But Davis in his salad days was also terrific, and this you won’t see at the Whitney.
He was born – according to the excellent catalog of his 1965 memorial exhibition created by the National Collection of the Fine Arts – on December 7, 1894 (and he had died on June 24, 1964, making him 69 when he died).
His mother was a sculptor, but his father was not an artist. Instead, he was art director of the Philadelphia Press—a publication to which four future members of “The Eight” contributed in the 1890s—John Sloan, Everett Shinn, George Luks & William Glackens.
What could be more natural than for young Stuart to follow the group to New York and spend three years studying with their leader, Robert Henri? So this is what Davis did, between 1910 and 1913.
By this time, he was already into radical politics, creating covers and drawings for The Masses, and he was already becoming known – well enough known to exhibit five watercolors in the 1913 Armory Show.
He had his first solo exhibition at the Sheridan Square Gallery in New York in 1917.
In 1990, Salander-O’Reilly, which then represented the Stuart Davis Estate, held a frankly fabulous show of the artist’s early oils, from 1910 to 1923.
Mostly landscapes, plus a few cityscapes and a dynamite self-portrait from 1912, it showed the artist veering crazily back and forth between cubism and the Ash Can School, no consistency whatsoever but with a lusciously loaded brush and the thrill of constant experiment.
This was not the first show that Salander-O’Reilly had given Davis, but it’s the one I have the catalog for, and I still remember the exhilarating high that I got from attending the opening.
It wasn’t my first experience of Davis, of course. That seems to have come while I was still in grad school, and hired as the reader for an undergraduate course in 20th century American art history. This job required my attending all its lectures.
If I recall correctly, the instructor set up Davis and Edward Hopper as two poles of American art in the 1930s and maybe also the 1920s—the abstract and the representational.
He probably said something about the American Abstract Artists (to the left of Davis artistically speaking) and must have dealt with American Scene painters like Thomas Hart Benton as well (to the right of Hopper artistically speaking), though I have no recollection of this.
I like to think he must have shown his students Davis’s breakthrough work from the later 1920s, including some of the most abstract versions of his “eggbeater series.”
I know he showed some of Davis’s small collage-like oil paintings from the early 1920s based on what today we would call pop-cultural subjects like cigarette packs and bottles of mouthwash.
This instructor was, after all, a child of the 1960s, who like so many who have come both before & after him revered Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Johns and that whole school of genial fetishizing of commercial signs, symbols and insignias that has done so much to bring “high art” to the attention of art lovers who may have difficulty with genuinely high art.
In any event, works celebrating several tobacco products (including not only Lucky Strike but also the less familiar Sweet Caporal and Bull Durham) are here at the Whitney, in effect leading off the show, and combined with the glorification of Odol – the mouthwash – and Mazda light bulbs.
They are followed by four of the most abstract eggbeaters, and by what for me is the most enjoyable part of the show – the small, semi-abstract paintings inspired by the artist’s visit to Paris at the very end of the 1920s.
These are really gems, combining abstraction with recognizable Parisian motifs from both cityscape and still life. They are so relaxed – they don’t strain for effect – and as always I found them quite beguiling, especially “Rue Lipp” and “Place Pasdeloup” (both 1928)
Davis’s visit to Paris was rendered possible by the sale of two of his paintings to the Whitney Studio Club (my sources disagree on whether the purchase was made by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney herself or Juliana Force, who ran the Studio Club for Whitney, though in any event, the money would have been Whitney’s).
According to Whitney Museum's literature accompanying the present show, the Whitney Studio Club (its predecessor) also gave Davis his “first one-man exhibition there in 1926.”
However, while this may have been his first solo show at the Whitney, the NCFA catalog records solo exhibitions elsewhere in 1918 and 1925 as well as the one at the Sheridan Square in 1917.
It adds that in 1927, Davis had his first of many solo exhibitions at the Downtown Gallery, run by Edith Gregor Halpert, one of the most enterprising and aggressive dealers of the day.
This is not to say that Whitney didn’t remain one of Davis’s admirers. According to the press release for the current show, the Whitney’s permanent collection includes 27 Davises, dating from 1913 to 1964.
But they didn’t own him—he stood on his own two feet.
The current show at the Whitney moves on in its next gallery (rather too hastily, in my opinion) to cover Davis’s career in the 1930s.
During this decade, it would appear, he was largely engaged in left-wing politics and making large-scale murals—which, thanks to the patronage afforded by the Federal government, were one of the big art forms of the decade.
The politics principally involved Davis’s leadership of the Artists Congress, which was more or less a front for the Communist Party of America.
But he – together with many other members – became disenchanted and resigned in 1940, when the organization endorsed the Soviet invasion of Finland (the Soviets having previously signed a “non-aggression” pact with Hitler that also enabled Hitler to invade Poland).
If the exhibits in this show are to be believed, Davis’s best mural from the 30s wasn’t a product of government patronage, but created for a team of capitalists headed up by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
This mural, “Men without Women,” was designed for and installed in the men’s room of Radio City Music Hall, as part of the massive urban reconstruction project undertaken by Rockefeller in the 1930s that led to the creation of Rockefeller Center.
“Men without Women” doesn’t appear in this show, but the two preliminary studies for it that are on display show a nicely balanced and not-too-fussy composition.
The rest of the show – and the largest part of it --- presents Davis’s career since 1940. Early on in this period, he developed the jazzy, swinging imagery with which most people are probably familiar.
It was composed of ever-brighter colors and smaller and busier semi-abstract shapes that began with smaller and more perfect works like “Ultra-Marine” (1943/1952) and “Arboretum by Flashbulb” (1942).
Later on, the same ideas are used for bigger and more confrontational canvases, complete with lettering, as in “Owh! In San Pao” (1951).
Sometimes the lettering takes over altogether, as in “Little Giant Still Life” (1950).
The instructor from whom I first learned about Davis moved on, in his coverage of the 1940s, to the abstract expressionists, but in my dissertation I also examined the many other painters working in the 1940s, and learned that Davis (unlike the abstract expressionists) was among the most admired.
In fact, he was given a whole retrospective by MoMA in 1945.
In 1948, I discovered, Look magazine had polled museum curators & other “knowledgeable” art-world figures to find whom they considered the most talented U.S. painters.
Davis was third on their “top ten” list, and the only abstractionist among them. He was also the principal artist chosen by Life in 1947 for an article about how American artists were going abstract.
By the 1950s, the avant-garde had moved on, but Davis was still admired by more conservative curators and critics: in 1952, he was one of four artists chosen by one of these to represent the U.S in the Venice Biennale (the others being Hopper, Yasuo Kuniyoshi & Alexander Calder).
The Whitney clearly hopes that by emphasizing Davis’s antecedents in popular culture, it can restore him to the pinnacle that he once enjoyed.
I would be happier if they could base their claims more upon the evidence of what a damn good painter he started out to be. But hey, who am I? Just one of those pesky critics who come to every exhibition determined to make it prove its worth...
“Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” was co-organized by Barbara Haskell of the Whitney and Harry Cooper of the National Gallery of Art.
After it leaves the Whitney, it will travel to the National Gallery of Art (November 20 through March 5, 2017), the De Young Museum in San Francisco (April 8 through August 6, 2017), and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas (September 16, 2017 to January 8, 2018).