Stuart Davis: In Full Swing features 100 artworks by an artist whose formal brilliance and complexity captured the energy of mass culture and modern life. The exhibition is unusual in its focus on Davis’s mature work, from his paintings of consumer products of the early 1920s to the work left on his easel at his death in 1964, and in exploring Davis’s habit of using preexisting motifs as springboards for new compositions.
The exhibition departs in significant ways from earlier presentations of the artist’s work, in that it omits Davis’s decade of apprenticeship to European modernism (following his introduction to it at the 1913 Armory Show) in favor of the series of breakthroughs he made beginning in 1921 with his paintings of tobacco packages and household products, and continuing into his last two decades in which he employed abstract shapes, brilliant color, and words to evoke the ebullience of popular culture.
One of America’s leaders of abstract art, Stuart Davis was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His mother was a sculptor and his father was an art editor of the Philadelphia Press, working with Luks, Glackens, Robert Henri, and other members of the Eight. Inspired by the artistic environment at home, Davis left high school in 1909 to attend the Robert Henri School of Art in New York until 1912. Robert Henri was a liberal teacher, encouraging students to be spontaneous in their art. Davis responded to this progressive approach, which permitted him to absorb the new styles that were emerging at the time. Spontaneity in art extended to life, and Davis and his fellow students became fans of jazz, resulting in Davis’s lifelong sensitivity to both musical and visual rhythms.
Between 1912 and 1916, while supporting himself as an illustrator for several magazines, he began experimenting with cubist abstraction. Davis introduced a new style of cubism in the United States, basing his compositions on combinations of flattened forms, often abstracted from the urban scene. Drawing on familiar structures and objects, he he would reduce them to flat, sharp-edged shapes arranged in broad, colorful patterns and active lines that punctuate the composition.
Davis exhibited five watercolors at the 1913 Armory Show, unusual recognition for a young artist, and in 1917 he had his first one-person exhibition in New York. His first solo museum exhibition was held in 1925 at the Newark Museum. The following year he was included in the “International Exhibition of Modern Art Arranged by the Société Anonyme for The Brooklyn Museum.”
In 1927 Davis’s abstract style reached its culmination in his Egg Beater series. Davis wrote to Duncan Phillips, who had purchased Egg Beater No. 4 (1928): “The ‘Egg Beater’ represents the best example of this series which enabled me to realize certain structural principals [sic] that I have continued to use ever since.” At the same time, Edith Halpert, a proponent of modern art and owner of the Downtown Gallery, became his dealer. ”
From 1928 to 1929 Davis lived in Paris, where he created many paintings and lithographs of cafés and street scenes. Upon his return to America in 1929, he moved to Greenwich Village and spent most of his summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts. From 1931 to 1932, Davis taught at New York’s Art Students League. He was a muralist for the Public Works Art Project from 1933 to 1939. Though Davis had an active and successful career as an artist, he continued his teaching, notably at New York’s New School for Social Research (1940-50) and at Yale University (1951).**
“Stuart Davis has been called one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century and the best American artist of his generation, his art hailed as a precursor of the rival styles of pop and geometric color abstraction,” remarks Barbara Haskell. “Faced with the choice early in his career between realism and pure abstraction, he invented a vocabulary that harnessed the grammar of abstraction to the speed and simultaneity of modern America. By merging the bold, hard-edged style of advertising with the conventions of avant-garde painting, he created an art endowed with the vitality and dynamic rhythms that he saw as uniquely modern and American. In the process, Davis achieved a rare synthesis: an art that is resolutely abstract yet at the same time exudes the spirit of popular culture.”
Co-organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the exhibition will be on view at the Whitney from June 10 through September 25, 2016, and at the National Gallery of Art from November 20, 2016 through March 5, 2017. It will subsequently travel to the De Young Museum in San Francisco from April 8 through August 6, 2017, and to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, from September 16, 2017 through January 8, 2018.