Exhibition Note. (Art)

By Naves, Mario | New Criterion, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Exhibition Note. (Art)


Naves, Mario, New Criterion


"Stuart Davis: Art and Theory, 1920-1931" at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. September 10-December 15, 2002

Anyone familiar with the paintings of Stuart Davis (1892-1964) knows that he had a sense of humor. It's there to see in his rambunctious rhythms, eye-popping palette and cartoon-like distillations of form; it is perhaps most readily apparent in his terse and slangy appropriations of popular culture. Just in case one needs a reminder of this great artist's wit there is Greek Backwards (1921), a watercolor drawing included in Stuart Davis: Art and Theory, 1920-1931, a tiny yet beautifully considered exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library. The humor in the piece is evident in its form, in the lighter-than-air ballet his cobbled shapes engage in. Yet in writing the word "Greek" backwards on the page, Davis also takes a more literal dig at Cubism, the wellspring of his art, and the contemporaneous response to it. At the time, Modern painting was largely considered to be unintelligible by a skeptical general public. "It's all Greek to me" may not have been the verbatim response to the new art, but it was its essence. Certainly, it provided Davis with a knowing and appreciative punch line.

When the notice of Art and Theory arrived in my mailbox, I took stock of its title and feared the worst. Anytime anyone mentions "theory" nowadays one thinks of the Postmodernist tendency to relegate art to extra-aesthetic purpose. Surely an institution as august as the Morgan wouldn't stoop to such faddishness? Happily, it doesn't. Gathering together a sketchbook, a journal, prints, drawings, and a single oil on canvas, MOMA's Lucky Strike (1921-22), Art and Theory is what I think of as a "thinking" show: an exhibition that provides a peek into an artist's inner workshop. It is, in other words, a show concerned more with how than with what. If that makes Art and Theory sound like a specialist's exhibition, I suppose it is--but that doesn't mean it's for specialists only. The assorted visitors I encountered at the Morgan were fascinated by how Davis articulated his art. They were happy to get in to his head.

And Davis has a head worth getting into. One of the most fascinating items in Art and Theory is Davis's journal. Written in a propulsive script, it contains sketches and notes about the nature of art, both in general and his own. In the entry on display at the Morgan, dated May 27, 1922, we read about "uni-planar" and "multi-planar" paintings: "... in the first case, the plane of the canvas is used throughout and all the modeling is done on the plane. In the second case there are a series of superimposed major planes each one of which has its own details." Included are a pair of illustrations that, while simple, succinctly illuminate the distinctions between the two. …

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