Most people know far less than they should about Stuart Davis, one of America’s most important modern artists. Yet if you can simply understand how the plucky 20th–century painter managed to have his cake and eat it too, you’ll be well on your way to comprehending his significance. Exactly how he did this and why it made for such noteworthy art is enticingly revealed by Stuart Davis: In Full Swing, a peppy new exhibit currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City through September 25.
Born in 1892 in Philadelphia, where he was influenced by the city’s newspaper illustrators, Davis developed an early dedication to art’s role as a reflector of contemporary social conditions. He went on to train with Robert Henri, leader of the Ashcan School, and adopted the movement’s style of urban realism, with an emphasis on content over composition. But after seeing the 1913 Armory show, which introduced him to European modernism, Davis became enamored with formalist experimentation, fauvism, cubism, and abstraction. Convinced these modern ideas constituted a vital new direction for art, Davis ignored the notion that his long-standing commitment to social art (which prioritized message over medium) stood in stark opposition to his new love for abstraction (indisputably governed by formal principles).
In 1921, with his series of cubist-style paintings abstracting tobacco-packaging imagery, Davis achieved the seemingly impossible task of marrying two oppositional artistic approaches. He employed the flat geometric shapes of cubism in paintings that commented loudly and pointedly on everyday life in America: commercial advertising of mass-market products was proliferating, smoking had become a popular habit stateside and their rampant distribution to U.S. soldiers during World War I had made cigarettes an American symbol. With these paintings, whose titles and images include the names of national cigarette brands and companies, Davis took his first step toward establishing his signature, groundbreaking union between modernism and the belief that art must pertain to the society from which it emerges. Barbara Haskell, co-curator of the Whitney exhibit, describes Davis’s work as “a rare synthesis: an art that is resolutely abstract, yet at the same time exudes the spirit of popular culture.”
While all of the works on display merit extended viewing—they’re the kind of pieces you find more and more in the longer you search—the best treasure hunting is in New York Mural (right), a 1932 work created when the Museum of Modern Art invited Davis to make a mural about post–World War I life in America. Mural-making was very popular in the U.S. during the 1930s, due to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives, which provided governmental support to artists by commissioning them to make murals for public buildings. Though realism was still the preferred style of most American painters at the time, Davis brought a modernist look to the five murals he made. In the flat, overlapping forms of New York Mural, you’ll find fun references to local politics, particularly New York governor and 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith. See if you can spot Smith’s trademark brown derby hat and bow tie; a banana alluding to his campaign song “Yes! We Have No Bananas”; a champagne glass symbolizing his support for Prohibition’s repeal; and the tiger head and tail representative of his affiliation with Tammany Hall.
Yet to genuinely appreciate Davis’s art, you need to make sure you have a good time. Equally unfashionable as his allegiance to art’s social function is Davis’s belief that art should spotlight the positive aspects of life. Davis wanted his paintings to reflect modern life in such a way that when you view them you find the joy in the world around you.
Stuart Davis: In Full Swing is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through September 25. It will subsequently be on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., from November 20 through March 5, 2017; at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, April 8 to August 6, 2017; and at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, September 16, 2017, through January 8, 2018.
Photos courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art