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Notes on Stuart Davis

by Gary Comenas

When asked what his "pivotal works" were by Katherine Kuh for her book, The Artist's Voice, originally published in 1962, Davis replied "The Tobacco pictures I painted around 1921-22, the Egg Beater series of 1927-28 and the Paris paintings, as far as my earlier work is concerned." (KK65)

Davis was an abstract artist who sometimes incorporated realistic imagery (such as cigarette packets and letters and numbers) into his paintings. During a television interview in 1956 for the program Night Beat he discussed his approach to realism and abstraction using his painting Memo (1956) as a point of reference.

Memo (1956), Stuart Davis

From the transcript of Davis' interview on Night Beat, 1956:

John Wingate [interviewer]: "Our guest has painted the American scene for more than forty years. He's Philadelphia-born Stuart Davis, admitted today as one of America's greatest painters. In 1947, Life magazine used his work as a case study on why artists are going abstract, despite Mr. Davis's assertion, from his earliest days, that his purpose is to make realistic pictures. Memo, 1956, is one of his latest paintings, currently part of a one-man show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Later on in the program, we'll try to find out what's realistic in this abstract painting..."

[Wingate hands a copy of the painting to Davis and another copy of it is projected on a screen for the audience.]

Wingate: "Can you tell me what it means, sir?"

Stuart Davis: "Well this is what you call a beat-up subject."

Wingate: "U-huh?"

Stuart Davis: "Meaning by that... that I think I've drawn it and painted it probably a dozen times in twenty-five years. The original subject - there's no need after this lapse of time to make a mystery of it - was simply a normal landscape in Gloucester, Massachusetts."

Wingate: "A 'normal landscape'? ...could you show me where, if it's there, the harbour is?"

Davis: "The harbour didn't happen to be in this particular landscape... Well here, this is obviously the elegant lines of schooners and their rigging."

Wingate: "U-huh."

Davis: "Unfortunately, they're no longer present, they don't use them any more. The foreground had its origins in some buildings and the ground and certain nautical elements that happened to be strewn about."

Wingate: "Mr. Davis, let me ask you this... can you understand why the average man would find it perhaps unclear, and would not see the rigging or the schooners?"

Davis: "Well, one of the reasons is that there is no rigging or schooners here. I was only describing the origin of the subject... What is here... is an objective order... It is an objective order consisting of colours in different positional relationships... The particular order of this painting is established by a subjective determination, as in all art."

Wingate: "As you see it, in other words?"

Davis: "Well, as you feel it."

Wingate: "Let's... let's get away from this which may, or may not be quite clear-cut. Let's find out, if we can, how you call this 'realistic'..."

Davis: "... well, did I call it realistic?"

Wingate: "Well, is there realism in it? You've said that you paint 'realistic'?"

Davis: "Well, my attitude toward life is realistic, but realism doesn't include merely what one immediately sees with the eye at a given moment - one also relates it to past experience... one relates it to feelings, ideas. And what is real about that experience is the totality of the awareness of it. So, I call it 'realism.' But, by 'realism' I don't mean it's a realism in any photographic sense - certainly not." (SD67-68)

The LIfe magazine article referred to by the interviewer was a seven page feature on Davis titled "Why Artists Are Going Abstract: The Case of Stuart Davis" published in the February 17, 1947 issue. Previously, Life had treated American abstract art as something to be laughed at rather than explained. In the article on Davis, they took a more positive approach, commenting that "the esthetic is a well-known formula among American artists, who refer to it as abstraction. It is so well known that it is continually used in popular media such as posters and smart advertising layouts."

In 1954, Time magazine noted about Davis (in an article titled "The All American" which referred to Davis as "as American as bourbon on the rocks.") that "The bold and violent abstractions he paints echo the clash and clatter of 20th century American life..." The article pointed out some of Davis' interests as "television, football, prizefighting, hot jazz and Manhattan skyscrapers." (AB) Davis had expressed the things which inspired him in an earlier interview in Art News magazine. His comments are reminiscent of the comments made by some of the Pop artists during the 1960s.

