Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Stuart Davis: Modern Before His Time -- an Art Exhibition in a blog post (on a groundbreaking American painter)

Stuart Davis, Self-Portrait, 1919
If I ran the Art Institute of Chicago, or any other major art museum that I myself could easily get to, I would organize an exhibition on Stuart Davis.

Although works by the American painter, who lived from 1892-1964, adorn many of the country's, and world's, top museums, I have never seen--nor even noticed the contemporary existence of--an exhibit focused on Davis, excepting an upcoming one next year at the Whitney in New York City.

And while a good smattering of art literate friends seem to know and like Davis' oeuvre--at least the latter, more iconic examples--the artist's renown seems to lag behind American contemporaries like Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe and the abstract expressionists (Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, etc.).

One cannot find an in-print, recent book on Stuart Davis on Amazon, save for a $300 box set. (I recently bought, for $9.00, a nice catalog that accompanied a 1997-98 exhibition, which you can still find through Amazon.)

WikiArt.org, my go-to art reference website, has just a small sampling (19 pieces) of Davis' voluminous output, while another thorough art website--Olga's Gallery (abcgallery.com)--has none.

Even a Google search for "Stuart Davis Exhibition" reveals few retrospectives of any recency, though it does bring up a nifty PDF Catalog from an Art Institute of Chicago exhibition in 1965, just a year after the artist's death at age 71.

Stuart Davis, Self-Portrait, 1919
And Googling "Greatest American Painters" brings up an image strip of over 50 "artists frequently mentioned on the web" without including Davis.

So even though there was fairly little to be easily found on Stuart Davis online, I decided to delve a bit deeper into an artist whose works always bring a smile when I see them, as I did most recently at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, which has a piece titled New York Mural from 1932 (see images below).

Fortuitously, I was able to find the 1997-98 catalog on Amazon, and along with providing a good amount of illumination, it helped me find many Stuart Davis paintings online, made much easier once I knew the titles.

Though I've long appreciated how most of the artists we may think of as abstractionists or otherwise minimalists--Miro, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Rothko, de Kooning, etc.--painted rather wondrous realist or more traditional works before they distilled down to their famed styles (see this this post of mine on the topic), I was rather impressed by Davis' evolution.

While I love quintessential Davis--the vibrant, brightly-hued, jazz-influenced abstract paintings that seem to predate both abstract expressionism and pop art--I was tickled to note pre-1921 Davis paintings that seem to hint at what Hopper would do a bit later and Roy Lichtenstein much later.

With some help from the book and Wikipedia, here's a bit of biographical background: 

Stuart Davis was born in Philadelphia in 1892; his father was art editor of the Philadelphia Press and his mother was a sculptor. Beginning in 1909, Davis trained in New York under Robert Henri, the leader of the Ashcan School, through whom he befriended John Sloan and others.

In 1913, Davis was one of the youngest painters to exhibit in the Armory Show, where he displayed five watercolor paintings in the Ashcan school style, and was exposed to the works of Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and many other artists.

His early works often reflected cubism and modernism while his 1920s development led to abstract still lifes, landscapes and "proto-Pop" paintings of cigarette packages.

In 1928, he visited Paris, where he painted street scenes, and in the 1930s he became increasingly politically engaged with a state goal was to "reconcile abstract art with Marxism and modern industrial society."

His most famous, jazz-influenced abstract style seems to predominantly date from the late 1930s onward, although hints of the colorful abstracts began to appear a few years earlier.

Stuart Davis, Men Without Women, mural at Radio City Music Hall
In 1932, Davis was commissioned to paint a mural for New York's Radio City Music Hall, titled Men Without Women (to his own distaste, and said to be an allusion to Hemingway that I don't get)--some surmise it helped to inspire Picasso's Guernica--and in 1945, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a retrospective exhibition on Stuart Davis, who would remain rather active until his death from a stroke nearly 20 years later.

I admit that I haven't read all of the copious text that the book includes--and believe that Davis' paintings themselves, as I'll present chronologically below, do an ample job of pronouncing his stylistic progression--but there is a good essay by Ben Sidran called "The Jazz of Stuart Davis," which can actually be read online through the hyperlink.

Sidran notes that at age 20, Davis and a pal were checking out jazz in Newark, when the music was probably called "barrel house" or "honky tonk" and had yet to be recorded:
"What is remarkable is that, at the time, there was no jazz available on phonograph records (this was still several years off) and there was virtually no way a couple of young white boys could even know about its existence, let alone its power. But these rough bars in Newark became the crucible from which the soul of a young artist was cast. It was here in the heat of the creative moment that the real world and the world of abstraction came together for Stuart Davis."
Sidran goes on to intimate that Davis was smitten by the lack of distinction between high or low art in the protean world of jazz and believed that in art, as in jazz, "any preconceived ideas about racial, national or class superiorities could not thrive in its atmosphere."

