Stuart Davis’s career traces the growth of American art from turn-of-the-century Ashcan School to 1950s cool abstraction. His work at mid-century was so influential that in many ways its profound originality has become invisible: his hard-edged planes of bright, cool colors and proto-pop distillations of consumer culture have been so fully absorbed into popular consciousness that they almost seem inevitable. This sophisticated distillation was the product of decades of careful synthesis as he grappled on the front lines with the meanings and means of modernism, foreign and domestic. His early work paid a tribute to Post-Impressionists. He applied the graphic styles of Toulouse-Lautrec in his graphic work and the extreme paint application of van Gogh in his fine art. At the same time, he struggled to integrate his left-wing political convictions with his chosen vocation. From 1909 to 1930, Davis worked his way through the lessons—social, philosophical, and aesthetic, that characterized the first half of the twentieth century, arriving finally at an idiom that would characterize much of the second half. His work is well represented in public collections across the country and worldwide.
Born in Philadelphia in 1894, Stuart Davis made an early and decisive move into a career as an artist. His family moved to East Orange, New Jersey, in 1901, but he left before graduating to begin his study with the influential teacher Robert Henri.
Robert Henri had by this time well established himself both as an important artist and a teacher worth seeking out. His “realist” program centered on depicting life in the gritty urban streets, resisting in style and substance the artifices of the gilded age. Henri had been molding a generation of young painters since the turn of the century. John Sloan had advanced a similar agenda in Philadelphia since the 1890s. In 1908, Macbeth Galleries exhibited the celebrated group show of a cluster of these artists. The Macbeth painters were quickly dubbed The Eight – a sly dig at the Boston-New York group of American Impressionists, The Ten. Many of The Eight were involved in journalistic illustration, and indeed a unifying spirit was the convergence of fine art and journalism. Academic realism was rejected along with the gauzy sentimentality of drawing-room Impressionism: life was out in the street; The Eight believed that art belonged in the streets as well.
Stuart Davis arrived on the scene after the first generation of urban realists, nearly thirty years younger than Henri. He studied with Henri from 1909 to 1912. It proved an auspicious moment: Davis arrived with a new crop of young artists, including George Bellows, not long after Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent had left Henri’s tutelage. Davis later described Henri’s admonition that his students become ‘sketch hunter[s]…drifting out among people, in and out of the city.” (As quoted in Patterson Sims, Stuart Davis, p. 11) All of these artists also studied at the Art Students League of New York, a de facto proving ground for this particular breed of left-leaning urban realists, and they all worked commercially as illustrators.
Davis, for his part, found a home at The Masses, a radical left magazine under the art direction of fellow Philadelphian John Sloan. Sloan had joined the Socialist Party in 1910, but, even in the years before the Russian Revolution, there was a marked distrust for the Communist Party at the magazine. Its editorial board refused to run explicit propaganda, favoring humor and art-for-art’s-sake over the grim party line of other left-end magazines. It boasted high quality covers and frequently ran art of early American Modernists without caption, including work by Abraham Walkowitz, Arthur B. Davies, and Joseph Stella.
Stuart Davis’s contributions to The Masses in the early 1910s were illustrations, often published with biting caption supplied by the editors. Davis bristled when his art was used to play a supporting role to political messaging. His twin interests, reportorial illustration and fine art, had not yet been integrated. His illustrations leaned towards art, his art leaned toward illustration, but they remained discrete areas of exploration. It was Davis, in an exchange with fellow Masses illustrator Art Young, who first used the term ‘Ash Can’ in reference to the work of his fellow artists (the term would not gain widespread use until the 1930s, and now it is often used interchangeably with The Eight and the Henri circle). At the pivotal 1913 Armory Show, Davis was one of the youngest artists on view. He was exposed to advanced European Modernism, and the impact on his painting for the following decade was profound. This represented a growing fissure in the mind of the young artist. John Sloan joined the chorus of philistines in mocking the cubist and futurist contributions to the show. Bellows, who attended the show every day it was open, nevertheless openly derided Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. At the offices of The Masses, sectarian strife brewed as well. With the world at war, the political alignment of the magazine cast about tempestuously. 1n 1916, the artists of the magazine quit en masse. Many artists later returned or joined the publication’s successors, The New Masses and The Liberator, but Davis’s break was final. The magazine lurched on for a few years, but its nervy commitment to freedom of expression was dissipated, replaced by an organ of propaganda that ultimately came to ruin.
