Stuart Davis (Dec. 1892 – July 1964, 71).
Always look on the bright side…?!
Rowed his own canoe! The keen Left wing bon vivant’s distinctive, ebullient modernism stayed oblivious to Capitalism’s greatest crisis! But richer for it?
FEATURED IMAGE: 1912 Self portrait, 81.9 x 66.7 cm, Promised Gift to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas
- Distinctive! His eventual style of flat, frantic, realistic faux-abstraction – colorful, calligraphical and Hard-Edged – was his alone.
- Precocious early Expressionist realist paintings doorstepped his abrupt modernist style shift.
- But then he was never abstract. Realism threading his complete oeuvre, start to finish. Yes from c1921 (around 30) his art flipped, harnessed Cubist inspired quasi-abstraction but never crossed over to abstraction, remained rooted in reality.
- So his modernism adapted color, calligraphy and Cubist exploration to reflect the energetic drama of modern American life.
- But not polemically. Thus curious indeed – extraordinary even – is how his avowedly Left wing politics never spilled over into polemical assault on the Capitalist beast, and despite him living through the Depression and two world wars!
- Thus he jarred with the Social Realists like TH Benton (1889-1975), Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and George Bellows (1882-1925), let alone the affronted turbocharged German satirists!
- Rather his purpose remained narratory and even aesthetic: his colorful, turbulent, jazz inspired confetti of cut outs and letters saluted the headlong dynamism of the modern economy and society.
- But curious too, for a people person he painted no.. people! No portraits, genre groups.
- How good was he? Very. His style trod water for the final couple of decades, but his original contribution – content and execution – was striking.
- And maybe ultimately he was cleverer for remaining buoyant, not succumbing to rage against the then troubled zeitgeist.
- Realism threads Davis’ art from woe to go.
- Early on (from c1912, age 20) – precisely when the avant-garde in Europe was diving into pure abstraction – he precociously explored Expressionist realism, leaving some striking images, especially his tense, psychological 1912 Self portrait, also his bold Expressionist Self portrait of 1919, and various gritty cityscapes recalling the NY Ash Can realist school, and even a few landscapes, which hint of Munch and Van Gogh.
- His bright start earned him inclusion in the historic Armory Show of modern European art (International Exhibition of Modern Art, he included 5 watercolours), in New York early in 1913 (aged just over 20), which show also understandably shook his appreciation of modern art.
- But not before c1921 did his style finally shift abruptly, lurch towards modernism (eg Lucky Strike (1921), The tree and the urn (1921), Still life (red) (1922), and Landscape Gloucester (1922)). In his own Synthetic Cubist take he adapted, tapped Cubism, applied it to modern American material life, dwelt on banal but real material items like cigarette papers and garages and egg beaters. Thus while he therefore leaned toward abstraction he stayed “real”.
- But his Modernist progression or development was not linear. His 1918 trip to Havana he recorded in colourful representational works on paper, some of which recall the German-American Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), also a distinctive accomplished illustrator. Then not before the late 1920s, near 40, did he settled into coarse textured Hard-edge Color Field (HE-CF) faux-abstraction, particularly in the Eggbeater Presciently, his paintings of mundane consumer goods clearly presaged the Pop Art of the 60s, about 40 years hence.
- But visiting Paris in 1928 he felt compelled to stay more representational in recording post card-like street scenes. And also more obviously realistic was his famous Hopper-esque House and street (1931).
- Then in the late 1930s – especially starting with the large (4.4 x 2.2m) Swing landscape (1938, stemming from the Williamsburg Housing Project commission and based on the Gloucester (Mass.) waterfront) – he found his now familiar later style: still flat and colourful, but now busier “all over” HE-CF, which style he stayed with more or less for the next 25 years.
- This style, still born of the Cubism of Braque and Picasso, now drank from Matisse, Léger and Miro, artists he met partly through additional important exhibitions in New York? Some of these images levered off natural scenes (eg Arboretum by Flashbulb, 1942), but mostly they drew on urban life and settings.
