The Gifts of Stuart Davis

By Panero, James | New Criterion, September 2016 | Go to article overview

The Gifts of Stuart Davis


Panero, James, New Criterion


One of the many revelations to come out of "The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913," the excellent exhibition organized three years ago by Gail Stavitsky at the Montclair Art Museum, was a small watercolor of a rowboat on a lake. A blond woman leans over the stern, nearly submerging it in water as she seemingly smiles back at us. Behind her, standing on the upturned bow, a man twists on one leg as he attempts to remove his trousers--startled, it would appear, at our arrival.

Immediate, part quick illustration, part louche intrusion, the work may have been as shocking for its content in 1912 as it would be to us, today, for its attribution. Tided Romance or The Doctor, this watercolor was one of five examples to be put on display in the 1913 Armory Show by none other than Stuart Davis (1892-1964), the American modernist whose work would soon take a bold turn away from such realistic scenes towards angular shapes, flattened colors, and the interweaving of text and imagery.

At the time the promising disciple of Robert Henri and "The Eight," just twenty-one years old, Davis was among those American artists most affected by the radical examples of European modernism that came stateside for the Armory Show's infamous three-city tour--a "masochistic reception," he later recalled, "whereat the naive hosts are trampled and stomped by the European guests at the buffet."

Yet with his watercolors exhibited alongside eye-opening examples of modernist painting by Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, and Duchamp, Davis also saw the "vindication of the anti-academy position of the Henri School, with developments in undreamed of directions." The awakening was pure Davis, telling us a great deal of how he saw through the surface of style and looked to deeper meaning, always staying independent of trends. At that time, Davis was one of the artists whose interest in saloon life and popular entertainment would earn him the label of "ash can," a term meant as opprobrium for his focus on the underbelly of American culture and the one that came to define the movement of his older contemporaries.

The particular genius of Davis's subsequent modernist direction was how he went on to integrate European stylistic innovation with his unique Ashcan vision. Through the flattening, flickering, fleeting perspectives of modernist composition, Davis did not so much abandon his Ashcan beginnings. Instead he found ways to electrify them, to broadcast the frenetic American century with the syncopation of jazz and to illuminate it with the glow of neon.

Just take his House and Street (1931), from the Whitney's collection, where windows, fire escapes, garages, smoke stacks, scaffolding, advertising symbols, and campaign signs all come together like the colorful pieces of a jigsaw puzzle framed by the shadows of an elevated train. Or consider the frenzied cataract of Ultra-Marine (1943), a favorite of mine from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where any lingering sense of single-point perspective is overtaken by Davis's development of "serial centers" of focus. And then there is The Paris Bit (1959), also from the Whitney, a late masterstroke where colors, silhouettes, signs, and shadow lines seem to reassemble not as a single image but as a long-remembered impression--a deep feeling coming together out of forgotten sights.

So the fact that "Stuart Davis: In Full Swing," a major, traveling exhibition now at the Whitney Museum of American Art, would omit Davis's entire early Ashcan development, and instead start its show in the 1920s, would seem to do a curious disservice to both Davis's own achievements and the understanding of the museum-going public. (1)

That this omission of "Davis's decade of apprenticeship" turns out to be a deliberate "interpretive gambit" meant to "depart in significant ways from their predecessors," as the co-directors of the Whitney and the National Gallery explain in their catalogue preface, is a startling revelation of curatorial intent that hints not only at Davis's evolving place in the canon of American art but also at the shifting interests of the contemporary American museum. …

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