June 10–Sept 25, 2016
Stuart Davis (1892–1964) ranks as a preeminent figure in American modernism. With a long career that stretched from the early twentieth century well into the postwar era, he brought a distinctively American accent to international modernism.
Davis was well known for his jazz-influenced, proto pop art paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, bold, brash, and colorful, as well as his ashcan pictures in the early years of the 20th century. Davis begun his formal art training under Robert Henri, the leader of the Ashcan School, at the Robert Henri School of Art in New York. During this time, Davis befriended painters John Sloan, Glenn Coleman and Henry Glintenkamp.
In 1913, Davis was one of the youngest painters to exhibit in the Armory Show, where he displayed five watercolor paintings in the Ashcan school style. In the show, Davis was exposed to the works of a number of artists including Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. As a result, he became a committed “modern” artist and a major exponent of cubism and modernism in America. He spent summers painting in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and made painting trips to Havana in 1918 and New Mexico in 1923.
In the 1920s he began his development into his mature style; painting abstract still lifes and landscapes. His use of contemporary subject matter such as cigarette packages and spark plug advertisements suggests a proto-Pop art element to his work.
In 1928, he visited Paris, where he painted street scenes. In the 1930s, he became increasingly politically engaged; according to Cécile Whiting, Davis’ goal was to “reconcile abstract art with Marxism and modern industrial society“. In 1934 he joined the Artists’ Union and was later elected its President. In 1936 the American Artists’ Congress elected him its National Secretary. He painted murals for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration which are influenced by his love of jazz. Davis married Roselle Springer in 1938 and spent his late life teaching at the New York School for Social Research and at Yale University.
He was represented by Edith Gregor Halpert at the Downtown Gallery in New York City. Davis died of a stroke in New York on June 24, 1964, aged 71.
Davis’s work feels especially vital today in its blurring of distinctions between text and image, high and low culture, and abstraction and figuration. This exhibition departs from previous efforts in its organization. From 1940 on, Davis rarely painted a work that did not make careful reference, however hidden, to one or more of his earlier compositions. Such appropriation is a distinctive aspect of Davis’s method. Staged in the Whitney’s fifth-floor Neil Bluhm Family Galleries, this will be the first major Davis exhibition to consistently hang later works side by side with the earlier ones that inspired them. With approximately 100 works, from the paintings of tobacco packages and household objects of the early 1920s to the work left on his easel at his death in 1964, In Full Swing will highlight Davis’s unique ability to assimilate the imagery of popular culture, the aesthetics of advertising, the lessons of Cubism, and the sounds and rhythms of jazz into works that hum with intelligence and energy.
Stuart Davis: In Full Swing is co-organized by Barbara Haskell, Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and Harry Cooper, Curator and Head of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.