Stuart Davis at The Morgan Library

Stuart Davis, Hot Still Scape for Six Colors-Seventh Avenue Style (1940), oil on canvas, 36″ x 45″;  courtesy Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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Anyone familiar with the paintings of Stuart Davis (1892–1964) knows that he had a sense of humor. It’s there to see in his rambunctious rhythms, eye-popping palette and cartoon-like distillations of form; it is perhaps most readily apparent in his terse and slangy appropriations of popular culture. Just in case one needs a reminder of this great artist’s wit there is Greek Backwards (1921), a watercolor drawing included in Stuart Davis: Art and Theory, 1920–1931, a tiny yet beautifully considered exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library. The humor in the piece is evident in its form, in the lighter-than-air ballet his cobbled shapes engage in. Yet in writing the word “Greek” backwards on the page, Davis also takes a more literal dig at Cubism, the wellspring of his art, and the contemporaneous response to it. At the time, Modern painting was largely considered to be unintelligible by a skeptical general public. “It’s all Greek to me” may not have been the verbatim response to the new art, but it was its essence. Certainly, it provided Davis with a knowing and appreciative punch line.

When the notice of Art and Theory arrived in my mailbox, I took stock of its title and feared the worst. Anytime anyone mentions “theory” nowadays one thinks of the Postmodernist tendency to relegate art to extra-aesthetic purpose. Surely an institution as august as the Morgan wouldn’t stoop to such faddishness? Happily, it doesn’t. Gathering together a sketchbook, a journal, prints, drawings, and a single oil on canvas, MOMA’s Lucky Strike (1921–22), Art and Theory is what I think of as a “thinking” show: an exhibition that provides a peek into an artist’s inner workshop. It is, in other words, a show concerned more with how than with what. If that makes Art and Theory sound like a specialist’s exhibition, I suppose it is—but that doesn’t mean it’s for specialists only. The assorted visitors I encountered at the Morgan were fascinated by how Davis articulated his art. They were happy to get in to his head.

And Davis has a head worth getting into. One of the most fascinating items in Art and Theory is Davis’s journal. Written in a propulsive script, it contains sketches and notes about the nature of art, both in general and his own. In the entry on display at the Morgan, dated May 27, 1922, we read about “uni-planar” and “multi-planar” paintings: “ … in the first case, the plane of the canvas is used throughout and all the modeling is done on the plane. In the second case there are a series of superimposed major planes each one of which has its own details.” Included are a pair of illustrations that, while simple, succinctly illuminate the distinctions between the two. Continuing further, Davis likens the act of painting a picture to the “way … a mechanic puts an automobile together.” This cut-and-dried pragmatism is exactly what we would expect from an artist who put an indelibly American stamp on the Cubist idiom.

How American is Davis? The answer is through and through. “Starting now,” he wrote in April of 1922, “I will begin a series of paintings that shall be rigorously logical. American not French. America has had her scientists, her inventors, now she will have her artist.” One could accuse Davis of gross egotism had he not so completely fulfilled that ambition. Of course, his sense of himself as an American was shot through with a sardonic self-awareness; elsewhere he states: “I do not belong to the human race but am a product made by the American Can Co. and the N.Y. Evening Journal.” Just as typical is this proclamation of patriotic purpose: “I too feel the thing Whitman felt—and I too will express it in pictures—America—the wonderful place we live in.” After declaring his love for “another great American art expression,” rag-time music, Davis decisively sums up: “So then, I want direct simple pictures of classic beauty expressing the immediate life of the day. I want this now, always have wanted it and always will want it.” A fervent embrace of life defines Davis’s oeuvre. Notwithstanding his tendency to crack wise, he is one of the most optimistic painters we’ve ever had.

Davis’s hearty take on life and art is apparent in the handful of pictures at the Morgan. If it seems that I have given them short shrift, it is only because Davis the theoretician—who is, after all, the focus of the exhibition—is such a delightful find. The excerpts from Davis’s journals published in the catalogue will be of great interest not only for fans of the artist, but also for anyone who cares about the art of painting. Some of his comments seem particularly prescient as to the failings of the contemporary scene. “As regards theories and formulas,” Davis writes, “ … if your picture is merely a chart illustrating these premises it will be lifeless.” This will ring a bell for anyone who regularly makes the rounds of Chelsea, as will his correlation of the “Dadas” with “jugglers with whom we have been acquainted in vaudeville for some years.” (Would that jugglers were the worst of our problems!) The clarity of Davis’s journals should serve as a model for writing about art. His utter lack of pretense is winning, the just-the-facts-ma’am tone bracing. It is time for some editor to compile Davis’s various writings in book form. Perhaps Art and Theory will put that much-needed project in motion.

© 2002 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 2002 edition of The New Criterion.

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