Try it yourself.
Walk into your local Art Museum and look for Stuart Davis. I bet they own at least one, and I also bet it’s on display. I’m making this wager based on my experience that every American Museum I’ve been to, including many smaller ones, owns at least one work by Stuart Davis, and that work seems to always be on view1. This is a testament to his wide, and ongoing, appeal. Stuart Davis’ Art still has a contemporary look and feel to it. Maybe that’s because so many Artists who have come after him, like much of “Pop Art,” have been influenced by him. Somehow, Davis is also an Artist who is rarely given a show. The last big one I know of was “Stuart Davis: American Painter” at The Met in 1991. It’s left me with years of longing to see more than one or two of his works at a time, so I was very excited when I heard about “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing,” June 10-September 25 at the Whitney.
It turns out to have been worth the wait. With 75 works ranging from 1923 until his final work left unfinished on his easel the night he died in 1964, we get to see much, if not all, of his accomplishment. The 1991 Met show featured 175 works, 31 before the earliest work in this show. While I’m a bit disappointed the show is missing the first decade of his work, (the title “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” refers to his career being in full swing during the period of his work displayed), what’s included has been marvelously hung adding much insight into Davis’ process and development.Beyond this, it’s simply gorgeous to behold. Davis, the colorist, is something not often spoken about, and for me, is under-appreciated. His work needs to be seen in person, where his color makes a vibrant, stunning, often shocking first impression- even in 2016. Looking closer, it becomes apparent that though he uses relatively few colors and repeats them from piece to piece he is a master of color schemes. Has any American Artist used Yellows or Oranges the way Davis has?
Having come out of the end of the era of “Ashcan School,” Davis’s early work, often depicting street scenes of the greater New York area, shared their darker palette. Here and there he’d inject very bright passages of color, as in “Bleecker Street,” 1912. Soon, they would dominate as the influence of the Europeans, the Cubists 3, and Joan Miro took hold, his palette brightened. Matisse was also an early influence, and even in the 1950s, Davis’ work features shapes that echo those found in Matisse’s late Cut-Outs.
The title “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” is a double entendre, also referring to his love of Jazz- “swing” being the most popular form of the music in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Stuart Davis loved Jazz. As I wrote not all that long ago upon accidentally discovering where he lived for 20 years in Greenwich Village, it was, coincidentally or not, around the corner from some of the greatest jazz clubs in the world4.
Looking at his work, it’s clear that he “gets” what it’s like to play Jazz, what goes on in the mind of the musician or singer, and it comes out of his hands, like it does for musicians, too.
Walking around, I spent quite a bit of time trying to associate Davis’ work with specific Jazz Artists. While I found there were many who came to mind for specific works, I came to feel that Davis’ work was ahead of it’s time, musically, as well as visually/Artistically. His shapes seem to anticipate the angular developments of Musicians like Thelonious Monk and Andrew Hill. Standing in front of a work like “Swing Landscape,” 1938, an endlessly fascinating blend of nautical visual motifs in a riot of color, the feeling is like listening to a great Big Band. Take Duke Ellington’s or Count Basie’s classic Big Bands that were chock full of unique soloists. each one with a recognizable solo voice. When Lester Young soloed on Tenor Sax for Basie, there was no doubt who was playing. Same for Johnny Hodges, “Tricky” Sam Nanton, Ben Webster, or Bubber Miley with Duke, not to mention Duke and the Count, themselves. Looking at “Swing Landscape,” is like hearing a big band to me, a band comprised of unique voices (colors on shapes), each playing their own part, but still a part of the whole. There is an overriding feeling of joy, and life. But, there were other works that looked to me more like the music of non-swing Masters Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and even early Ornette Coleman. Though I mixed them in, and many others, I found myself repeatedly returning to Duke Ellington, one of the greatest composers of the century, in any style of music, who also continually pushed and evolved his style, taking the Big Band to many other places musically, like Davis did with Cubism, as the soundtrack for my visits.
Also like a Jazz Artist, Davis returned again and again to earlier compositions and “riffed” on them, as Patricia Hills said 5. Davis re-interpreted his earlier compositions the way Jazz Artists reinterpret standards- using his original theme as a jumping off point to create something entirely new.
