“Stuart Davis: American Modernist”
by Jason Edward Kaufman
Art historians deem Stuart Davis (1892-1964) one of the great artists of 20th-century America. In the ’20s and ’30s, when most of his contemporaries were using 19th-century techniques to depict America, Davis–like Sheeler, Demuth, Marin, and Weber–delved into Modernism, and with it helped portray the country as it sped off the farm and into the city. Today, his easy-to-recognize mature canvasses, with their letters, shapes and wavy lines laid out in blaring colors, occupy a place of honor in museums across the country.
Davis experimented freely en route to his signature style. He brought the latest European styles, most notably Cubism, to such American subjects as Gloucester harbor, New York City, advertising, automobiles, and jazz music. He modified Cubism so that it differed from the French by throwing in English words and American product logos, and using hard-edged shapes and high-keyed, solid colors, giving the whole a jumpy, rhythmic design on a kingsize scale. His bending European Cubism into a native idiom was an early step on modern art’s voyage from Paris to New York.
Davis’s Cubist-inspired advances provide an important link to later developments in American art. His espousal of Modernism helped set the stage for the hegemony of abstraction in Post-War America. Because he borrowed motifs from popular culture, he is rightly regarded as the progenitor of Pop Art. And the simple hard-edged geometry of his late work looks forward to Minimalism in the formalist era. More generally, his stylistic consistency is cited as a model of integrity in American art.
This all sounds like a formidable achievement, but ultimately Davis is of greater historical than aesthetic interest. Were it not for his having been born in the United States, art historians would dismiss Davis as a second- or third-tier offshoot of French Cubism. But he was an American, and on the 100th anniversary of his birth no less an institution than The Metropolitan Museum of Art has meticulously assembled an exhaustive survey.(1) The 175 pictures in “Stuart Davis: American Painter” present the alpha-omega of the painter’s 50-year career.
Davis entered the profession almost by default and, to judge from his earliest work, despite negligible talent. His father was art director for the daily Philadelphia Press, and young Davis was drawn into the orbit of the newspaper’s illustrators. Among them were four members of “The Eight”–William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. As soon as Davis left high school he went to New York to study with their mentor, Robert Henri. The student’s works emulate the impressionistic brushwork and urban lowlife subjects that earned Henri’s group the nickname “The Ashcan School.”
With some help from Sloan, Davis was soon publishing cartoons in Harper’s Weekly and The Masses. Then, at the age of 21, he was one of the youngest exhibitors in the legendary New York Armory Show, an event he later called “the greatest single influence I have experienced in my work.”(2) Immediately, Davis’s art paid homage to van Gogh and Matisse, whose canvasses impressed him with their non-referential color and abstract drawing. “Henceforth,” he later declared, “the American artist realized his right to free expression and exercised that right.”
For Davis, the “right to free expression” meant liberty to diverge from realism. “No work of art can be true to nature in the objective sense,” he asserted. “The nearer it approximates the natural appearance of objects the more it is likely to be far away from art.” The inevitable outlet for such vehement anti-realism is, of course, abstraction. Thus, Davis theorized that “the act of painting is not a duplication of experience [i.e., realism], but the extension of experience on the plane of formal invention.”
He had ample opportunity to practice “formal invention” during WWI, serving as map maker for Army Intelligence. Considering the two-dimensional, diagrammatic character of his mature style, this stint as a map maker proved as important in his artistic evolution as did the Armory Show. By 1921 he was painting simulated collages of cigarette papers and advertising labels. A proto-Pop work like Lucky Strike (1921), for example, has almost no sense of spatial depth.
Davis tested his hand at the multiple viewpoints and overlapping planes of Picasso’s and Braque’s Synthetic Cubism. Then in 1922 he wrote in his notebook, “Starting now I will begin a series of paintings that shall be rigorously logical American[,] not French. America has had her scientists, her inventors, now she will have her artist.” What followed were Cubist still-lifes substituting American objects for French ones: apples for oranges, beer for wine, the sports page for Le Figaro, and voilá–American Cubism. He continued with a string of straightforward, iconic depictions of homely domestic items, the finest of which, Edison Mazda (1924), consists of a blue lightbulb and gray wineglass in front of an upright blue-and-gray portfolio.
The American modernist enterprise climaxed with the “Eggbeater” series (1927-28), a group of four compositions that abstract a rubber glove, an electric fan, and the titular eggbeater in a kind of skewed Purism. Often called “seminal,” this series is vastly overrated. The spatial mutation, formal distortion, and chromatic diversity seem arbitrary, ungoverned by a rational or even a purely aesthetic order. Though apologists point to the “Eggbeaters” as a daring essay in American abstraction, these works confirm that even at his best Davis was a naive Cubist.
In 1928, Davis had a chance to explore the roots of his affected idiom when Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an early patron, financed his 15-month sojourn to Paris. He briefly met Léger and Gertrude Stein, but remained on the fringe of the artistic community and made no great strides in his art. In fact, he reverted to illustration, painting insipid, candy-colored streetscapes. As one art historian put it, “seduced” by his exotic surroundings, Davis “confected idealized stage sets for a nostalgic musical of an American artist in Paris.”
