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    Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art

    At the de Young through August 12

    Layered, complex, and deeply personal, the still lifes Gerald Murphy produced between 1921 and 1929 reflect the tensions between surface and depth, exterior and interior that plagued the psyche of this talented figure whose “Watch” is featured in the exhibit Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art at the de Young.

    “Watch,” created in 1925, seems to contain subtle references to the artist’s difficult personal life. Measuring six and a half feet square and rendered in stunningly precise detail, the painting presents a close-up view of a watch in which the mechanisms are based on those of two timepieces that had particular meaning for Murphy—in the center of the composition, we see the workings of a railroad watch designed by Mark W. Cross & Company (the luxury goods business owned by Murphy’s father), and at upper right, those of a favorite gold pocket watch that his wife Sara Wiborg had given to him when they were engaged.

    The three Roman numerals of the latter may allude to the couple’s three children, and the inverted “F” and “S” below them could indicate “fast and slow” while simultaneously representing Fred, the artist’s recently deceased brother, and Sara. Most interestingly, horology experts have confirmed that while the various cogs, wheels, levers, and springs in the painting are generally pictured with a startling degree of verisimilitude, the watch features a broken mainspring, and is fundamentally inoperative.

    Scholars have speculated that this painstakingly accurate, large-scale rendering of an object that seems on the surface to be impressively reliable, but is in reality completely nonfunctional, served as a veiled metaphor for Murphy’s deep-seated insecurity about his repressed sexuality. Comparing his emotional core to a flawed timepiece, Murphy wrote in 1931, “After all these years … I awaken to find that I have apparently never had one real relationship … . My subsequent life has been a process of concealment of the personal realities … . The effect on my heart has been evident. It is now a faulty instrument de précision.”

    Murphy stopped painting permanently in 1929. After living in France for many years, he and Sara returned to the U.S. to run the family business, and subsequently weathered the tragic early deaths of their two sons. Murphy in 1964 died just two days after the death of his close friend, gay noted composer and songwriter Cole Porter.