New York, New York
Summary of Stuart Davis
One of America's first modern artists and a forefather of Pop art, Stuart Davis began his artistic career with the Ashcan School before embracing European modernism following the Armory Show. The artist's abstract paintings, infused with jazz rhythm and bold, colorful abstractions of New York's urban landscape or household objects, offer a taste of European Cubism with an American twist. Whether painting in the style of realism or Post-cubist abstraction, Davis's determination to convey something of American political and consumer culture was unwavering.
- Davis is credited with developing an American variation of European Cubism at a time when modernism was just beginning to infiltrate the country. Through slang words and imagery that were distinctly American, Davis's paintings established the country's presence in the burgeoning modern art world.
- The artist was one of the first to consider jazz and swing music in conjunction with painting. His use of bright, pulsating colors, expressive lines, and repetitious shapes creates a visual rhythm in his paintings similar to the syncopation and improvisation of jazz music.
- Davis introduced a new post-Cubist approach to abstraction by dispersing shapes, throughout the canvas and balancing bold colors in such a way as to deny a central focal point. This new method, in which all parts are equal so that the viewer's eye can wander unguided, signified an important step toward the complete abstraction accomplished by Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock.
- Davis transformed common consumer products and advertisements into singular works of high art that evoked the American populist spirit, prefiguring Pop art of the 1960s.
Biography of Stuart Davis
The son of sculptor Helen Stuart Foulke and art editor Edward Wyatt Davis, Stuart Davis seemed destined for a career in the fine arts. His interest in drawing was apparent by age sixteen, when he began writing and illustrating adventure stories for his brother Wyatt, thirteen years his junior. Davis's father was then the art editor and cartoonist for Newark Evening News. The family's relocation from Philadelphia, where Davis was born, to New Jersey was fortuitous for Davis's artistic development. It put him in closer contact with a number of artist-reporters who had been working with his father since the 1890s. Now known as "the Eight," these artists included Robert Henri, George Luks, and Everett Shinn.
Important Art by Stuart Davis
This painting, which depicts a tenement building located in New York City's Chinatown, alludes to the social realities of the city's immigrant and working class populations. A woman dressed in black confronts the viewer, offering her bodily profile for consideration. Faded advertisements mottle the stone surface of the building near the door. A barely legible sign in the window announces, "SUM YET PLEASURE," suggesting the woman's occupation to be that of a prostitute. On the balcony's rail sits an outstretched cat, traditionally a marker for promiscuity further supporting this assumption.
Chinatown is distinctly different from much of Davis's mature work, which is known for its bright colors and abstract forms. Here, Davis offers an honest, objective view of the metropolis's seedy underbelly in the style of the Ashcan School. His expressive brushwork hints at the painting's hasty completion - something Robert Henri encouraged in his students. As an Ashcan artist, Davis was among the first American painters to express an interest in enlightening and educating viewers on the populist reality.
During the 1920s, Stuart Davis painted table and object still lifes that, because of the clarity of abstraction, have been designated as Cubist-Realist. Many depict tobacco products readily at hand for a smoker, as Davis smoked himself. A clear departure from his earlier, strictly realist paintings, this abstract still-life of Lucky Strike cigarettes retains identifiable patterns, textures, and lettering associated with the brand, but detaches them from their original packaging. The features of the package are rearranged on the canvas seemingly at random, reminding the viewer of the difficulty of translating a three-dimensional object to a flat canvas. The collage-like composition and color palette bring to mind the Synthetic Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris.
Davis began incorporating modern art principles into his work following the 1913 Armory Show. He described the exhibition of European abstract art as "the greatest shock to me - the greatest single influence I have experienced in my work." Still, it took several years before his work evolved into the heavily abstract, brightly colored compositions for which he is best known.