Stuart Davis:

"Some of the things which have made me want to paint, outside of other paintings are: American wood and iron work of the past; Civil War and skyscraper architecture; the brilliant colours on gasoline stations; chain-store fronts, and taxi-cabs; the music of Bach; synthetic chemistry; the poetry of Rimbaud; fast travel by train, auto, and aeroplane which brought new and multiple perspectives; electric signs; the landscape and boats of Gloucester, Mass.; 5 & 10 cent store kitchen utensils; movies and radio; Earl HInes' hot piano and Negro jazz music in general, etc. In one way or another the quality of these things plays a role in determining the character of my paintings...."
(SD65-6/"The Cube Root," Art News (February 1, 1943))

What the Time magazine failed to mention was that the artist they were characterising as "The All American" in 1954 had, during the 1930s, been a die-hard Socialist. Jacob Kainen, an artist who knew Davis at the time, later recalled "... Davis was interested in left wing causes. It was a different kind of left wing in those days. You know, you were thinking of Russia as the hope of the earth, society without exploitation, etc. And Davis always had been a Socialist." (AC)

Davis, like John Sloan, had worked for the left-wing publication, The Masses - although both would resign in 1916 after an argument about editorial policy. Beginning in 1934 Davis, as an active member of the Artists' Union, became the Editor-in-Chief of Art Front, the left-wing publication affiliated with the Union. (SD200) In 1938 Davis was one of 150 artists who signed a letter (published in The New Masses on April 28, 1938) supporting the Russian government's actions against Trotsky and his supporters (referred to as "trotskyite bakarinite traitors" in the letter) during the Moscow Trials. (SG27). Davis had also been active in the John Reed Club (aligned with the Communist Party U.S.A.) and was the first executive secretary of the left-wing American Artists' Congress, later becoming its chairman. (SG/27AA8-9/see May 18, 1935)

Stuart Davis: [From "Why An Artists' Congress?" presented to the American Artists' Congress, Feb. 14 - 16, 1936]:

"... The increasingly open drive of arch reactionaries like William Randolph Hearst and the American Liberty League to promote so-called recovery at the expense of the living standards and freedom of expression of the great masses of American people is a direct menace to the whole body of American artists.

It is Heart's Daily Mirror that launches the most vicious attack against artists on Government projects, calling them 'Hobohemian chiselers' and 'ingrates ready to bite the hand that feeds them.'

... This attack is part of a general drive by powerful vested interest to perpetuate exploitation by smashing the efforts of the underprivileged American masses to gain security and a decent living standard. The goal of entrenched interests is a regime founded on suppression... This goal is shrewdly screened with such slogans as 'Back to the Constitution' and 'Save America for Democracy,' and hypocritical appeals to Americanism and love of country.

The examples of the so-called national resurgence that were accompanied by the most brutal destruction of the economic and cultural standards of the masses of people in Italy and Germany through the introduction of Fascism should warn us of the real threats that lie behind the rabidly nationalistic movements in this country.

There is a real danger of Fascism in America..." (AA67-8)

Davis resigned from the Artists' Congress in 1940. In 1942 his work was included in the patriotic "Artists for Victory" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in 1945 a major retrospective of his work took place at The Museum of Modern Art. In 1952 he was given a one-man show at the U.S. Pavilion at the 26th Venice Biennale and in 1956 he was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He died on June 24, 1964 of a stroke. (SD200)

Philip Guston:

"He [Stuart Davis] would mount his scaffold, lavishly spread paint on large areas with a palette knife, step down, and look at the results for a while in his suspenders smoking his cigar. Then he would mount his ladder again and scrape the whole thing off onto the floor. I remember how impressed I was by his lavish use of paint, and by his willingness to change in the process while I, in my bay, still under the spell of the Renaissance, was laboriously working on my big cartoon." (MM31)

back to December 7, 1894: Stuart Davis is born in Philadelphia

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