Stuart Davis
Biography of American Cubist Painter.
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Report from Rockport (1940)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
An important canvas from the 1940s,
full of gas pumps, trees, storefronts,
it was the first in which he used his
"colour-space" theory. In this work
some colours advance, while others
recede, giving the impression of
three-dimensional space.

Stuart Davis (1892-1964)

Contents

Biography
Early Training and Career
Armory Show
Cubism and Abstraction
1930s
Later Years


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Biography

A distinctive contributor to American art, Davis is seen as one of the most important modern artists in America between 1920 and 1950. He was, for instance, the leading American exponent of Cubism, creating a unique blend of modern art and American Scene painting. Noted for his colourful, flat, poster-like abstract paintings, each of his pictures was based on something he saw around him - something typically American. In this sense he may be seen as an important precursor of Pop Art and its use of popular imagery. At 21 Davis was one of the youngest participants at the famous Armory Show (1913), which caused him to take up abstract art for almost the rest of his life. He had a major influence on younger painters such as Arshile Gorky (1904-48) and Willem de Kooning (1904-97). Among his greatest 20th century paintings are works like: his mural Swing Landscape (1938, Indiana University of Art); his "Egg-Beater" series (1927-30), Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors - 7th Avenue Style (1940, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); Report from Rockport (1940, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); Little Giant Still Life (1950, Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond); Owh in San Pao (1951, Whitney Museum of American Art); The Mellow Pad (1951, Lowenthal Collection); and Colonial Cubism (1954, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis). One of the attractions of Davis's art was its ability to convey the vitality of modern American life.

Early Training and Career

Davis was born in Philadelphia to an artistic family. Both his parents had studied with the award winning portrait artist Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912) at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His mother was a sculptor, while his father was art editor of The Philadelphia Press, the employer of William Glackens (1870-1938), George Luks (1867-1933), Everett Shinn (1876-1953) and John French Sloan (1871-1951) four of the central figures in the Ashcan School of Painting (c.1900-1915). At the age of 16 Davis quit High School and from 1909 to 1912 had his first formal art training under Robert Henri (1865-1929), the leader of the Ashcan School. Not surprisingly, his early canvases depicted life in the streets, saloons, theatres and halls of New York, typically painted in dark colours with impasto brushwork.

Armory Show

In 1913, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors - a group dominated by the Robert Henri circle, including AAPS President Arthur B Davies (1862-1928) - organized what became the seminal exhibition of modern art in America. It included works by nearly all the leading modern artists in Europe, but also - and this was the real point of the show - it showcased a number of avant-garde American painters (eg. Edward Hopper) alongside more established American figures like Whistler (1834-1903), Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917), J. Alden Weir (1852-1919) and John H Twachtman (1853-1902). Davis was one of the youngest Americans invited to exhibit, and he showed five examples of his Ashcan-style watercolour painting. More importantly, he was exposed to a range of abstract painters (like Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, Marcel Duchamp), and abstract sculptors (like Brancusi, Archipenko). The show had a formative influence on him, causing him to abandon the gritty realism of his Ashcan style and experiment with a more modern idiom. Meantime, for the next couple of years (1913-16) he earned his living in magazine illustration, producing graphic art for the left-wing magazine The Masses, and later for The Liberator in the 1920s. He also spent the first of many summers painting in Gloucester (1915), an artists resort on the coast of Massachusetts, where the strong light made him introduce bolder colour into his canvases, in the style derived from Cezanne, Gauguin and Matisse. In 1917, he enjoyed his first solo exhibition which was held at the Sheridan Square Gallery in New York.

Cubism and Abstraction

During the 1920s Davis turned to non-objective art, developing his own style of synthetic Cubism in flat, poster-like paintings. Landscape and still life were his favourite genres, but his vision was strictly Main Street America and his pictures invariably included colourful down-to-earth motifs of gas pumps, cigarette packages, storefronts, spark plug advertisements, and the like: House and Street (1931, Whitney Museum of American Art). The use of this type of simple, everyday imagery (albeit in abstract form), anticipated the brightly coloured mass-consumer imagery which appeared in the works of Jasper Johns (b.1930), the Pop art paintings of Andy Warhol (1928-87) and Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97), and the huge Pop sculptures of Claes Oldenburg (b.1929). If the narrative content of Davis's painting was American, its shallow picture space and non-imitative colour schemes were entirely characteristic of European modernism - a sort of cross between Matisse (colourful, yet sharp fragments), Fernand Leger (all-over lively pattern) and Joan Miro (multi-coloured fantastic motifs). In short, he was both American and modern, a unique combination for his time, and one which gave him recognition in many artistic circles. Only the sharply defined forms of certain exponents of Precisionism, like Charles Demuth (1883-1935), were similar to Davis's interpretation of European avant-garde art.

Another technique he picked up from the Paris School was collage, the art of affixing bits of paper and other objects to the surface of the picture. He even painted his collages: Lucky Strike (1921, MOMA, New York). In 1928, funded by the sale of two canvases to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942), Davis visited France, where he spent a year painting in Paris. It was an important trip in that it helped him to finalize his mature style.

1930s

During the Depression of the 1930s, Davis taught at the Art Students League in New York, and also produced murals and other works for the Federal Art Project (Swing Landscape, 1938, Indiana University of Art). In addition - and quite naturally, given his family and artistic roots in Ashcan 'socialism' - he became involved in the left-wing politics of the time. In 1934 he joined the Artists' Union, later becoming its President. In 1938 he married Roselle Springer.

Later Years

During the 1940s Davis gravitated to a purer form of concrete art, often using pen-and-ink drawings as preliminary studies, although he continued to include lettering and traces of adverts in his pictures. His passion for jazz - he went to concerts with the expatriate Dutch artist Piet Mondrian in the early 40s - also found its way into his art: witness his dissonant colours and repetitive rhythms. Although sometimes tagged as an exponent of hard edge painting, a tendency within abstract expressionism - Davis did not really share the concerns of either the New York School or its successors. He spent his later years teaching at the New York School for Social Research and at Yale University. He died from a stroke on June 24, 1964, aged 71.

Abstract Cubist-style paintings by Stuart Davis can be seen in some of the best art museums around the world.

 

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