Spencer blended primitivism with cubism
"The Cove," painted in 1922, is a carefully organized representation of a corner of Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine. It was an artists' colony, and the studios were fishermen's huts, or based on them. Although "The Cove" is a landscape painting with carefully placed areas of grass, rocks, ocean, and sky, it is the bold delineation of the buildings that dominate. The "view" lies between these buildings. They are the essential motifs of this ordered composition.
Niles Spencer was one of the first "Precisionists." He was also one of the first appreciators of American folk art. His art brought together primitive simplicity and a sophisticated awareness of the modern demands of cubism.
He had been to Europe and seen works by Picasso, Braque, and Gris. His brushwork indicates an appreciation of Cézanne. Yet his art is distinctly American. It has an almost puritanical restraint. Nevertheless, "The Cove," however impersonal and unromantic, is still filled with atmosphere.
The Precisionist label was a way to link several American artists of the 1920s and '30s who were part of the "return to order" tendency after World War I. This was both a reaction to artistic freedoms derived from Impressionism and a return to classicism. Charles Sheeler, perhaps most identified with Precisionism, summed up his aim. It might also apply to Spencer: "Not to produce a replica of nature but to attain an intensified presentation of its essentials through greater compactness of its formal design by precision of vision and hand."
Scholar John I.H. Baur rejected the Precisionism label. He wrote, "The personal quality, the dignity, the distance, and precision are those of the classic. [Spencer] has been called a precisionist - but there is too much human warmth in this work to call it precisionist."