September 18, 2016

Stuart Davis @ The Whitney

Now that summer is drawing to a close, it's time to catch up on the exhibitions that I had been meaning to go to and are about to close.  One of the shows on my "must see" list was "Stuart Davis:  In Full Swing" on view at the Whitney until September 25.  So, last week on a beautiful September afternoon, I took a ride downtown on the Number 1 train and checked it out.

"Egg Beater No. 3", 1928

Stuart Davis (1892-1964) is a study in contrasts.  Born in Philadelphia to artist parents, he grew up in the company of painters from the Ashcan school who promoted social realism and the role of everyday experiences in art.  Exposure to Fauvism and Abstraction, primarily at the groundbreaking Armory Show of 1913, introduced the idea of form and composition taking precedence over subject and caused Davis to question his formative beliefs.

"Lucky Strike", 1921

Conflicted over the idea of pure abstraction superseding the social responsibility of art, Davis strove to reach a happy medium by developing a style that used bright colors and abstract shapes to express the speed and excitement of modernism.

"House and Street", 1931

Davis' "Aha!" moment arrived when he successfully merged every day objects with the avant-garde creating a look that was both European and American, Abstract and Realistic.

"Salt Shaker", 1931

After World War I, Paris was the undisputed center of the art world attracting painters, writers and musicians from all over the world.  Stuart Davis did not make the pilgrimage until 1928, when, with the support of Gertrude Whitney, he booked passage and stayed in the French capital until the crash of 1929 forced his return to the States.  The thirteen months he spent soaking up the fertile atmosphere were seminal to his artistic development and informed his work for the rest of his career.

"New York - Paris, No. 2", 1931

The Great Depression left Davis, and many other people, desperate for an income, and he turned to mural painting to earn some money.  In murals, he found a large canvas on which to paint his vivid abstractions filled with energy and motion.

"New York Mural", 1932

Another source of inspiration was commercial advertising.  Davis was a pioneer in the use of popular imagery and words as artistic subjects, a treatment later made famous by Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha.

 "Little Giant Still Life" 1950

In his later years Davis continued to explore abstract shapes making them bigger and more dominant, but reduced his color palatte to just three, red, green and yellow, plus black and white.

"Blips and Ifs", 1963-64

"Stuart Davis:  In Full Swing" gives visitors a fresh perspective on the work of this American icon.  Davis' unique mélange of abstraction and realism, of popular culture with fine art, of tradition with modernity and with American and European sensibilities, gives his work a unique place in both the history of art and as an influence on contemporary culture.

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