BY VAL CASTRONOVO
“Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” is an exuberant, jazz-inflected show of the mature work of one of the 20th century’s greatest American artists. It is a tightly focused exhibit of some 100 pictures, almost half created after 1950 when Davis had made it as a painter after years of struggle and economic privation.
“It’s a new view of Stuart Davis that shows him as a fantastic postwar artist of the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Whitney curator Barbara Haskell said at a preview of the exhibit, which has been co-organized with the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
A son of artists and an early disciple of Ashcan realist Robert Henri, Davis (1892-1964) was “an American original,” the Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, said of the painter, who fused pop culture and abstraction to create “a distinctly American style.”
The show, the first major display in the city of Davis’s work in 25 years, skips over his early realist phase under Henri and opens with his unabashed embrace of the American vernacular, rendered in the style of French modernists. A proto-pop artist, Davis took ordinary objects like mouthwash and light bulbs — consumer products that were grist for American advertisers — and made them his subject, anticipating Andy Warhol’s soup cans by decades. In his words, he painted “concrete things, American things.”
“All his work was influenced by the American environment and culture,” Haskell said, invoking Walt Whitman, a kindred spirit. “Like Walt Whitman, he had a lot of sympathy with the working class. Ordinary objects were important in the lives of ordinary people.”
Davis’ exposure to Europe’s Cubists and Fauves at the landmark 1913 Armory Show in New York proved nothing short of transformative. He determined then to become a “modern” artist, but true to Henri’s mantra, he believed art had to be connected with everyday life and play a social role. As Haskell writes in an essay in the show’s richly illustrated catalog, “By finding a way to communicate experiences of modern everyday life with abstract imagery, Davis solved the dilemma of how to be a modern artist in the world without denying the world.”
He took Cubism and made it American, she said, presenting homegrown products like eggbeaters and fans as flat planes set in shallow space “for immediate impact. [They] come out at us.” (See “Odol”, 1924, and the “Egg Beater” series, 1927-28).
After the stock market crash in 1929, Davis became politicized, but his activism was always in the interests of promoting artists’ economic rights and free expression. As Haskell put it, “He was a socialist, but an artist first.”
His output in the 1930s was greatly reduced because of his union activities. He primarily produced murals, a popular art form during the Depression. “New York Mural” (1932), part of the current show, evokes the politics of New York and four-term governor and 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith. Painted for a 1932 exhibit of mural designs at the Museum of Modern Art (staged to secure commissions for needy artists), this whimsical scene boasts the Empire State Building, Smith’s signature derby hat and bow tie, and a tiger’s head and tail, symbols of New York’s Tammany Hall. As Haskell writes in the catalog: “Davis embraced the impure blend of high and low culture, casting his mural as a billboard by exploiting the flat, bold style of advertising.”
As a member of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, he was later commissioned to paint a basement-level mural for a meeting room in a Williamsburg housing project. The monumental “Swing Landscape” (1938), on view here, is a colorful amalgam of overlapping forms inspired by the fishing village of Gloucester, Massachusetts. It’s an all-over painting with no central focus, paving the way for Jackson Pollock’s all-over abstractions in the ‘40s and ‘50s. A jazzy riff on the dynamism of modern life, it was deemed “not soothing,” the curator said, and never installed.
Thereafter, Davis took to reworking earlier compositions, a practice he compared to jazz improvisations — “it’s the same thing as when a musician takes a sequence of notes and makes many variations on them.” These series or “families” of paintings, with identical formats and recycled motifs, are beautifully displayed at the Whitney. Some illustrative pairings: “Percolator” (1927) and “Owh! In San Pao” (1951); “Town Square” (c. 1929) and “Report from Rockport” (1940).
Davis’s style after 1950, with its use of saturated colors and words as shapes, shows the strong influence of Matisse, whose 1947 treatise on color, “Jazz,” used handwritten text to convey energy and spontaneity. Davis used color now, not angles and triangles, to create space. With colored planes, he created the illusion that forms were moving back and forth and pushing up against the viewer’s space. (See “Little Giant Still Life,” 1950, and “Visa”, 1951, which play off ads for Champion spark plugs.)
A critic compared the effect to a “good sock on the jaw.” Rather like the show itself.