In Full Swing, is a survey of more than 80 works by early 20th century artist Stuart Davis now at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
With artist parents, Davis quit school at 16 to take art classes from Ashcan School painter Robert Henri, a family friend. As Henri’s star pupil, Davis was encouraged to immerse himself in his interests. He discovered jazz and began to draw his inspiration from everyday modern life in New York; shop fronts and signs, the elevated trains, and advertising.
At just 20, Davis showed watercolors in the the now legendary 1913 Armory Show (as if 20 wasn’t young enough, he said he was 18, making him the youngest in the exhibit.) But the radical new European work, especially Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse, made him question his technique. He declared that he wanted,
“to become a Modern Artist.“
Had he been more influenced by that show’s radical art grandad, Marcel Duchamp, he might have wanted to become “a conceptual artist”. But instead he spent the next decade in apprenticeship to all things European, using intense color and simple graphic structure with little regard for the literal. As a precursor to pop art of the 1960s, he used labels and packages of cigarettes as source material.
The Whitney show starts with these “tobacco still lifes,” grouped with over-scaled light bulbs and mouthwash bottles, but as the he exhibit’s curators —Barbara Haskell and Harry Cooper say unlike the later Pop artists, Davis used the visual language of high modernism, not ads. I guess they just mean he was more OF his time than ahead of it.
After about 1940, Davis often used his own early works as starting points, recycling motifs while reinventing and embellishing them bringing them up to date. An ad for Champion spark plugs, one of his most well-recognized images is right up there with Matisse’s Jazz series.
Davis used what he termed called “color space logic” where configurations were set but color and letters, words, invented signs, patterns, etc, could be riffed on like visual jazz. In his last years, he used mostly reds, greens and oranges with black and white accents. His last painting, titled Fin, that was on the easel before his death, to me distills his style and life’s work in one image. That’s mastery –and going out in STYLE.
Stuart Davis: In Full Swing runs through September 25 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.