The Wonderful World of Stuart Davis

Decades before Jackson Pollock did away with a single center of focus, even longer before Warhol concentrated on consumer goods, there was Stuart Davis.

For anyone interested in seeing the life work of this true American innovator amid an exciting riot of color and myriad undulating shapes, the Stuart Davis show at the Whitney is the place to be.

Davis was born in Philadelphia (1892-1964) to artist parents and had established his artistic values at an early age from exposure to his father’s circle of friends, painters of the realistic Ashcan School. These artists captured the essence and vitality of life in the cities of America and believed that art should reflect the essence of the everyday experience. This concept was something that Davis supported throughout his artistic career.

Davis’ breakthrough as an artist came in 1921 when he began painting compositions featuring consumer products – anticipating Andy Warhol decades in advance. He merged the hard edge of advertising with the concepts of the European avant-garde to produce his uniquely American style of art.  Davis replaced the props of traditional still life with mass-market products and consumer packaging as he believed these to exemplify the essence of American culture. He gradually shifted his focus from painting the identity of these household objects to focusing on their properties as geometric objects relating to each other. Although this visual vocabulary did exist in Europe Davis was an American pioneer in using this approach.

As big an adjustment as social media is today, one could argue that Davis was dealing with an even larger technological upheaval. In 1929 after a trip to Paris he returned to America where he was struck by the modernity of the United States, the telephone, radio, cinema, and air travel made it possible to experience many different events at the same time. Davis who wanted to capture these sensations in his paintings began to paint multiple views of a scene within the same picture.

In 1939 one can see Davis beginning to combine marine harbor imagery with musical instruments and radio transmission visuals. For Davis the mixing of these different unrelated elements translated into an accurate expression of the way that life was experienced and remembered. ”Certain aspects of it are exaggerated and others suppressed. The scene is rearranged and recomposed according to the importance and meaning which different elements had for the spectator.”

Between 1934 and 1940, the bulk of the depression years, Davis’s artistic output was largely in the painting of murals, thanks to the government grants awarded to artists under FDR. His work increasingly became more abstract, treating the space between objects as flat planes of color integrating overlapping shapes.

In 1939 he began creating groups out of earlier paintings that were related in composition. He would then use these paintings as if preparatory sketches to compose and paint new canvases. He was not trying to recapture the moods of these earlier paintings but to use the formats to create something new. He likened this process to jazz musicians playing a favorite tune with a different feeling. “ It’s the same thing as when a musician takes a sequence of notes and makes variations on them.” He began painting canvases that were densely packed with color and shapes that were evenly distributed across the picture plane, with many centers of interest. “Instead of a center focus … all parts of the field of observation are centers of focus, serial centers.”

It would not be until Jackson Pollack began his drip paintings in 1947 that another American would focus on the concept of the all over paintings.

A man who was truly ahead of his time.

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