Stuart Davis will be taking center stage at the Whitney this summer. The exhibition will chart the forty-year career of this child of the Ashcan and step-daddy of Pop, this all-American Modernist with his finger on the pulse and a beat to his brushstroke. Stuart Davis: self-professed Jazz Painter, are you hep to this jive?
During the 1930’s, much contemporary art critical rhetoric was surrounding the “American Scene,” or, at the very least, a return to realism, as seen in the work of Thomas Hart Benson and Reginald Marsh. The path of least resistance might suggest that after the excitement of the Armory Show in 1913 and relatively short lived New York Dada movement, abstract art in America conceded to a pervasive cultural conservatism only to re-emerge, virile and victorious, after World War II- something of a renaissance in the guise of the Abstract Expressionism. But artists tend to play in the grey areas, after all, and there was in fact a quietly active, concurrent development of abstract and non-objective art taking place in the United States, in which Stuart Davis played no small a part.
The Armory Show had introduced a small circle of artists and intellectuals to the range of modernist activity taking place abroad. By the 1920’s though, Paris was once again the epicenter the artistic activity, and there wasn’t too much evidence of the vanguard pursuit of these modernist concepts on the home front. Public attention within the U.S. remained firmly on realism, more specifically Regionalism: a concretely American form of art. An aw shucks, gee whiz, down to earth, aesthetic puritanism that could be washed down with a cold glass of milk. Think Grant Wood’s American Gothic, pitchfork planting the flag firmly in defiance of lofty, Eurocentric, intangibles.
For the most part the critical mass welcomed this return to realism and their passive disregard for homegrown modernism had knock-on effect; lack of attention led to public’s lack of understanding, constituting what Davis would call the “cultural monopoly” he saw to be taking place in the U.S. Genuine efforts had been made to incorporate new formal elements and meanings into art but this progressive aesthetic spirit had eventually waned in the face of cultural provincialism, which was being “exploited… at the expense of progress.”
And Davis was a progressive- socially as much as aesthetically. He was a Marxist, an active and vocal member of the Communist Party and the Popular Front. He was involved with the Artists Union and the American Artists Congress and worked on WPA murals. He rolled up his shirt sleeves and dug straight in but he was also a theorist, a prolific writer; he wrote hundreds of letters and speeches and articles which outlined not only his aesthetic theory but also his notions of the relationship art to society. And although Davis was thoroughly dedicated to advocating artists’ political and economic rights, he would not allow social and political necessity to undermine artistic freedom of expression. Paradoxical perhaps, but then, we’re talking about one of the most vocal exponents of American Modernism, and a man who claimed to have “practically zero” interest in abstraction.
Not the capital A, ivory tower kind of Abstraction at least; because, in Davis’s art, the abstraction is the how and not the what. Formally speaking, the influences of the Fauves and Cubists are clear, but he wasn’t a concept over content man. He was a good old fashioned American radical that way, believing that art was deeply rooted in and, therefore, a visual expression of, the conditions under which it was created. And the streets were Davis’s jam. They may have lacked the pure and unobstructed vantage of the ivory tower, but they vibrated with the real and the now.
And the jazz that it’s all about? Davis’s paintings serve as pictorial analogue to the violent, syncopated sounds of a music that he loved. He used imagery to create a phenomenological experience, to stimulate mood, much like the result of listening to music. There’s a spontaneity to each canvas, an irregular cadence of colour and form, loosely arranged to compose visual symphony. There is rhythm to his compositions; every finger-snapping, bluesy bassline is offset by a loud and unexpected swing note. Inspired by one uniquely American art form, Davis created his own by distilling elements of a known language into visual slang and using it to wax lyrical on the modern state of play.
The upcoming exhibition at the Whitney will present over one hundred of Davis’s late career works alongside the earlier pieces which inspired them, riffing on this artist’s distinctive tendency to jam persistently on preexisting patterns and motifs. And as every jazz lover knows, that’s just the nature of the groove.
By Sarah Millar
Stuart Davis: In Full Swing at the Whitney, New York, June 10- September 25th 2016.