On Saturday, September 14, 2017, Crystal Bridges opens the new temporary exhibition Stuart Davis: In Full Swing. And you should come see it! I admit I knew little about Davis before we began planning for this show. Crystal Bridges has a few of his works in the permanent collection, but those works didn’t knock me over the way this exhibition has. It’s an explosion of color and movement with a groovy mid-century vibe that would pair nicely with smoky jazz and a rye highball. Davis said that he considered the artist as “a Cool Spectator-Reporter in an Arena of Hot Events.” There’s definitely a feel of Hot Events in this beautiful, upbeat, and entertaining show.
A Study of Modernism
The exhibition begins with Davis’s career in the years after the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art (known as the Armory Show), which introduced American artists to European Modernism and changed the way they thought about art and representation. Davis, who was only 21 at the time, had five watercolors in the Armory show, painted in the Ashcan style. But he was wowed by the work of the European Modernists, and it changed his approach completely. “I … sensed an order in these works which I felt was lacking in my own,” he later wrote. “I resolved that I would quite definitely have to become a ‘modern’ artist.”
Davis took on his quest to become a modern artist with a tenacity that would come to characterize his creative method. He intended not just to master the Cubist technique, but to refine and distill it—to capture the world around him with what he called “a conceptual, instead of an optical perspective.”
During the 1920s, Davis created a pivotal series of Cubist-inspired still life paintings based on ordinary objects. In his autobiography he wrote: “The culmination of these efforts occurred in 1927-1928, when I nailed an electric fan, a rubber glove and an eggbeater to a table and used it as my exclusive subject matter for a year. The pictures were known as the Eggbeater series and aroused some interested comment in the press, even though they retained no recognizable reference to the optical appearance of their subject matter.”
Although grounded in the work of European Cubists, the paintings of the 1920s were not mere attempts on Davis’s part to imitate the style of other artists. One of the things that characterizes Davis’s work is his ability to distill, adapt, and build upon his influences to formulate his own distinctive and unique style. During the 1930s, he continued to study and refine his understanding of the language of Modernism through methodical, relentless practice.
Riffing on a Theme
Davis was a devotee of piano jazz, particularly the music of Earl Hines (after whom Davis later named his son, Earl Davis). He admired jazz as a wholly American musical style, and enjoyed the way its fast pace and syncopated rhythms mimicked the pulsing beat of the city. In the late 1940s, Davis began to use a technique derived from jazz in his artwork: the practice of riffing on a theme. Davis began returning to images and compositions he had created earlier in his career and reworked them in increasingly abstract ways using a kind of personal short-hand of imagery. Some works, such as his 1945-51 painting The Mellow Pad, became a veritable riot of color and imagery. Nevertheless, the works always maintained a geometrical orderliness that kept them from being purely chaotic. One critic nailed it when he said that Davis’s Premiere, painted in 1957, had “all the ordered confusion of opening day at a supermarket.”
Davis insisted that, although his artwork was abstract, it was nevertheless “the product of everyday experience in the new lights, speeds, and spaces of the American environment,” which included “super-highways, the proportions of 100 story buildings, gasoline pumps, taxis, billboards, cigarette packages, garages, neon tubes, music through radio, motion picture juxtapositions, skywriting, etc.” He continued to draw inspiration from the modern world around him throughout his career. Even in the early 1960s, when Davis himself was entering his 70s, he was recognized by art critics as a “hot” artist.
Davis’s ability to take in and distill the essence of his experience was one of his most powerful tools. Instead of imitating Cubism, he plumbed Cubism to its core and mastered the language of that art form, applying it in his own way to the subjects that fascinated him. Instead of abandoning all representation in the spirit of Abstract Expressionism (which Davis reviled, calling it a “Belch from the Unconscious”), he instead distilled his forms almost, but not quite, to the point of breaking with their subjects, retaining always that tenuous anchor to the real world.
The real world Davis painted included his experience as an artist who had lived through what was quite possibly the most dynamic period of American history, from horse-and-buggy transportation to the dawning of the space age. Through the changing decades, he always kept his artistic thumb on the improvisational jazz heartbeat of the times, syncopated to the relentless pulse of industrialization, technological progress, and cultural change. He was and remains an American original.