Friday, December 7, 2007


Starting out as a gritty realist and morphing through or influencing almost every abstract genre of the twentieth century, Stuart Davis could easily serve as the Kevin Bacon of American art. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 7, 1894, Davis touches so many movements in six moves or less that his career is hard to encapsulate. With a mother who sculpted and a father who worked as a newspaper art director, Davis was literally born into the art world. Through his father, Davis met George Luks, William Glackens, and other artists. Davis followed these illustrators to New York and studied under under Robert Henri, eventually joining the Ashcan School, aka, The Eight. Like John Sloan, another Ashcan artist, Davis designed covers for The Masses, a Socialist periodical reflecting the populist goals of the group. All that changes, however, with the 1913 Armory Show, the introduction of modern art to America, which turned heads and turned Davis into the first American Cubist. Lucky Strike (above, from 1921) demonstrates the Synthetic rather than Analytical Cubism Davis employed, borrowing the shapes and colors of American cigarette advertising and leaving behind the brown studies of Picasso and Braque.

After a visit to Paris in 1928, Davis continued to establish himself as a modernist, although his cubism continued to evolve into other forms. It’s interesting to compare Davis with Gerald Murphy. (See Murphy’s paintings in a review I wrote here.) Murphy’s Razor (1924) and Watch (1925) come after Davis’ Lucky Strikes, but it’s hard to determine if Murphy knew Davis’ work. Whereas Davis encountered Picasso at the Armory Show, Murphy met Pablo over drinks. While Murphy abandoned painting in the 1920s, Davis continued to develop, painting works such as The Mellow Pad (above, from 1945-1951). Anything but mellow, The Mellow Pad strikes one today as an early Abstract Expressionist work minus the splatter. Davis’ love of jazz and improvisation comes through loud and clear in this work.

Davis lived through the age of Abstract Expression and even saw the dawn of Pop Art. Blips and Ifs (above, from 1963-1964), with its inclusion of words and bright colors, helps make the case for Davis as the father of Pop Art in America, a case that stretches all the way back to his Lucky Strikes in 1921. Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans and Brillo Boxes lose a little of their originality in the wake of Davis’ work. While the other members of The Eight continued their realistic approach for the rest of their careers, Davis alone ventured out into the wider world of modernism and helped strike an American note.