Affirming America on Canvas

By Tarshis, Jerome | The Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 1992 | Go to article overview

Affirming America on Canvas


Tarshis, Jerome, The Christian Science Monitor


AMERICA has been the art capital of the world since World War II, but 60 years ago, when Stuart Davis (1892-1964) began his career as a painter, the most fundamental question facing an ambitious American artist was why he wasn't in Europe taking part in the revolution of modern art.

Like many other artists before and since, Davis first solved the problem of being in America by painting in a largely realistic style, untouched by the most recent innovations and relying on subject matter to make his work seem interesting.

To support himself, he did cartoon-like illustrations for publication in magazines. Such distinguished painters as Winslow Homer and John Sloan had taken up magazine work before him, his own father was a newspaper art editor and cartoonist, and Davis himself seemed to be destined for a career as a realistic artist.

Instead, he became one of the most highly regarded avant-garde painters America has ever produced. In 1913, he saw the Armory Show, which brought the most innovative French art of recent decades to a largely conservative American art public. Many American artists sneered: Davis felt challenged to go beyond his easy success.

At first he learned from the nonrealistic line and color used by such painters as Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Matisse. By the 1920s, however, he had settled on Cubism as his favored approach to depicting the American scene.

The most typical form of his painting was an array of semi-abstract shapes, almost as flatly depicted as the stars and stripes of an American flag or the lettering of a shop sign.

Davis never gave up the recognizable forms of boats and houses and painted words, but he played with color and outline; his paintings seldom looked like simple recordings of the scene before him.

During the 1920s and '30s, Stuart Davis was one of the most inventive artists in America. His series of still lifes based loosely on the form of an eggbeater could bear comparison with much that was being done in Europe and was in the forefront of American avant-garde painting.

Picasso, Braque, and the other early Cubists began with the most traditional subject matter of art - the nude, the still life, and the portrait. However strange their work seemed, they could honestly claim to be painting the old pictures, admittedly in new ways.

In his mature style, Davis did not paint nudes or portraits, and few of his still lifes were of such long-established subjects as fruit and wine glasses, which appeared so often in the work of Picasso and Braque.

Instead, he often used such industrial products as an eggbeater, a coffee percolator, or an electric light bulb as the subject matter of his own still-life paintings. The shapes lent themselves to formal experiments similar to those done in Paris, but the objects themselves reminded the viewer of America's genius for mass production.

Davis was torn between his admiration for the liveliness of America, on the one hand, and the experimental art of Europe on the other. Americans generally disliked modern art; before World War II there was little support for avant-garde painting from critics or museum curators, far less from the general public. Nevertheless, it was important to Davis that his art be true to American experience.

He wrote, in a statement published in 1943, "Some of the things which have made me want to paint, outside of other paintings, are: American wood- and ironwork of the past; Civil War and skyscraper architecture; the brilliant colors on gasoline stations, chain-store fronts, and taxicabs; the music of Bach; synthetic chemistry; the poetry of Rimbaud; fast travel by train, auto, and aeroplane which has brought new and multiple perspectives; electric signs; the landscape and boats of Gloucester, Mass. …

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