In terms of Jazz in Art, I can’t think of another Artist who has a similar effect on me. Other Artists listened to Jazz, during the same time and later, but Stuart Davis’ work looks like Jazz to me. I get that feeling from isolated works by other Artists, especially that of Romare Bearden, who Davis told to visualize the relationships between jazz and art in 1940, though his works are primarily collages, not paintings, but Davis’s whole body of work, with rare exception, gives me that feeling6.
Yet, there’s more going on here than Jazz.
We watch Davis breaking through and coming into his own in works like “Super Table,” 1924, and the “Egg Beater” series of 1927-28, which were revolutionary takes on the Cubist “still life,” that proved to be the jumping off points for all his future work that would see him develop his own approach to Cubism, becoming one of the very few outside of the inventors of the style to do so. While he built upon the influences of others, he was very influenced by place and environment as well. His 1928 trip to Paris crops up again and again in his later work. His summers along the water in Gloucester, Mass supplied a life long reservoir of nautical imagery, as did, NYC, while Jazz provided inspiration. Products appear in Davis’ work, possibly evolving out of the still life works of the Cubists, but quickly becoming his own. He then takes words, first seen in ads and on products, and uses them in new ways, sometimes referencing the “hip” jargon of the time, sometimes cryptically, that only he really understands.
A walk through the show reveals that Pop Art, and a number of it’s leading lights were creating work that featured elements Stuart Davis began using way back in the 1920’s. In fact, after seeing it, you may never look at Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns or James Rosenquist quite the same again. Beyond his use of products, his use of words is something that many Artists since Davis, right up to Ed Ruscha, Jenny Holzer and Wayne White, have continued, some basing their entire Artistic output on them. While his influence is huge, it’s also interesting to me how different his work is from the work of the other Abstract Artists of his time, especially the Abstract Expressionists, who were then working right around him every day in NYC and it’s suburbs. Philip Guston speaks of knowing him 7. What about Jackson Pollock, (who was born, lived and work, then died during the time Davis was alive)? Did Davis know him? It would seem to me they must have met, especially since they both worked for the WPA (Works Progress Administration). It’s hard to imagine two more different Abstract Artists.
It must also be mentioned that Mrs. Gertrude V. Whitney was a substantial, and early, supporter of Davis, in a number of ways, both financially (buying his Art and advancing him funds) and through the Whitney Studio Club, the precursor of the Whitney Museum, where he got his “big break,” 8 with a 2 week retrospective exhibit in December, 1926. 90 years later, Davis returns to the latest incarnation of the Whitney Museum, a few minutes walk from where he once lived, something of a “champion” of American 20th Century Art, himself. His influence is ongoing. His achievement is still being considered. Yet? All in Stuart Davis’ Legacy is not painted in the bright colors he used so masterfully in his work.
While the joy, beauty and insights this show provides will stay with me for a very long time, it’s impossible not to also be reminded of the fact that 90 works by Stuart Davis were discovered to have been “looted” 9 from the Artist’s Estate by Laurence Salander of Salander-O’Reilly Gallery, the long time dealer for Stuart Davis’ Estate, in 2007. The court ruled that Salander owes Earl Davis and the Estate $114.9 million dollars, but being as Salander is behind bars on Riker’s Island no one knows if and when any of that money will be repaid. As bad as that is, perhaps even more tragically, to this day, I’m not sure that all of Davis’ works have been accounted for. The case led to the creation of new laws pertaining to Artist/Gallery dealings. That is the saddest part of what is otherwise the great and ongoing influence that is the legacy of Stuart Davis, one of America’s greatest, and most influential, Artists.
*-Soundtrack for this Post is “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” by Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, the title of which appears on Davis’ painting “Tropes de Teens,” 1956.
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- I’m not wagering “anything” on this, so if you find one that doesn’t have a Stuart Davis, write me and let me know and I’ll send this Post to them to hopefully influence their future purchases! ↩
- Stuart Davis “Autobiography” in “Stuart Davis” edited by Diane Kelder, P.26 ↩
- Davis, 21, was the youngest artist to be included in the legendary Armory Show of 1913, the first modern art show in America, which marked the arrival of Cubism in New York. ↩
- His parents had lived in the Hotel Chelsea, 11 blocks north. ↩
- “Stuart Davis,” by Patricia Hills, P. 19 ↩
- I am only talking about Artists who were/are Painters first, so I am leaving out Musician/Artists like Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Tony Bennett, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, et al.. ↩
- Guston “Collected Writings” P.40 ↩
- according to Patricia Hills “Stuart Davis” P.73 ↩
- Artnews April 18, 2014 ↩