During the Depression, Davis worked in the mural painting division of the Works Progress Administration, and his art took a decidedly political turn. Despite the Stalinist crackdown on the Soviet avant-garde, “Davis chose to perpetuate the idealistic dreams of the Russian revolution.” He held that the future of art was modernism, the style that reflected the new industrial truth, and that “in its internal form and in its external relation to reality, modern art could stimulate radical change in the political and economic structure of America.” Just what sort of change, and how it would be brought about, remains unclear. But given the intellectual climate of the period, it certainly would have involved a cultural resurrection of the working class.
As to how the revolution would be effected, Davis seemed to call for a hybrid of anecdote and abstraction. As the stylistic battle raged in the ’30s, he sided with neither the abstract nor the realist camp. On the one hand, he fervently advocated abstraction, saying, “To regard abstract art as a mysterious irrational bypath on the road of true art is like regarding electricity as a passing fad.” Yet, on the other hand, he cautioned against completely non-objective art, stating, “for an event [painting] to have meaning for us, we must have had experience with the objective elements that compose it.”
According to Lowery Sims, Associate Curator of American Painting at The Metropolitan, Davis believed the emotive impact of visual forms is more important than their specific subject matter. Yet, one observes that he was reluctant to abandon the kind of representational cues that are evocative, if not tantamount to, specific subjects. Take his 1932 Mural (Men without Women), commissioned for the gentlemen’s lounge of Radio City Music Hall. Cartoonish renderings of smoking paraphernalia, playing cards, barber poles, automobiles, sailboats, and other “gentlemanly” appointments are scattered without apparent order.
Another example is Abstract Vision of New York, executed for The Museum of Modern Art’s 1932 American murals show. The Empire State Building, derby, bananas, and assorted motifs refer to a contemporary New York political figure, Al Smith, nicknamed “The Top Banana.” This pictographic tabloid sheet conjures not by abstract means, but by literary symbols, puns, and allusions. In both murals, in fact, abstraction contributes little to the overall meaning.
Though Davis peppered his 1930s compositions with popularist anecdotes and references, he fell far short of his revolutionary aims for more than one reason. For one thing, American abstract art did not command the attention that the Regionalism of Benton, Wood, and Curry did. But, even if Davis’ work had reached a wider audience, its impact would have been minimal for its message was diffuse. Davis never really figured out how to put abstraction to use–in short, how to communicate with it. While he maintained that “abstract art is realistic and has meaning because it expresses common experience,” he failed to realize that a “common” form meaningfully abstracted by the artist, will often be differently interpreted by another viewer. The entire context shifts, and the artist’s intention is lost. To be fair, it should be pointed out that the question of how to visually structure meaning via abstraction has remained virtually unanswered throughout the 20th century. Davis cannot be faulted for being of his time.
If Davis’s work is not especially efficacious, neither is it particularly uplifting. One tends to concur with critic Edward Alden Jewell who observed of a now-lost work, “If Davis here painted a symphony, it must be esteemed in no way analogous to any symphony–at least any good one–that I have listened to in the concert hall.” That’s about right. Aside from his expressionistic self-portraits and landscapes of 1919, and the iconic still-lifes from the mid-1920s, Davis’s work from the 1940s is by far his best, with a lively collage effect that is optically vibrant, even volatile at times. Davis peaked in small works like Arboretum by Flashlight (1942), Ultra-Marine (1943), and The Mellow Pad (1945-51).
But by the early 1950s, his canvasses became increasingly reductive as he reworked earlier compositions. Even classics like Rapt at Rappaport’s (1952) and Semé (1953) are sections of a 1922 landscape, colored differently and overlayed with “X”s, “O”s, and other glyphs. In fact, he repeated himself so often over the course of his career that it seems like he has at most 10 or 15 different compositions that deal with half as many subjects. Semé contains the intriguing word “Eydeas,” a fusion of “Eye” with “ideas.” One can toy with the meaning of the picture, but characteristically, its “Eydeas” are murky, at best. By this time, however, Davis’s renown was firmly established. He had taught for many years and received numerous awards and prizes. For better or worse, Davis had become an American master.
The inevitable centennial exhibition, his first major retrospective in a quarter century, does little to burnish Davis’s reputation. Indeed, for such an enormous show, it is remarkably impoverished aesthetically. A more selective display would have served the artist better. But then, it would have been less honest about the depth and character of his aesthetic accomplishment. So painstaking and thorough an excavation hardly seems worth the bother.
“Stuart Davis: American Painter” remains at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through June 7. The exhibition is made possible by The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc., and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
(1) “Stuart Davis: American Painter,” organized for The Metropolitan by Lowery S. Sims, Associate Curator in the Department of 20th Century Art, who selected the works with William Agee, Professor of Art History at Hunter College and editor of the forthcoming Davis catalogue raisonné.
(2) All quotes are from the exhibition catalogue, Stuart Davis: American Painter, by Lowery Stokes Sims et. al., 333 pages, 129 color illus., The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Jason Edward Kaufman ©
This article appeared in The World & I, April 1992, pp. 196-201.