Friday, July 15, 2016

Stuart Davis: Leader of American Modernism

Stuart Davis (American, 1892 - 1964)
Private Way, 1916
oil on canvas, 18  x 22 in.
His work a forerunner of American modernism, an exhibition of Stuart Davis’s Ĺ“uvre is currently on view at the renowned Whitney Museum in New York City. A Philadelphia native born to artistic parents who had both studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Davis was introduced by his father to the likes of John Sloan and Robert Henri. He studied with Henri in New York City from 1910 to 1913 Henri progressively encouraged his students to open themselves to the influence of any artistic style they met. Although his style was certainly abstract, he kept his focus on social realism by choosing subjects such as run-down hotels or apartment interiors. Davis appropriated elements of Cubism while combining it with his own realism that exuded the spirit of popular mass culture in America.

Private Way (1916) is one of Davis’s early works from when he was developing his abstract style. Davis completed this painting after he participated in the 1913 Armory Show where he contributed five watercolors. The innovations that he had seen at the exhibition inspired Davis. With his unconventional colors, flattened forms, and visible brushstrokes, Davis was influenced by the European modernists such as MatisseVan Gogh, and Gauguin.  His early works display his movement away from realism and his experimentation with becoming a modern artist.

In the late 1920s, Davis spent time in Paris learning the conventions of the European avant-gardemovement including artists such as Alexander Calder and Piet Mondrian. He would remain in New York City for the majority of his career, keeping a studio in the City as well as Hoboken, New Jersey. From then on, his paintings strictly reflected the American spirit with inspiration drawn from jazz music and modernist styles.

According to the Whitney Museum of American Art, “Davis’s unique ability to transform the chaos of everyday life into a structured yet spontaneous order communicates the wonder and joy that can be derived from the color and spatial relationships of everyday things.” Davis exhibits such a remarkable ability particularly in his vibrant later pieces, but this quality is apparent in his earlier works as well.

Davis’s paintings have been often been likened to jazz music on canvas. In the dive bars he frequented, Davis developed a passion for the expressiveness and energy of jazz songs. According to the Columbus Museum of Art, “His paintings effectively form the visual equivalent to the spirit of improvisation embodied in jazz. They are composed of energetically-arranged geometric elements interspersed with simplified representational forms.” In Private Way, we see an absence of accuracy in his representation of forms, and a juxtaposition of hard edges with curved lines. This work prefigures his later works, which are starkly geometric, rhythmic, and Cubist in style.

Davis went on to teach at the Art Students League in New York and created murals for the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s. He continued teaching at New York’s New School for Social Research (1940-1950) and Yale University (1951). In 1964, Davis received the first commission by an American artist to design a postage stamp, which was issued six months after his death in that year.

Davis’s work can be found in countless esteemed institutions across the nation including the Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney Museum in New York City; the National Museum of American Art andThe Phillips Gallery in Washington DC; and The Peggy Guggenheim Museum, in Venice, Italy.

 This work is currently on exhibit in our Nantucket gallery.
Please contact the gallery for additional details: or 508.325.4405