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Stuart Davis, “Lucky Strike” (1921), oil on canvas, 33 1/4 x 18 inches, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; gift of the American Tobacco Company, Inc., 1951 (all images © Estate of Stuart Davis / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

With the rise of artists desperate to align themselves with one compromised avant-garde tradition or another, it is useful to remember that Stuart Davis never fit in. Born in 1892, ten years after Edward Hopper and five years after Georgia O’Keeffe, Davis didn’t become a realist nor did he paint abstracted depictions of nature. Rather, he was the first American artist to be open to modern advertising signage and technological innovations. By 1921, while other early American modernists, such as Marsden Hartley and Hopper, were still depicting rural scenes, namely White America, Davis, who was inspired by Walt Whitman (“our one big artist”), was trying to figure out how to introduce modern life into his work. For him, modern life wasn’t about the big theme or the heroic subject; it was about everyday life and its disposable, inexpensive stuff, new technology, and pop culture: cigarettes, mouthwash, razor blades, light bulbs, radio tubes, gasoline pumps, egg beaters, jazz and popular music.

It took Davis a while to figure out how to be as modern as the world around him, but when he did, he was onto something fresh and unlike anything else. Between 1921 and 1928, when he went to Paris for the first time, he did discrete bodies of work in which he pushed the relationship between subject matter and formal concerns as far as he could, moving from the punctilious legibility, as in his trompe l’oeil renderings of cigarette packs, to his series of “egg beaters,” in which he turned his subject matter into interlocking and overlapping planes of flatly painted color set within an ambiguous space. This work constitutes the first great phase of his career. While many have seen him as a precursor to Pop Art, it seems to me that in his love of American packaging, Davis is instead the heir to the American trompe l’oeil tradition dating back to artists like John F. Peto (1854-1907), the one who made it modern.

Stuart Davis, “Place Pasdeloup” (1928), oil on canvas, 36 3/8 × 29 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (click to enlarge)

Restless and probing throughout his life, in the latter part of his career he would return to earlier compositional formats as if they were containers that could be emptied out and refilled with a completely new set of colors and configurations. Davis’s reinventions reminded me of the challenges presented by a sestina, a strict poetic form comprised of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by an envoi of three lines, in which the poet must adhere to a strict pattern that repeats the initial stanzas six end-words in a staggered sequence through the remaining five stanzas and the envoi.

In the beautiful exhibition Stuart Davis: In Full Swing at the Whitney Museum of American Art (June 10 – September 25, 2016), which was co-organized by Barbara Haskell, Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and Harry Cooper, Curator and Head of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, with Sarah Humphreville, Curatorial Assistant from the Whitney, we get a fresh view of Davis, whose work hasn’t been the subject of a major New York museum exhibition since a survey show was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1991.

While the press release emphasizes – unfortunately – the word “appropriation” to describe Davis’s use of his early compositions as an inspiration, it seems to me that he shares more with Jasper Johns than he does with Sherrie Levine. More to the point, one is reminded of what Art Tatum and Fats Waller did with such standards as “Tea for Two.” One of the deepest pleasures of the Davis exhibition is to see how – in revisiting an earlier composition – he uses the structure to move away from representation towards abstraction – the interaction of color, form, and line. Another pleasure is see what happens when he limits his non-naturalistic palette to different sets of four or five colors, including black and white, while exploring the same composition.

Stuart Davis, “Semé” (1953), oil on canvas, 52 x 40 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; George A. Hearn Fund, 1953

In “Landscape with Clay Pipe” (1941), Davis combines elements of a still life (a white clay pipe, a cigar, and matches) with an urban view by a river (a gas station, barbershop pole, fish, words and numbers), while limiting his palette to black, white, red, violet, blue, and blue-green. There is something visually frenetic about the painting. The scale changes and the colors jump. At the same time, the limited palette holds this cacophony firmly in place, like an unlikely and even dissonant combination of notes, which begins to sound necessary and even natural when it returns as a coda in a musical composition. This isn’t Cubism because Davis refused to confine himself to the visible world. By 1918, a few years before he hit his stride, Davis declared that a modern painting was a “mental concept” that combines the visible with, as Barbara Haskell states in her catalogue essay, “the artist’s memories and mental associations.”

Throughout his career, Davis explored the unstable relationship between the subject and the form. He never tried to develop a fixed style, which would enable him to turn each subject into a brand (Roy Lichtenstein). When he was in Paris and did “Arch Hotel” (1929), a picture that suggests he was looking at the street outside a window that held a bottle of rum and a lemon on the sill, he was also recalling the relationship between inside and outside space that early Renaissance artists explored in their paintings of the Nativity. The stage-like setting of his Paris scenes underscores that he is a member of the audience, a viewer of the spectacle. Paris was calm and controlled compared to New York, or what Davis called the “frenetic commercial engine.” And yet, instead of feeling nostalgic for an earlier time, Davis found away to orchestrate the frenzy of everyday life in his dissonant paintings.

Stuart Davis, “Visa” (1951), oil on canvas, 40 x 52 inches, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; gift of Mrs. Gertrud A. Mellon, 1953 (click to enlarge)

Davis wasn’t afraid of placing jarring colors side by side or of zigzagging a calligraphic line across a painting, like an illegible sentence. Instead of soothing the viewer, he made work that was exuberant and upbeat, almost shrill in its sense of celebration. In 1950, 1951, and later, in 1961, when he uses different palettes for the word “Champion” in three distinct paintings with the same format, I had the feeling he was offering commentary on what he had achieved, and he was mocking himself. With each new manifestation, he was suggesting something about the temporariness of it all. He could have written tempus fugit, but that would have been too obvious. Davis wanted his work to be accessible and even direct, but he didn’t want it to be obvious. Life, after all, isn’t like that.

If I had a quibble with Davis previously, it was that I thought he was too upbeat and optimistic, but I realize that I was wrong. His color combinations are passages of syncopated chaos, simultaneously harmonious and dissonant. This is one thing he got from his love of jazz. Under the rubric of entertainment, his art brings together a veneer of cheerfulness and a large dose of rage and pain lurking underneath. Too often, in Davis’s work, we have looked at one and not the other.

Stuart Davis: In Full Swing continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through September 25.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the...