Quoting bits and pieces from the Sidran essay:
"Stuart Davis went beyond a mere egalitarianism to see the world of black music as a kind of metaphor for the plight of the arts in America. ... Often, during key moments of his career, Davis returned to the imagery of jazz to describe his situation. ...  To Davis, jazz was a paradigm of modern creation. One could speculate that jazz might literally have acted as a catalyst for him, particularly the music of pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, his favorite musician from the late 20s until his death. Hines’ flashing, angular lines, and especially the clusters of colors and trills that he threw off so effortlessly, had their analog in the high key colors of Davis’s work.

"And Stuart Davis did, on occasion, connect his own painting directly to various jazz techniques.

"For example, of the painting Hot Still-Scape In Six Colors -- Seventh Ave. Style, [Davis] wrote that "six colors were used ...as the instruments in a musical composition might be, where the tone-color variety results from the simultaneous juxtaposition of different instrument groups."
Stuart Davis, Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors - Seventh Avenue Style, 1940
The work shown nearby is the one about which Sidran quoted Davis, sharing that his visual composition wasn't so unlike a musical one.

What strikes me as an avid but unstudied art lover is that I can't conjure any obvious artistic antecedents that may have led Davis to creating this kind of work in 1940.

Perhaps some might see echoes of the abstract geometrical vibrancy of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky or Joan Miro, but Davis' piece preceded citable abstract expressionist examples by Jean Dubuffet or Arshile Gorky, among others. And the Pop Art of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol was still more than 20 years away from prominence.

So while I really love Stuart Davis' art for the way it looks, even in an amateurishly academic regard, it would seem that his career achievements and innovations merit considerably more exploration in the museums and bookstores of America, and of course, across the internet.

If nothing else, it would seem a slim, user-friendly tome on Stuart Davis by Taschen would fit well into the art publisher's forte.

But it's cool that the Whitney Museum of American Art, in its fancy new New York building, will present Stuart Davis: In Full Swing for over three months next year--it'll be even cooler if I can get to it--and the exhibition looks to travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC from there.

It would be nice if the Art Institute would bring the exhibit to Chicago, but I realize such decisions are usually made when the exhibition is being organized, so I'm not holding my breath.

Hence, I've taken it upon myself to organize this Stuart Davis retrospective within the confines of Seth Saith.

Other than captioning the paintings with titles and dates--except for a few that eluded me--I won't provide any more elucidation that you might get in an actual exhibition, but I hope you enjoy:

Stuart Davis: Modern Before His Time
An online exhibition about American painter Stuart Davis (1892-1964) curated by Seth Arkin for SethSaith.com.
Please do not republish without permission. Images pulled from various sources, no rights infringement intended. 

Stuart Davis, Chinatown, 1912
Stuart Davis, Babette, 1912
Stuart Davis, Bleecker Street, 1912
Stuart Davis, Garage, 1917
Stuart Davis, Garage, 1917

Stuart Davis, Lucky Strike, 1921
Stuart Davis, Still Life (Red), 1922
Stuart Davis, Still Life with Dial, 1922
Stuart Davis, Apples and Jug, 1923
Stuart Davis, Edison Mazda, 1924
Stuart Davis, Odol, 1924
Stuart Davis, Lucky Strike, 1924
Stuart Davis, Super Table, 1925
Stuart Davis, Egg Beater No. 3, 1927-28
Stuart Davis, Egg Beater No. 4, 1928

Stuart Davis, Place des Vosges No. 1, 1928
Stuart Davis, Place des Vosges No. 2, 1928
Stuart Davis, Place Pasdeloup, 1928
Stuart Davis, Boats, 1930
Stuart Davis, Corner Cafe, 1930
Stuart Davis, New York Elevated, 1930
Stuart Davis, Salt Shaker, 1931
Stuart Davis, Landscape with Garage Lights, 1932
Stuart Davis, New York Mural, 1932
Stuart Davis, American Painting, 1932-51
Stuart Davis, Spar, 1932-33
Stuart Davis, Composition, 1935
Stuart Davis, Cape Ann Landscape, 1938
Stuart Davis, Swing Landscape, 1938
Stuart Davis, Report from Rockport, 1940
Stuart Davis, New York Under Gaslight, 1941
Stuart Davis, Arboretum in Flashbulb, 1942
Stuart Davis, The Mellow Pad, 1945-51
Stuart Davis, For Internal Use Only, 1945
Stuart Davis, Allee Mural, Drake University, 1945
Stuart Davis, Pad No. 4, 1947
Stuart Davis, Little Giant Still Life, 1950
Stuart Davis, Visa, 1951
Stuart Davis, Owh! In San Pao, 1951
Stuart Davis, Rapt at Rappaport's, 1952
Stuart Davis, Above Called Memo, 1953
Stuart Davis, Something on the Eight Ball, 1954
Stuart Davis, Colonial Cubism, 1954
Stuart Davis, Ready to Wear, 1955
Stuart Davis, Premiere, 1957
Stuart Davis, Composition Concrete, Study for Mural, 1957-60
Stuart Davis, The Paris Bit, 1959
Stuart Davis, Unfinished Business, 1962
Stuart Davis, Blips and Ifs, 1963-64

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well done! This would model, in outline, a fine exhibition.