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Morton Livingston Schamberg


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Painter and photographer. The death of this versatile modernist in the 1918 influenza pandemic foreclosed one of the most promising careers of his generation. In less than a decade, he painted advanced color abstractions, pioneered in using mechanical imagery, helped to initiate sharp-focus modern photography, and contributed to New York dada. His name is perhaps best known in connection with a notorious dada artifact, a small found-object sculpture sardonically titled God (Philadelphia Museum, c. 1916–18). Although he has traditionally been given credit as the fabricator, he may have collaborated on, or possibly he only photographed, this kitchen-sink plumbing trap mounted on wood. In any event, Schamberg had a hand in bringing it to life as a work of art. A Philadelphian, Schamberg trained as an architect at the University of Pennsylvania. Before receiving his degree in 1903, he had already taken up the study of painting with William Merritt Chase, and in the fall of that year he entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After graduating in 1906, he left for a year in Paris. (He had already spent three summers in Europe.) Upon his return, he shared a studio in Philadelphia with academy classmate Charles Sheeler. Late in 1908, he again departed for Europe. Sheeler soon joined him for a few months, and together they experienced a decisive confrontation with modern art. After Schamberg's return in 1910 to Philadelphia, he shared a weekend house with Sheeler in Doylestown. To support themselves, in 1912 both took up photography (Schamberg specialized in portraits), and the following year both exhibited paintings in the Armory Show. By this time Schamberg had already worked through a fauve-inspired period and had begun to develop a brightly colored form of cubist painting, which sometimes amounted to complete abstraction. (These works bear similarities to synchromism, but Schamberg probably developed his style independently.) While continuing to live in Philadelphia but regularly visiting New York, around 1916 his painting took a revolutionary new tack. He was probably the first American to produce simplified and stylized images of machines, or mechanical-looking objects. Such works as Mechanical Abstraction (Philadelphia Museum, 1916) prefigure aspects of precisionism. By this time, he had come to know the dada circle that gathered at Walter Arensberg's New York apartment. God, which was acquired by the Arensbergs, represents his thorough understanding of the ironic tone that flourished in their circle. Schamberg's thinking about the machine as a metaphor for modern life may have been stimulated there by the work of Marcel Duchamp and French artist Francis Picabia. Concurrently, along with Sheeler, he investigated photography's ability to capture structurally vigorous but emotionally cool images. He died in Philadelphia, two days before his thirty-seventh birthday.

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