Ford commissioned Sheeler to photograph the Rouge in 1927. During six weeks in the coke-burning bowels and among the mammoth machines of the steel foundry, instead of shooting cars or workers, Sheeler captured images of industrial scenery, such as layers of horizontal pipes and chutes and gigantic buggies for molten steel. The sci-fi cubist landscapes are compositions of geometry and disembodied metalwork that pay homage to the awesome power of Ford’s industrial complex.

The exhibit also includes Sheeler’s silent film, Manhattana. Arguably the first avant-garde American film, it plays continuously, flickering through a day in New York City, from workers coming off the Staten Island Ferry to horizontal shots of the cityscape. Also on exhibit are Sheeler’s later photographs and one of his modern paintings.

Viewers might wonder what all the fuss is about, for, in the decades since Sheeler’s time, much has happened in the world of photography. Yet the aesthetic power of the individual works is intact. Flat and minimal, Sheeler’s 1915 “Side of a White Barn” and 1928 “Looking Past Coke Conveyors Toward Power House Stacks” illustrate the artist’s ability to create stunning abstract compositions from inanimate functional structures.

Ahead of its time, the DIA has long recognized the value of photography as modern art. The museum made international headlines in 1983 when it paid $67,000 for a Sheeler photo. Now, Barr says, his photos fetch as much as $600,000 at Sotheby’s in New York.

Sheeler was among many to make artistic magic at the Rouge. In 1932, Diego Rivera was commissioned by Edsel Ford to paint a mural of the plant inside the DIA. Unlike Sheeler, Rivera concentrated on the workers and the assembly line machines to portray the Rouge in a simultaneously critical and glowing fashion as an earthy communist utopia.

In 1955, the greatly influential Robert Frank photographed the Rouge as he traveled through the United States; the images are in his book, The Americans. Walker Evans also photographed the site, as did Michael Kenna, whose noir, steamy photos are captured in his book, The Rouge.

New day

Michelle Andonian has had an insider’s view of the destruction of Detroit. Growing up just off I-75 with a view of the Ambassador Bridge, Andonian’s family didn’t join the post-riot exodus from the city. She became a well-known photojournalist who documented the demolition of the Hudson’s building, Stroh’s, Uniroyal and GM’s Fleetwood plant, which employed many of her neighbors and high school friends just a few blocks from her childhood home.

But what she photographed over the last two years at the Rouge is entirely different.

Showing at Center Galleries in the College for Creative Studies is an exhibit of Andonian’s Rouge photographs called Reinvention, which coincides with the Sheeler show at the DIA. Like Sheeler, Andonian captures the future of industry in her work.

Exhibited are shots of the so-called “IBM line,” in which robotic arms and sparks fly over a computerized steel landscape, as well as images of the S.S. Charles M. Beeghly cargo ship dropping off raw materials at the steel foundry (now owned by a Russian company). The black-and-white photos are reminiscent of Sheeler’s works, in particular Andonian’s grand, flat geometric composition, “Rouge Steel, Treadwell car.”

Andonian was allowed into the Dearborn Assembly Plant for its last days of operation. Her photos show the men and women of the Mustang plant cheering as the final cars roll down the line, and the last workers on the historic stamping machines. The photos are reverent, respectful and poignant, such as one of 50-year employee Bill “Cuz” Grays holding a huge card for Bill Ford, covered with signatures and thanking Ford for his leadership.

Andonian was taken with the optimism and symbolism of it all.

“A plant is like a big family,” she says. “Autoworkers — that’s the core of what Detroit is. [The auto industry] is who we are as Detroiters, it’s what people know us by. This is our legacy to the world. It started here. That’s an incredibly underutilized bragging point.”

The black-and-white portion of the exhibit ends serenely with pictures of a deserted bicycle, used back in the day to get around the plant; of empty seats at the workers’ poker table; of well-worn buttons to be used no more.

This was a vast change from the kind of tale Andonian had become so accustomed to growing up in Detroit. At the Rouge, as the Mustang plant closed down, a new truck assembly plant opened. Instead of demolition and waste and despair, Andonian says she watched a rebirth, a new “industrial revolution,” “the New World of industry.” At this point in her exhibit, the black-and-white photographs are finished and the series explodes into digital works of color and light. These photos depict the new truck assembly plant with big, shiny white pickup trucks rolling down a sun-drenched line.

“It’s like Bladerunner, but with all this color — it’s crazy,” Andonian says.

In addition to a couple of huge works in color, Andonian exhibits smaller, postcard-sized prints that depict the flowers Ford has planted around the plant. The series ends with a rainbow in an azure sky over the assembly plant’s environmentally friendly sedum-covered roof. The color in the digital prints has been enhanced and cleaned-up, Andonian says, but the works are not compositionally manipulated.

Andonian says a few of the smaller works were given to Ford as a gift by a top-ranking company executive.

The difference between the old plant and the new is, literally, like night and day. Andonian says she wanted to portray this “step into the light” effect in her photos. She compares their viewing to watching The Wizard of Oz when the film switches from monochrome to color as Dorothy enters the fantasy world.

Andonian describes the new developments at the Rouge as a transformation from “an industrial cathedral to industrial ballet.”

Ford kicked in funding for Andonian’s exhibit a month before it went up; but during shooting she was on her own, with only non-financial support from Ford and Henry Ford Museum execs.

Through many visits, Andonian says she learned to respect what Bill Ford is trying to do. Instead of tearing down the Rouge and building an all-new complex, the company is redeveloping its home base.

“This isn’t the same sad industrial story I’ve been photographing my whole life in Detroit,” Andonian says. “This is a happy ending, finally.

“This is not the factory we grew up on. This is the future.”

Lisa M. Collins is arts and culture editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]