- These images look disordered or spontaneous, but apparently were not, rather were products of “protracted gestation”.
- About 10-20 years older than the main Abstract Expressionist (AE) painters he is not counted as an Abstract Expressionist painter though his flat bright colour affiliates with the CF pole of AE, and the busy scrambled content of paintings like Swing Landscape (1938) and The Mellow Pad (1945-51) points loosely to Pollock’s “gesturalism”.
- But in some ways he is as interesting, for how the content of his semi-abstract work remained rooted in reality, fastened to the present material world, especially responding directly to the “energy, vibrancy, change, and conflict of [American] contemporary life…. the upheaval of the city, the tranquility of the seaside, industry and the automobile, cafe society, sports, consumer packaging, tobacco, appliances, and jazz music and its lingo.”(Met,NY). And also, like the eminent Dutch refugee abstractionist, Piet Mondrian, who had arrived NY 1940, Davis was mad about jazz, which also fed his images
- He was also political, avowedly and actively Left (eg in campaigning for artists rights), but oddly this did not sour his appetite for depicting modern life in an apparently buoyant energetic descriptive manner. He did not polemically malign or satirise the Capitalist beast about him, even though he lived through its greatest crisis. For him there was no hint of the forthright Daumier or Grosz. “A hedonist to the core” writes Robert Storr (New York Review of Books, August 2016).
- Interestingly Storr also rightly wonders whether some work of the immigrant Abstract Expressionist Arshile Gorky responded to Davis’ Cubist recipes.
- And others (Karen Sullivan and Delores McBroome, Art and Antiques magazine, December 1989) wonder if the composition of Picasso’s Guernica (1937) was not inspired by Davis’ 1932 mural (nicknamed Men without women) for the Men’s Lounge of Radio City Music Hall, which work by Davis was well publicised.
- Perhaps striking is that Davis, clearly a people person, painted no people paintings. No portraits or genre groups. Not even in his early realist phase. A few self portraits is all, and good too.
Current major exhibition
“Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” is at the Whitney Museum of American Art through September 25. It will continue at the National Gallery of Art in Washington from November 20, 2016 through March 5, 2017, at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco from April 8 through August 6, 2017, and at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas from September 16, 2017 through January 8, 2018
Highlighted works by Stuart Davis….
1912, Tenement Scene, oil on canvas, 73.99 x w: 91.77 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
1913, Ebb Tide – Provincetown, oil on canvas, 96.52 x 76.2 cm
Street Scene with Cathedral, Havana 1920 watercolor on paper 35.56 x w: 50.8 cm
1921, Lucky Strike, 84.46 x 45.72 cm, MOMA.
1922, Landscape, Gloucester, oil on canvas, 30.48 x w: 40.97 cm
- Eggbeater No 1, gouache on board, 36.2 x 45.42 cm, Whitney Museum of American Art
Matches No. 1, 1927, gouache on cardboard, 31.75 x 24.76 cm
Rue Descartes 1929 gouache, ink, and pencil on paper 32.08 x 47.32 cm
1928, Egg Beater No. 4, gouache on illustration board, 33.66 x 47.32 cm, The Phillips Collection
1931, House and Street, 66.4 × 107 cm, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York,
Artist in Search of a Model 1931 gouache on paper 27.3 x 46.99 cm
1938, Swing Landscape, Oil on canvas, 220.34 x 439.75 cm. COMMENT: a LARGE WPA Brooklyn mural, made for a government-funded housing project in Brooklyn. Hard-edge “Color-Field” abstract develops. But with figurative motifs.
1945-51, The Mellow Pad, oil on canvas, 66.7 x 107 cm, Brooklyn Museum of Art. COMMENT: painted over six years
1932/1942–1954, American Painting, 101.6 x 127.64 cm, University of Nebraska at Omaha
1954, Colonial Cubism, oil on canvas, 114.63 x 153.04 cm, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
1956, Stele, oil on canvas, 132.72 x 101.93 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum