“Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” at Washington’s National Gallery of Art

Elaine A. King
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Davis, Stuart

Cover image for NGA exhibition: ‘Stuart Davis: In Full Swing,’ Owh! on San Pao (1951). Detailed caption info for all images at end of review

Stuart Davis (1892-1964) is considered to be one of America’s first modern artists and a precursor of Pop Art.  He was an enthused colorist whose bright, well-developed paintings translated French Cubism into an unquestionably American art expression. Stuart Davis: In Full Swing, currently on view at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, considers his work from 1921 and his breakthrough paintings of tobacco packages. It then moves through five decades to his final canvas, demonstrating through the chronology Davis’s habit of recycling earlier work for new compositions. With more than one hundred of his most important, visually complex compositions on view, the exhibition highlights Davis’s ability to assimilate the imagery of popular culture, the aesthetics of advertising, the lessons of cubism, and the sounds and rhythms of jazz into works that hum with intelligence and energy.

Davis’s serious production spanned a critical time in the era of Modernism—1909 to 1964.  One might ask, “Why is this significant?” The answer is simple: his creative output was directly influenced by the technological and wide-scale cultural fluctuations that occurred in the transformation of Western society beginning with the Industrial Revolution, especially the growth of railways, and the telegraph.  Furthermore, the emerging technical innovations including steam-powered industrialization, electricity and the automobile radicalized life on all levels.  Moreover the rapid growth of cities, as more factories opened, fundamentally transformed life instuart davis !Portrait Europe and the United States. These engineering wonders significantly altered the late 19th/early 20th century urban environment and inspired a new form of musical entertainment from Cabaret in Europe and Jazz in the USA.

Right: Stuart Davis with his work, c. 1930

According to Phillip Dennis Cate and Mary Shaw, in The Spirit of Montmartre: Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-Garde, 1875–1905, “Cabaret gave birth to so many of the arts of modernism, including the immediate precursors of film, may be said to have begun in France in 1881 with the opening of the Black Cat in Montmartre, the beginning of the ironic monologue, and the founding of the Society of Incoherent Arts”.[1] Other new form of included the atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Second String Quartet” in 1908. The paintings of Wassily Kandinsky begun in 1903, the abstract work of the Blue Rider, the rise of Fauvism in Italy along with the ingenuities of Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse, as well as the inception of Cubism in Paris in 1911 as evidenced in the works of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris characterize the pulse of Modernism and its new thinking.  These Modernists shocked their audiences with their rejection of traditional perspective as the means of structuring paintings.  Both in literature and the visual art many creators sought to davis lndscp sawchallenge expectations largely to make their art more distinct, and to inspire viewers to take the time pause and ponder their own preconceptions

Left: Stuart Davis, Landscape with Saw (1922).

The exhibition’s organizers of this retrospective, Barbara Haskell of the Whitney (assisted by Sarah Humphreville) and Harry Cooper of the National Gallery in Washington, DC, aspired to distinguish the show Stuart Davis: In Full Swing from the Metropolitan’s 1991 retrospective Stuart Davis: American Painter, that included this painter’s early street scenes, landscapes, and self-portraits, done in differing realistic styles.  In Full Swing includes over 80 works beginning with paintings from the early 1920s depicting commercial items, made when Davis had first mastered a unique type of Cubist language.

Davis is credited with developing an American variation of European Cubism at a time when modernism was just beginning to infiltrate New York. Using slang words and everyday banal imagery that were distinctly American, Davis ascertained the USA’s dignity in the escalating modern art world.  He introduced an original aesthetic method to the language of abstraction by scattering shapes, throughout the canvas and harmonizing audacious colors in ways as to contradict a central point in the composition. His new technique, of making all parts in the image comparable afforded viewers to wander unguided across the composition—in other words, there wasn’t a single primary point.  This important step proved to be vital toward the emergence of pure abstraction accomplished later by the Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock.  Davis altered00005191-01 unrefined commonplace products and ads into particular works of high art that aroused the American mainstream spirit, foreshadowing Pop Art of the 1960s.

Right: Stuart Davis, Ready-to-Wear (1955)

The current National Gallery exhibition highlights Davis’s advanced work—when his shapes became adulate and brasher, emerging virtually completely abstract, resembling to a degree the collaged paper scraps in Matisse’s late cut-out works.  Despite the fact that Davis began his artistic career with Robert Henri and the Ashcan School of New York City, in 1913, he quickly embraced European modernism shortly after he was invited to show five watercolors in the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art –known as the Armory Show.   This was unusual recognition for a young artist.  After that exhibition Davis vowed to be a modern artist and he gradually developed his idiosyncratic style by loosening up his brushwork and perspective that advanced into his own unique brand of American Modernism.  By including in his work the cliché imagery of Americana he altered the European style of painting (Cubism) into something truly American.  Davis’s abstract paintings, infused with the influence of jazz’s repetitive rhythms along with bold, colorful forms derived from New York’s urban landscape as well as household things, offered viewers an experience of European Cubism however, with an American davis lucky strike 21spin.  In his unique brand of abstraction, Davis demonstrates an unwavering determination to convey essences of American political and consumer culture.

Left: Stuart Davis, Lucky Strike (1921)

New York early in the 20th century began to show Modernist work at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery, founded in 1905 that showcased photography and European new masters, and, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s, Whitney Studio Club, established in Greenwich Village in 1918.  Davis chose the latter, a more eclectic vanguard gallery. In the first room of the show one finds Davis’s meticulous, small trompe-l’oeil imagery of Lucky Strike tobacco packaging, comic strips, Odol mouthwash, and Edison Mazda electric light bulbs.  Throughout the 1920s an unprecedented proliferation of advertisements, mass-market products, and commercial packaging flourished in the USA. In this work, Davis reveals the conflict in his art between American-originated realism and European-derived abstraction, amongst populist and classicist content. Lucky Strike, 1921 and other tobacco imagery was inspired by the extensive dispersal31.169 of tobacco to U.S. soldiers fighting in World War I and how cigarettes became a potent symbol of America.

Right: Stuart Davis, Egg Beater No, 1 (1927).

Although these are noteworthy arrangements, an important change in direction became evident in 1927, when Davis nailed an eggbeater, a rubber glove, and an electric fan to a table in his studio.  This blending of absurd juxtapositions of unexpected combinations of modern appliances and his appreciation of Dada inspired Davis to produce the Egg Beater, series.  His abstract style reached its culmination in the pivotal Egg Beater series by 1928.  The four assured compositions displayed bridge the first and second galleries of the exhibition.  In this work one can see the artist’s mastery of color as well as Davis ability balance the reduction of subjects within a balanced composition. Seeing these painting on display in a single area plainly demonstrates Davis’s extraordinary ability to create differing configurations of the same still-life.  The Eggbeater Series debuted at the 4007-027Valentine Gallery with much success.  Egg Beater No.4, 1928, purchased by Duncan Phillips vividly demonstrates Davis’s exquisite grasp of fusing color with structural form.

Left: Stuart Davis, Mural for Studio B, WNYC Municipal Broadcasting Company (1939).

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney acquired two paintings and, with her support Davis travelled to Paris in 1928.  This sojourn for thirteen months proved to be pivotal in his artistic career.  During the time in Paris he produced compressed, powerful street scenes of the ‘city of light’ and cafes.  The colorful Paris compositions fill an entire gallery and some could be equated with wall decorations found in Parisian Bistros or stage sets.  What is critical about these architectural scenes is how Davis learned a new compositional method of using black, white, and a variety of colors to simultaneously engage and function equally.  One is witness here to a carefree, whimsical forcefulness that Davis had not used previously.

Even though the paintings in this gallery are captivating nevertheless Paris as a place was more profound for Davis philosophically since it helped him redefine New York and American Modernism for himself.  The scale and slower pace of Paris was transformative in comparison to the largeness and accelerated pace of New York.  It was this collocation of place and dynamism that made Davis recognize the turbulent energy of New York and how it represented the fundamental essence of Modernism with its advances in transportation, communication, air travel, and sense of concurrent simultaneity. Place4007-037 continued to be important throughout his career, however as the modern world was ever more about increased movement Davis desired to capture that essence in his art.

Right: Stuart Davis, Town Square (c. 1929)

The painting “New York-Paris No. 2,” 1931 evinces aspects of both cities concurrently, with a Hotel de France set alongside the Third Avenue El.   Stuart Davis produced American Painting 1932 for the Whitney Museum’s first annual painting survey exhibition (this evolved into today’s Biennial). This image pays homage to Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and John Graham, along with Duke Ellington and would be modified in 1942 by adding colors and in 1954 putting an X over Gorky who died. The words in the upper left corner, “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” is a quote from Ellington.  Although text was already a part of his oeuvre, the words here are more blatant.

Stuart Davis, as many artists suffered economically from the Great Depression of the 1930s, benefited from President Roosevelt’s Federal Art Project (FAP), and the Works Progress Administration (WAP).  The financial support of the government, allowed Davis to continue his explorations despite a lot of his output from this time was primarily murals. A modification in his painting style begins in mid-1930s.  The painterly trait of Davis’s earlier work began shifting toward an emphasis on drawing and line. Davis sought to produce his brand of abstract art that would be comprehensible to all viewers. He felt its readability was important so to convey his observations of American political and consumer culture. For Davis, including identifiable patterns, forms, and text encouraged observers to visually enter the painting and to discover colors, line, and spatial connections. If this could be achieved he felt there would be a meaningful, emotional response. The graphic bringing together of abstract and familiar forms could assure audiences that modern art was in fact relevant when Regionalist painters as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood fervently questioned the pertinence of abstraction.

Below: Stuart Davis, Swing Landscape (1938).

davis swing landscape 1938A key work from the 1930s was originally commissioned as a mural for a housing project.  In Swing Landscape, 1938, comprised of references from the waterfront of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Davis transformed masts, rigging, lobster traps, ladders, and striped poles into a language of coinciding, blazingly colorful forms, all of equivalent concentration. This complex painting demonstrates an mélange of colors, shapes and reference points punctuated by the intermingling black throughout the composition. Unfortunately as was the case with numerous WPA muralists, this work was never installed but later acquired by Indiana University.

By the mid-1940s, Davis created many of his most vital works. The Mellow Pad, 1945–51, Little Giant Still Life, 1950 and The Paris Bit, 1959 are highlights in the exhibition. These methodically orchestrated paintings evince a wit and joviality in contrast to the rising style of Abstract Expressionism derived from the combination of the passionate intensity and angst. He scorned their outpouring of personal internal turmoil of what he referred to as “bleeding heart syndrome”. Taxis, storefronts, neon signs and jazz music continued to be Davis sources of inspiration instead of self-revelry. The discordant colors andDavis Mellow Pad animated, repetitive rhythms undulate cross his compositions in a jubilant manner.

Right: Stuart Davis, The Mellow Pad (1945-51)

Davis’s influence on new generations of artists is undoubtedly obvious in the resolute, graphic paintings of such Pop artists in Britain and the United States including Andy Warhol and David Hockney.  Also, Wayne Thiebaud’s attention to machine-made objects and the language of commercials is certainly beholden to Davis’ art. Even Elizabeth Murray in an interview with Robert Storr in the Brooklyn Rail credits the importance of Stuart Davis: “Stuart Davis is a great example—another very important figure for me. Apart from the fact that I love the strength and stiffness of his brushworks, and that my favorite paintings of Davis FINhis are really not the landscapes so much but the still-lives—I love the Eggbeater paintings.”[2]

The artist’s last painting FIN, begun in 1962 remained unfinished, with tape still fixed to its surface.  This bold composition noticeably depicts the French word “fin” — “end” — on the upper left side. This was added on the night before he died of a stroke in 1964, at the age of 71.

Left: Stuart Davis, FIN (1962)

Although seeing a vast cornucopia of works in a retrospective is beneficial on one hand however, on the other it could be become tedious.  The organizers of this exhibit could have been more selective and accrued a more commanding exhibition with fewer works. The repetition of Davis’s daring colors and fragmented shapes gets redundant and numbing after a while.  I ask: do Boards encourage curators and directors to include as many works so to please collectors, art galleries and other institutions? This problem of diluting by a lack of selectivity was apparent in MOMA’s recent Picabia show that also weakened its impact. I am of the belief that “less is more!”  As writer’s need good editing, so too do art exhibitions.

Furthermore, in the 21st century, with the new museology encouraging museums to be responsive to broader audiences, who are not steeped in art history, the Stuart Davis: In Full Swing falls short. What are the circumstances in which this art originated? How did the spirit of the times influence the artist? Are there historic events that lead the artist to create precisely this work?

Yes, there are call cards in each gallery, however not all visitors take the time to read them. Filling gallery after gallery with paintings and only brief statements is not sufficient.  Given the richness of the era in which Davis emerged it would have been helpful to include photographs of street scenes of New York, Paris and the strife of the Depression as well as to have media stations to hear the Jazz that inspired this artist would have enlivened this display.  Undeniably the well-produced documentary film narrated by John Lithgow is informative however, not all viewers take the 30 minutes to sit through this video. http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/audio-video/video/stuart-davis.htm. If curators hope to reach diverse audiences today, they need to take advantage of new technology beyond a single video and to begin constructing an interactive display so to broaden visitors’ experiences.  Just hanging works on a wall and writing up wall cards, is 20th century—very old school!

By Elaine King, Contributing Writer

At the National Gallery in Washington, through March 5, 2017.

It will then move to the de Young Museum in San Francisco and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.


[1] Phillip Dennis Cate and Mary Shaw, eds., The Spirit of Montmartre: Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-Garde, 1875–1905. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University, 1996.

[2] IN CONVERSATION Elizabeth Murray by Phong Bui and Robert Storr October 25, 2005, The Brooklyn Rail

Caption Detail:

Stuart Davis (1892-1964), Owh! in San Pao (1951), Oil on canvas, dimensions overall: 52 3/16 × 42 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase. Rights and Reproductions Information © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Stuart Davis, Landscape with Saw, 1922, oil and pencil on canvas mounted on board, overall: 40 × 29.8 cm (15 3/4 × 11 3/4 in.) , Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Art © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Image (C) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

 Stuart Davis, Ready-to-Wear, 1955 Oil on canvas 142.6 x 106.7 cm (56 1/8 x 42 in.)  Restricted gift of Mr. and Mrs. Sigmund W. Kunstadter; Goodman Endowment 1956.137 The Art Institute of Chicago Art © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photography (C) The Art Institute of Chicago

Stuart Davis, Lucky Strike (1921), oil on canvas, overall: 84.5 x 45.7 cm (33 1/4 x 18”) The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of the American Tobacco Company, Inc. Art © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Digital Image (C) The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

 Davis, Stuart, Egg Beater No. 1, 1927, oil on canvas, overall: 74 × 91.4 cm (29 1/8 × 36 in.) , Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Gift of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, x.51601 Art © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

 maas 290 Stuart Davis, Mural for Studio B, WNYC, Municipal Broadcasting Company, 1939, oil on canvas, overall: 213.4 × 335.3 cm (84 × 132 in.) , Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lent by the City of New York, 1965Art © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Image Copyright (C) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image Source: Art Resource, NY

 Stuart Davis, Town Square, c. 1929, watercolor, gouache, ink, and pencil on paper, overall: 39.4 × 58.1 cm (15 1/2 × 22 7/8 in.) , The Newark Museum, Purchase 1930, The General Fund Art © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Image (C) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

 Stuart Davis, Swing Landscape, 1938, oil on canvas, overall: 220.4 x 439.7 x 8.9 cm (86 3/4 x 173 1/8 x 3 1/2 in.), framed: 224.8 x 443.9 x 8.9 cm (88 1/2 x 174 3/4 x 3 1/2 in.). Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington, Museum Purchase with Funds from the Henry Radford Hope Fund Art © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

 Stuart Davis, The Mellow Pad, 1945-1951, oil canvas, overall: 66.7 × 107 cm (26 1/4 × 42 1/8 in.) , Brooklyn Museum, bequest of Edith and Milton Lowenthal Art © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Stuart Davis, FIN, 1962-1964, casein and masking tape on canvas, overall: 136.8 x 101 cm (53 7/8 x 39 3/4 in.), framed: 146.4 x 110.8 x 7.6 cm (57 5/8 x 43 5/8 x 3”). Private collection  Art © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N

One Comment

  1. Richard Friswell February 24, 2017 9:21 am

    Editor’s note: This reply was received at the ARTES office:
    As an art historian involved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1991 Stuart Davis retrospective and a 1997 Davis show at the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation and  European tour, the curator of “the Amazing Continuity: Stuart Davis Works on Paper,” an AFA traveling exhibition, 1992-1994. and “Stuart Davis in Gloucester,” 1999, Cape Ann Historical Society and tour, and a contributing editor of the Stuart Davis catalogue raisonné, I read with interest Elaine King’s review of “Stuart Davis: in Full Swing,”  There are a couple of factual glitches in the piece that warrant clarification. First: Davis wasn’t “invited” to exhibit in the 1913 Armory Show. When some, mostly younger, American artists protested how few Americans had been included in the original selection, they were allowed to submit work to a very hastily arranged jury. Davis’s watercolors were selected from that, as were works by William and Marguerite Zorach, Davis’s friend Glintencamp, among others. It was impressive that these virtual unknowns were included, but it wasn’t the same as having been invited in the first place. Davis used to lie about his age, subtracting two years, so he would be the youngest person in the show. Re the WPA: Davis was not just a beneficiary, but also instrumental in getting the government to pay stipends to artists. He spent most of the  Depression as an activist and organizer, which severely compromised his time in the studio.  Karen Wilkin k.wilkin3@verizon.net

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