As for Davis, the rest of the 1910s and much of the 1920s were spent with eyes newly opened. The Post-Impressionists had been exhibited in New York before 1913 – notably at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291—but never in the abundance or quality as the Armory Show. Standing before the works was transformative for Davis. Much of the anti-impressionist backlash of the Ash Can group was shared by the late nineteenth century French Independents. Davis was captivated by the vital potential of painting to rise beyond merely pretty pictures or images with strictly literal interpretations. While he remained dedicated to a left political alignment through the following decades, he began to see the synthesis of the power of painting with a relevant place in contemporary urban-industrial society. His palette for these years exploded into brilliant color. The shrill and sickly remarks on the human condition of the Ash Can School were replaced by the warmly resonating colors of Matisse, Cezanne, Degas. He moved deftly to a thick impasto, rapidly appropriating the idiom of van Gogh for his own contemporary purposes. The Armory Show was something of a death knell for the short-lived Ash Can School. For forward-looking artists like Davis, it was also a catapult to his mature style.
Stuart Davis started going to Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1915, continuing to summer there until 1934. He later summed up the experience:
I went to Gloucester, Mass., on the enthusiastic recommendation of John Sloan. That was the place I had been looking for. It had the brilliant light of Provincetown, but with the important additions of topographical severity and the architectural beauties of the Gloucester schooner…Another very important thing about the town at that time was that the pre-fabricated Main Street had not yet made its appearance. Also the fact that automobiles were very few and their numerous attendant evils were temporarily avoided…I would not want my reference to the evils of the automobile as being indicative of opposition to mechanical progress….I went to Gloucester every year, with few exceptions, until 1934, and often stayed late into the fall. I wandered over the rocks, moors, and docks, with a sketching easel, large canvases, and a pack on my back, looking for things to paint… (as quoted in Stuart Davis: Provincetown and Gloucester Paintings and Drawings, Grace Borgenicht Gallery).
The Gloucester years were transformative. Some of his finest work comes from this period, and during this time, he streamlined his ideas of how to paint, what to paint, and what a picture could be. The muscular application of paint, derived from van Gogh, was slowly worked into a harmony with a growing interest in Cubism. Slowly he learned to flatten his planes, absorbing the lessons of the Precisionist group of American artists. Precisionism encompasses Charles Demuth, Preston Dickinson, Ralston Crawford, Charles Sheeler, and early works by Georgia O’Keeffe—sharp edges, industrial themes, and a distinctly American take on Analytic Cubism. The focus on industrial scenes and manufactured products appealed to Davis’s social and political sensibilities: whereas human society once measured itself in relationship to nature, religion, and country, Modern Man’s reality was circumscribed by his job at the factory and the mass-produced products he purchased. Scholarship remains conflicted about the nature of the Precisionist’s embrace of Modernity, variously discovering acerbic critique or naïve adulation.
Davis, for his part, seems to have been expert in capturing a moment and animating a painting with its own life, far removed from the banal politics of endorse-or-decry. That distance was precisely what he sought when he resigned from The Masses in 1916, and he seems to have found it in the following decade. Conventional figuration and landscape ebb fully during this period, and his method of painting changed as well. During the early years in Gloucester, he painted en plein air, using modernist techniques to gently abstract from life. Later, he eliminated people from his work altogether. When figures are present, they are represented by industrial and consumer objects. He stopped using a full plein air setup, shifting instead to working out ideas with a simple drawing pen and paper. Painting more in his studio gave his work a distance from his subject matter, and the nature of his pictures changed. Composition, unhinged from a scene, became fully abstract, and he began to use free-form planes as derived from Cubist collage. By 1927, he began a series meditating on a simple egg-beater, examining and extrapolating upon its forms in the manner of the early analytic cubist works of Picasso and Braques. Unlike the French interpretations of guitars and chair caning, Davis’s egg beaters have the bright palette and more simplified planes, owing something to the late paper-cut work of Matisse. Next to Davis’s eggbeaters, Picasso’s early work looks drab and folksy. Davis added the gleaming industrial newness, taking the sharp modern edge of Precisionism and looking ahead to the bright-lit fifties. While he further reduced the pictorial elements to iconographic elements, he also added text to his compositions. This had been done in early Cubism as well, Davis animated his words as pictorial elements, his cursive and block-lettered scribbles denoting their own chromatic panes. He incorporated the heavy black boundary line of Synthetic Cubism and re-animated his own text, allowing free-floating glyphs to vibrate alternately bounded and unbounded, line giving way to plane and vice versa, in a carefully balanced, jazz-inspired visual rhythm. By 1932, all of Davis’s pieces were in place: Fauve color, Pop subject matter, Precisionist edge, Cubist collage and text, and jazz rhythm to animate it all.
