To- Whoever Owned This Book Before Me

I don’t know who you are, but this Post is for you.

“This book” is an out of print exhibition catalog from the Stuart Davis show at The Metropolitan Museum in 1991. Another of the shows I missed and will forever be sorry I did. Thank goodness it lived on in this superb catalog. Show catalogs are an interesting thing. Widely available while the show is on, they soon go out of print and then become sought after by Artists, specialists and die-hard fans as time passes.  Though The Met said they were going to make all their older publications available as .pdf files online, some, like this one, have been skipped no doubt because it was co-published by a big commercial publishing house, who has a say in that, in this case Abrams.

12 years ago I bought a used paperback copy of it at the now defunct Academy Books and had worn it out. I’ve had my eye out for another copy, one in good condition at a reasonable price for a while. I need it now because I’m in the middle of a Post on the “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” Show at the new Whitney Museum. My go-to (often) bookstore, The Strand, had one recently, but it wasn’t much better than the one I had, so I passed. A few days later, it was gone. So, I was driven to look online, and finally found this copy.

The Book. The catalog for The Met's 1991 Stuart Davis show, long out of print. Notice the cover Art.

The Book. The catalog for The Met’s 1991 Stuart Davis show, long out of print. Notice the cover Art.

I bought it online from a bookstore. When it arrived, unlike some of my recent experiences buying books online, I found it to be in better condition than I had hoped. People seem to want to upsell the condition of books, which is so shortsighted. Most buyers are going to notice an obvious flaw in something so why try and get over on someone and have it sent back to you and probably get some, deservedly, bad feedback in the process? To help keep it this way, I decided to put a book jacket on it. I’ve been looking through it, but I hadn’t looked inside the back cover. When I removed the dust jacket to wrap it, I did. I found Stuart Davis, himself, looking out at me from a 1912 Self Portrait he painted, apparently in New York, given the background, while he was living in Hoboken, NJ, at age 20. It was in an archival envelope. I opened it up to discover it was the first page of an article about Davis and the 1991 Met Show, carefully removed from an unknown magazine (circa 1991-2) and placed in this envelope to protect it, and so it wouldn’t discolor the book.

Stuart Davis, in his 1912 Self Portrait, looks out at us, 104 years later.

Haunting our City. Stuart Davis, age 20, in his 1912 Self Portrait (with NYC’s old Elevated Subway in the background) looks out at us, 104 years later, from inside the back cover. The original painting is here.

On the back of the last page of the article, someone had cut out and carefully taped the bibliography for the article. Impressive!

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This was something similar to what I’ve done for many years, myself. If you have eclectic taste and/or like Artists or Musicians that aren’t very popular it may be a long time before you find something in print about them. When I did? I’d read it over a few times, then cut it out and save it. I’d stick it inside a book about them (if there was one), inside a record jacket, or later, a CD jewel case.

I buy used books often, since many books I’m interested in are now out of print. Sometimes, the unpleasant aroma of old cigarette smoke hits you, making you wonder if that finally led to this book being here. They don’t make the cut. Sometimes, they come with a previous owner’s name written inside. I usually don’t like anything written in a book. But this one time? I wish the owner had written their name in it.

One day all too soon, physical Art Books will be a thing of the past, as soon as image quality in eBooks catches up with their printed counterpart in a reasonable file size. That might be a while yet. For me? It would be a mixed blessing. Mostly? I have too many large books, as I’m often reminded, so freeing up some space would make a big difference in my life. Beyond that, though, there is something beautiful about a physical Art Book, something that hooked me since I bought my first one, on Rembrandt by Bob Haak as a teenager, and still does. I suspect they will then trade among collectors, like Lp’s do now. No one will ever open an eBook and have this happen to them.

Finding this today? Here was a kindred spirit- someone like me. Someone I’ll never know who feels about Stuart Davis’ work the way I do. Though he didn’t write his name in it, it was personalized in a non-destructive way. Making it one’s own, but not like tattooing it with writing. There’s no need for that in this case- I get it.

That same afternoon, I went back to to see “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” yet again, as my work continues. I had an errand to do first, so I wound up walking over to the Whitney a different way than I usually do. As I neared the corner of 7th Avenue on West 13th Street, I was stopped in my tracks, when I saw this on the wall.

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“…it was here that he painted many of his most important works including…”

What? Wow!

I have lived in and around NYC almost all of my life, and been in this neighborhood countless times. Yet, I’d never known he lived here! Around the corner is the Village Vanguard, for my money the world’s greatest Jazz Club, where it occupies the same basement it has since 1935. Being a lifelong Jazz lover, I bet he spent quite a few evenings there, as I have, as well. The original Whitney Museum was a short walk away on 8th Street, when he lived here (from 1934-54), as the new one is now in a different direction.

Reading the plaque, I could still feel Stuart Davis’s “Self Portrait” from inside the back cover of the book looking at me. Inside in the lobby hung a large, beautifully framed Stuart Davis Poster. Impressive considering he died 52 years ago, and it’s 62 since he lived here. Looking at the building, it looks like thousands of other buildings in New York, and, probably, the rest of the world. I stood outside pondering it. It wasn’t like the old Bowery that reeked of cheap booze and romantic Artist’s loft studio spaces, the long time homes of Allen Ginsberg, John Cage and othes from the same period, Keith Haring, Joey Ramone, among others, after. It was a nice, modern, kinda faceless apartment building. Nothing about it said that one of the greatest American Artists who has yet lived lived here, except it’s smack-dab in the middle of The Village location.

Then, I continued on, completing the short walk to the Whitney. Inside the show, I lingered in front of “Rapt At Rappaport’s,” from 1952, in it’s interesting frame.

Davis' "Rapt At Rappaport's," 1952, on view at The Whitney, now in the Smithsonian

Look familiar? Davis’ REAL “Rapt At Rappaport’s,” 1952, now on view at The Whitney, from the collection of the Smithsonian.

Davis painted it in the building I had just walked past, as the plaque confirms by name! I never knew that. I’ve seen it before, but now? I’m seeing it anew. It doesn’t depict the neighborhood (Greenwich Village) per se, in fact, it’s an “homage” to “Rappaport’s Toy Bazar,” a store his parents used to take him to as a child many years earlier. The store used polka-dotted paper to wrap gifts, hence, the polka-dots in the upper right, and the work’s title is also a pun on “wrapped.” But, on a different level, now everything about this says “Greenwich Village in the 1950’s.” The child became a man, and that man was an Artist. It drips of the Jazz he heard all around as The Village headed into it’s Jazz & Beat Glory Days. Even the title (using “Rapt” in place of “Wrapped,” for the wrapping paper) is a “Jazz-pun,” as in raptly listening. In addition to being a “souvenir” of his childhood, it’s also a little reminder, a little piece, of that more recent time, and place, The Village- from his then home there on 13th & 7th.

It also happens to be the painting chosen to be the cover Art for my new/old book.

Is this all a bunch of strange coincidences, neatly “Rapt” together with a bow on top? Covering (“wrapping”) the Davis book and being startled to see him looking out at me unexpectedly, as the prior owner had left him, lovingly curated…then accidentally discovering (uncovering?) the very place he painted it’s cover Art… and finally, seeing the original painting shown on the book’s cover. Hmmm…It feels like someone is sending me a message.

Now? Someone else lives in that apartment. Someone else owns this book.

Still? Parts of both live on from before. Very good parts.

Thank you.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “You Can’t Judge A Book By It’s Cover,” written by Stevie Wonder, Sylvia Moy and Henry Cosby, and preformed by Bo Diddley.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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