"Stuart Davis: Major Late Paintings" at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York. April 9-May 11, 2002. (Exhibition Note)

By Kunitz, Daniel | New Criterion, June 2002 | Go to article overview

"Stuart Davis: Major Late Paintings" at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York. April 9-May 11, 2002. (Exhibition Note)


Kunitz, Daniel, New Criterion


Lines broad and narrow, rectangles, trapezoids, triangles, parallelograms, columns, circles, planes, and words; shapes named and eccentric, lines as shapes, words as shapes, words as lines; simple, unmodulated reds, yellows, blues, greens, oranges, and pinks; black. Cool, unemotional, and concerned with the objectivity--the universal appeal--of these most basic elements of pictorial space, the painter Stuart Davis (1892-1964) reminds me less of other painters than of T. S. Eliot. Both were intellectually formalist and temperamentally possessed of a reticence animated in their work by bursts of a sort of vaudevillian mania. Along with other modern contemporaries, both men reveled in the poetry of signage, jazz dissonance, the fecund appositions of sedate, old-world craft and the speedy, electrified innovations of the mechanical age. Both were cosmopolitans, at home with European ideas and art. And, in contrast to so many visual artists, Davis was verbally articulate, capable of an epigrammatic felicity and humor worthy of a poet: "A degree of sentimentality can be tolerated in people, but in painting the words bathetic and emetic are synonymous."

To see the sixteen "major late paintings" together in Salander-O'Reilly's typically marvelous show was to realize how underrated this nevertheless highly esteemed artist still is. His work stands apart from that of other early American modernists in, among other things, the specificity of its look--no one, I think, could mistake a Davis for someone else's painting. He managed to transcend the impersonality of his means to create wholly original works, personal as a profile. Yet, within that particularized style, Davis found manifold avenues for variation. Compare, for instance, the two canvases on view from the forties. Arboretum By Flashbulb (1942), an all-over abstraction dense with incident, jams irregular shapes in red, green, orange, and yellow together with what one might call negative-space shapes in black and white; geometric patterns--rectangular boxes, circles--with softer, natural patterns such as crescents and semicircles, stars and biomorphic forms. Equally abstract, though calmer, meditative, Max #2 (1949) restores the relationship of figure to ground in a flat, depthless space. Centered against a mid-tone pink plane, triangles, rectangular bands, and thick lines harmonize, seem almost to blink, in yellow, light blue, a warmer pink, tan, black, and white; a blue circle hovers impassively toward the top. One could say the two works result from different perceptual velocities, though each is the product of an utterly realized compositional sense.

Davis, by the way, eschewed the term "abstraction," referring to his work as Color-Space Compositions, arrived at by wrestling "with the obstinate physical laws of three-dimensional Color-Space Design on a two-dimensional surface." One can hear in this idiosyncratic vocabulary an immoderate concern for design and formal values. Indeed, during the period covered by this show, Davis was at times criticized for being overly decorative, unwilling to indulge in expressive accents. Clement Greenberg lobbed backhanded compliments at him, saying Davis had "made modern art cheerful," that he was "a superb wall-decorator."

Cheerful he was, and funny too. His titles have something of the poet Frank O'Hara's off-hand and mischievous humor: Owh! in San Pao, Rapt at Rappaport's, Something on the 8 Ball. Certainly he was one of the first American artists to use the decorative possibilities of words and numbers. …

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