The 1930s began with an important mural commission: the Men’s Lounge of Radio City Music hall. It is a catalogue of Davis techniques. Its title, Men without Women, is said to have derived from a Hemingway short story, and given its original placement (it is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art) and iconography, it seems particularly appropriate. The image is a careful arrangement of masculine icons: a cigar, a pipe, a nautical tattoo, a sailboat and playing cards are all discernible. The noisy mix of images and muted tones is a jubilant prefiguration of Picasso’s Guernica, the grim masterpiece that wouldn’t be painted for another five years. The following year, Davis joined the Public Works of Art Project (which would later become the WPA), working in the murals and graphics division until 1939. 1932 also marked the beginning of his teaching career, first at the Art Students League of New York; he later instructed at the New School through the 1940s, and at Yale in the 1950s. The 1930s also saw a last gasp of his political career, acting as national secretary and later national chairman of the American Artists Conference as well as editing Art Front, an organ of the Artists’ Union.
The remaining three decades of Davis’s career are a litany of honors and achievements. His mural work of the 30s put him in the public eye, and he completed several other large-scale public works. His easel painting brightened and mellowed with a wit and poetry that only grew more relevant with time. Owing something to Henri’s enthusiasm for going to the seedier parts of town, Davis had been an early aficionado of jazz music. In the 1950s, with the rise of bebop and cool jazz, the medium gained credibility and favor in the circles of sophisticated tastemakers. Davis had long tried to emulate the syncopation and improvisation with visual analogs, and his contributions to this practice gained widespread support with the arrival of the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. Jazz moved from the ghetto to the Plaza Hotel, with Davis well ahead of the curve.
Stuart Davis died in 1964, having lived to see, and have an important hand in, the total transformation of American art. He was included in the Whitney Studio Club’s 1918 “Indigenous” American show, when New York was still an artistic backwater compared to Paris. By 1964, New York was the center of the art world, and the brisk abstraction Davis had helped usher in was dominant. The social awareness that remained a core of his iconography would influence later generations even when the mania for abstraction ebbed, while his fresh-scented view of consumer culture anticipated Pop Art and its progeny, from Andy Warhol to Shepard Fairy. As early as 1921, he was using the “Ben-Day” dots that would make Lichtenstein famous, while his animate black line can be found even in Keith Haring’s work. The soul of his work remains the carefully resolved picture; the canny balance of color, line, plane, and icon, that tethers back to the early days of American Modernism with persistent relevance today.
Public CollectionsAddison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts
Amon Carter Museum,Texas
Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York
Art Institute of Chicago
Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Illinois
Brooklyn Museum, New York City
Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Cleveland Museum of Art
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art,Arkansas
Currier Museum of Art, New Hampshire
Dallas Museum of Art, Texas
Dayton Art Institute, Ohio
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont
Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma
Harvard University Art Museums, Boston, Massachusetts
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden,Washington, D.C.
Honolulu Museum of Art
The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York
Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri
Maier Museum of Art,Randolph-Macon Woman's College, Virginia
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas
Museum of Modern Art, New York
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Nevada Museum of Art
Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida
Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma
Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California
Palazzo Ruspoli, Rome
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Morgan Library, New York
Pomona College Museum of Art, California
Portland Museum of Art, Maine
San Diego Museum of Art, California
Sheldon Art Gallery,Lincoln, Nebraska
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Springfield Museum of Art, Springfield, Ohio
Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, Washington
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
U.S. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
University of Kentucky Art Museum
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond
Walker Art Center
Westmoreland Museum of American Art
Whitney Museum of American Art
Yale University Art Gallery