A bridge between New York and Paris: on Stuart Davis at the Whitney Museum

The artist's power came from his ability to navigate between American realism and European Modernism


Stuart Davis (1892-1964) is known, perhaps more than any other American artist, for his ability to combine the formal inventions of the avant-garde with the political spirit of the American scene. The drama of his paintings (which are the subject of a survey titled In Full Swing at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York) were deepened by the early Modernist debates of out of which they were born—debates in which abstraction and realism came to loggerheads at a defining moment for American art. As the exhibition title implies, Davis synthesised the lessons of Cubism with a jazzy and politically-aware adoption of American popular imagery: shop windows, consumer packaging and the high-key colours of the radiant city. As Duke Ellington put it: “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” a lyric that Davis painted into American Painting (1932/1942-54).

Davis’s roots are in Ashcan School realism, but we don’t see any of this at the Whitney. The exhibition begins in media res with a room flexing Davis’ breakthrough mastery of Cubist forms in the 1920s. Here, in a work like Lucky Strike (1921), Davis registered a near total departure with the naturalist pathos of Ashcan realism, opting instead for a penetrating geometric analysis of an everyday object. But most of the works in this initial gallery are aspirational and clumsy. There aren’t any masterpieces, only imitations of other leaders of the American avant-garde who were galvanised by the Armory Show in 1913. Still, these works show the young artist formulating the building blocks of a style that he would later perfect on a much grander scale.

His Egg Beater paintings are his first novelties. There are four eloquent compositions on view in a section that bridges the exhibition’s first and second rooms. Here we witness the first flash of Davis’s ability to balance a composition while reducing a subject to its most elemental form. It’s also the first sign of his mastery of colour. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney agreed. She and her circle supported Davis, which allowed him to dig deep into his newfound fascination with analytical depiction. More importantly, his patrons helped fund a trip to Paris in 1928, an almost required right of passage for American artists at the time.

There, Davis discovered simultaneity. This went hand-in-hand with his rediscovery of the urban scene, one now littered with telltale signs of global commerce, communication and politics. A work like House and Street, painted in 1931 after he was back in the US, depicts, in part, a sign that reads "Smith", a reference to Al Smith's 1928 campaign for the White House. It is an unmistakably urban American scene. Yet its flat, geometric composition also brings to mind the Paris of Cubism. The implied cacophony and verve reads like a stark poem to urban chaos and simultaneity—two hallmarks of modernity.

These revelations come through in other works with floating text, which punctuate his frenetic and semi-abstract arrangements. In New York-Paris No. 2 (1931), Davis again mixes landscapes, this time more explicitly. The view is of two cities united by technology, travel and an aesthetic kinship: modernity gripped both, though in separate ways.

The 1929 stock market crash led to a period of activism that slowed Davis’s productivity as a painter. Except for wall texts in the third gallery, there is little sense of Davis’s avowed socialism, especially his advocacy for the notion of the artist as a cultural worker. Such a glossing over of political conviction about the artist’s place in society could not come at a worse time. Today, in a period of increasing wealth for the collecting class, many artists are nevertheless in a precarious position. Groups like Wage (Working Artists in the Greater Economy) have pushed arts institutions to pay artists in a manner reminiscent of the cause of the Artist’s Union, which Davis led during the Great Depression. In May, Wage issued a letter to the New Museum in New York asking them to commit to paying artists for performances, talks and other work. “No artist, if at all realistic, will tolerate this denial of the principle that a man must be paid for his labor.” That’s Davis in the pages of the radical magazine Art Front in 1935. The Whitney curators missed a golden opportunity.

Instead, the Whitney show is testament to a different kind of force. What distinguished Davis as such an important bridge in the history of American art? What set him apart from his peers? The curators answer these questions in the final rooms through a crescendo of works in Davis’ mature style. Colonial Cubism (1954), for example, is so balanced in colour and rhyme that it momentarily tricks the viewer into thinking that it depicts a whole scene. Like work that precedes it chronologically, this one drew inspiration from things Davis encountered in his surroundings, which he collided with the analytical style that took his entire career to perfect. Part of the joy of this show is the way it charts Davis’s penchant for a self-referential re-working of past forms. In Colonial Cubism, the explorations of the 1920s pay dividends. The result is a microcosm of how Davis left American art much different than when he found it.

Davis is one of the best American examples of the notion (though it remains fiercely debated until today) that artists are most powerful when they commune with the outside world and when they use contemporary life—whatever that may mean—as subject matter to produce a result that captures a particular moment in time.

Davis left us with two lasting lessons: that Modernism didn’t just happen in the artist’s studio and that artists ought to be paid for their labour. These lessons, rendered in a politically-tinged realism that assimilated stylistic innovations imported from European Modernism, were his greatest source of strength.

Mike Pepi is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in frieze, e-flux, Flash Art, Art in America, DIS Magazine, Rhizome, and The New Criterion.

Stuart Davis: In Full Swing, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, until 25 September

For an interview with the curators of the exhibition, see Back to the beginning with Stuart Davis