Sunday, May 21, 2017

Art I'm Looking At: Stuart Davis at the De Young, San Francisco

Stuart Davis: In Full Swing, installation view
I've been aware of Stuart Davis since I was a teenager. He's always been among the 20th century American artists I've enjoyed most, along with other early American modernists such as Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles DeMuth, and Charles Sheeler, but, having just seen the Stuart Davis show now on at the De Young Museum, in San Francisco (Stuart Davis: In Full Swing), I realize that I knew little about Davis the man, that I've never seen much of his early work, and that I've never seen large groups of related canvases by him together in one room.

Stuart Davis, Odol (1924)
Museum of Modern Art, New York   
Walking into the exhibition, one thing struck me immediately: the galleries were largely empty. The contrast with the Matisse/Diebenkorn show at SF MoMA was startling (it's been hard to walk in the Matisse/Diebenkorn galleries at times for all the people). Is Davis so obscure? Perhaps the high attendance at the SF MoMA show just reflects the ongoing power of early modern European artists to draw crowds. I imagine the Impressionists, for example, remain the single most popular group of artists among the general population and that most people attending the SF MoMa show go to see Matisse rather than Diebenkorn. There's a certain irony there. Davis was among the important American artists struggling for recognition in the 1920s and 1930s when US collectors and museums were still very much focused on European art, while American art—particularly modern American art—was viewed with some skepticism.

Stuart Davis, Lucky Strike (1921)
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Having never seen much of Davis's early work, I was unaware of his heavy quotation of advertising imagery. His well known later work, with its frequent use of text, is certainly suggestive of commercial signage, but early pieces in the De Young show are much more direct in their use of this kind of imagery. Odol (1924), for example, anticipates Pop Art's direct appropriation of product advertising by at least 20 years. In Lucky Strike (1921), Davis has, in effect, painted a collage of scraps of cigarette packaging. At this stage, the painter had already learned a great deal from Cubism, but his wholesale incorporation of advertising imagery into his paintings went well beyond the occasional, fragmentary quotations in the work of Braque, Picasso, and Juan Gris.

Stuart Davis, Place Pasdeloup  (1928)
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Davis spent a year in Paris, in 1928–1929. The look of his paintings suddenly changed. Oddly, the influence of Cubism seems less here in the city that gave birth to Cubism than in his earlier work. Davis's Paris scenes are blocked out in flat planes of color overlaid with simple black outlines that depict caf├ęs, storefronts, street lamps, and architectural details—although details, in general, are comparatively few. The work is simple, highly stylized. These paintings suggest travel posters or illustrations in picture books for children. The work of Raoul Dufy comes to mind. The De Young show includes several examples from this period, among them the pictured Place Pasdeloup (1928).

Stuart Davis, New York Mural (1932)
Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach
Also of interest among the early pieces are the "Eggbeater" paintings (not shown here), these among works first championed by Edith Halpert of the Downtown Gallery. Having recently read Lindsay Pollock's biography of Halpert (The Girl with the Gallery: Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market), it was fun to see the actual paintings. There is a striking 1932 mural of New York as well, which, according to the wall label, was made in response to an invitation from the Museum of Modern Art to produce mural designs about life in America after WWI. Davis's design includes many coded political references (Alfred Smith's brown derby and bow tie, a banana referring to the 1928 Smith campaign's use of the song "Yes, We Have no Bananas," and a champagne glass turned on its side (upper left) referring to the candidate's support for the repeal of Prohibition, among others).

Three compositionally related works
The show would have been worth seeing just for these early works, but there is a good selection of later, more familiar pieces, including several "sets" of compositionally related works mounted side by side that illustrate the way Davis repeatedly drew on his own canvases to create variations in the manner of a musician improvising variations on a theme. Davis was a jazz enthusiast and thought of his working process as being akin to jazz performance.

Throughout the show, and particularly in the later sections, I was struck by how strongly Davis's canvases suggest collage; most are very easily imagined as pasted paper cutouts. Some of the busiest pieces, such as The Mellow Pad (1945-1951) are notable also for the way Davis covers the entire canvas with color and form in a way that flattens and de-centralizes. He creates a dynamic overall pattern with almost no part of the image more important than any other. Here Davis would seem to have anticipated Jackson Pollock's drip paintings by at least a couple of years in his use of space if not in technique. Stuart Davis: In Full Swing, through August 6, 2017 at the De Young, offers much to see and much to think about.

Stuart Davis, The Mellow Pad (1945-1951)
The Brooklyn Museum




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