Lucky Strike is a testament to Davis's success applying European modern painting techniques to a distinctly American subject, thereby offering viewers an Americanized Cubist style. Like his contemporaries Charles Demuth and Gerald Murphy, Davis created modern masterpieces that call attention to American consumerism. In this case, Davis painted a newly mass-produced product - cigarettes - which by 1930 had replaced loose leaf tobacco and rolling papers. His use of a widely known brand as a subject for art anticipates the Pop art movement of the 1960s.
Photographs suggest that this image likely represents Front Street and Coenties Slip in Manhattan's Financial District. The canvas is divided into two distinct views of the same intersection - what Davis called a "mental collage." A tenement building with a fire escape ladder dangling down toward the ground appears at left with a delivery truck labeled "Smith" below. "Smith" may refer to then Governor Alfred E. Smith, who was campaigning for the presidency. The view at right offers a broader perspective, with a street, a sidewalk, smaller buildings, and skyscrapers in the distance. The elevated train line arcs across the frame, supported by steel girders rendered in red beneath. The colors and shapes on both sides of the canvas are bright and chaotic, bombarding the viewer as would bright city lights and blinking neon advertisements.
This rendition of lower Manhattan is a far cry from the gritty urban landscapes of Davis's paintings in the Ashcan tradition. Here, Davis seems less interested in the occupants of the tenement buildings, instead embracing the modern energy and innovations. The artist was intrigued by that manner in which technological advancements altered American life. Like many of his peers, Davis also felt that artistic style and subject matter should change to reflect that. He adored the cinema. It is possible that he deliberately designed House and Street to evoke the frames in a strip of 35mm film.
This forward-looking optimism and embrace of progress typified American modernism in the works of many of Davis's contemporaries, among them Joseph Stella and Charles Demuth. While this painting is less abstract than Davis' Cubist-inspired works of the 1920s, it retains the Cubist interest in depicting multiple perspectives of the same image. House and Street also anticipates the artist's reliance on bold color and simplified shapes to articulate energy and rhythm in his mature work.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Stuart Davis
- Stuart Davis in Gloucester (1999)By Karen Wilkin
- Stuart Davis (1998)Our PickBy Rudi H. Fuchs, Lewis C. Kachur, and Philip Rylands
- Stuart Davis's Abstract Argot (1993)Our PickBy William R. Wilson
- Stuart Davis: American Painter (1991)By Lowery Stokes Sims
- Stuart Davis: In Full Swing (forthcoming 2016)By Barbara Haskell and Harry Cooper
- Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonne (2007)Our PickEdited by Ani Boyajian and Mark Rutkoski
- The Drawings of Stuart Davis: The Amazing Continuity (1993)Our PickBy Lewis C. Kachur and Karen Wilkin
- Stuart Davis Art and Art Theory (1978)By Diane Kelder
- Stuart Davis: In Full SwingWhitney Museum's upcoming exhibition on Davis
- Stuart Davis Page at Sullivan Goss GalleryContains biographical and exhibition information about Davis
- Stuart Davis Memorial Exhibition CatalogueOur PickLengthy .pdf catalogue of 1965 traveling exhibition, Smithsonian Institution
- Stuart Davis and American Abstraction: A Masterpiece in FocusInformation about 2005 exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
- Stuart Davis: Jazz-Inspired and in Perfect HarmonyBy Hank Burchard / The Washington Post / May 29, 1998
- Stuart Davis at the MetOur PickBy Hilton Kramer / The New Criterion / January 1992
- The Apprenticeship Of Stuart Davis as a CubistBy Roberta Smith / The New York Times / November 27, 1987
- Compelling Show of Early Stuart DavisBy John Russell / The New York Times / November 11, 1983
- Off The Wall: The Mellow Pad by Stuart DavisBrooklyn Museum Curator discusses The Mellow Pad (1945-51) in this brief video
- Art Professor Talks About Stuart Davis' AlléeDrake University faculty member discusses one of the University's most notable works of art: Stuart Davis' 1954 mural, Allée.
- Art in Public: Stuart Davis on Abstract Art and the WPA, 1939Audio-only recording of the dedication ceremony for several WPA murals in New York