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 Stuart Davis  (1892 - 1964)

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: abstraction, mod-real imagery

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Stuart Davis
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Philadelphia in 1892, Stuart Davis is known by many art historians as the American painter most influenced by Cubism.  Art historian Norman Geske described Davis' career as a "near classical demonstration of the process by which American painting of the twentieth century came of age." (40).  Davis moved from journalistic illustration to Social Realism, to Expressionism, to Cubism, ultimately becoming one of America's leading abstractionists. Strongly influenced by Fernand Leger and the New York Armory Show of 1912, he developed his own unique style of Cubism, which also incorporated Realism.

Along with Max Weber, he is credited with being the importer of Cubism to the United States from France at a time when the public was more interested in Social Realism and American Scene painting with people and places that were recognizable.

Through his painting, he pursued a life-long quest of finding a logical set of assumptions from which he could produce a modern picture, and the results were strong, related patterns and compelling color combinations. In addition to paintings, his body of work includes drawings, collages, lithographs, gouaches, and murals.

Stuart Davis was born in Philadelphia to artistic parents. His mother was sculptor Helen Stuart Foulke, and his father, Edward Wyatt Davis, was art editor of the Philadelphia Press.  Through his father, he had early association with John Sloan and Robert Henri, with whom he studied in New York City from 1910 to 1913.  The Armory Show of 1912 dissuaded him from following the realist styles of Sloan and Henri, but he maintained his artistic focus on aspects of the social realism they espoused in that many of his subjects were places such as run-down hotels or apartment interiors.

Davis experimented with Cubism, collage, and total abstraction, and eventually settled on a style based on Cubism with much improvisation.  In the late 1920s, he lived in Paris in Jan Matulka's studio close to other modernists including Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi, and Morris Kantor.  Then he returned to New York City, in whose vicinity he spent the remainder of his career.  He had a New York City studio and also a studio in Hoboken, New Jersey.  From that time, his paintings reflected American experience, especially his love of jazz music, with the modernist styles he employed beginning with the Armory Show of 1913.

In the 1930s, he taught at the Art Students League in New York, and he also did murals for the WPA (Works Progress Administration).  In the 1940s, he taught at the New School for Social Research.  In 1964, he received the first commission by an American artist to design a postage stamp, which was issued six months after his death in that year.

His first exhibition was in 1927 and venues included the Phillips Gallery in Washington DC , and the Whitney Museum in New York. In this exhibition, he introduced his landmark "Eggbeater Series", various depictions of an eggbeater, a fan and a glove, with each one increasingly abstract until only pure abstraction remained.

A 1998 retrospective of his work was organized by curators of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, and its last venue was The National Museum of American Art in Washington D.C.

Sources include:
Docent archives, Phoenix Art Museum
Norman Geske and Karen Janovy, The American Painting Collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Note from Earl Davis, son of Stuart Davis.

I am writing to ask you to correct an often quoted error as to his birth year as 1894.  In fact, he was born Dec. 7, 1892.

You might also wish to note his highly committed social engagement as one of the founding members and Secretary of the American Artists' Congress, as well as Editor of Art Front - both during the 1930's.

If you have an interest in a more in-depth biographical perspective - he was doing his greatest paintings for which he received the most renown in the 1950-60's, contemporaneous with the Abstract Expressionists - a younger group which retrospectively receives quite a bit more of the limelight.

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, A-D):
Admired for his artistic independence, brilliant use of color, and wit, Stuart Davis is regarded as one of the finest interwar modernists.  The son of artist parents who met as students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he found his place amid the currents of twentieth-century American art earlier than some of his peers.  Among his first art-world mentors were the artists known as The Eight and, later, the Ashcan School.  At the time of his son’s birth, Davis’s father, an art editor, employed some of these artists at the Philadelphia Press and the family connection endured over subsequent years.

As a teenager, Davis left high school in New Jersey for New York City, where he received formal art training from 1910 to 1913 at the school founded by Robert Henri, artistic father of The Eight.  Although Henri worked in a realist vein, he rejected academic idealism and urged his students to observe and sketch city life as experienced on streets and in music halls, taverns, and other locations.  Davis lived in Newark during his art studies; in the dive bars he frequented, he developed an abiding passion for the technical precision and expressive spontaneity of jazz.

With his contribution of five watercolors, Davis was among the youngest participants in the seminal Armory Show (International Exhibition of Modern Art) in 1913, organized by a group of artists in order to introduce Americans to new developments in art across the Atlantic and at home.  Excited by the formal innovations and bold use of color displayed by the European modernists, particularly Matisse, van Gogh, and Gauguin, Davis dedicated the next several years to becoming a modern artist.

By the early 1920s, Davis had left behind the representational realism of his early career.  No matter how abstract his work became—and the degree of abstraction varied throughout his career—he always considered himself an observer of the world around him.  In 1951, he expressed regret “that I have long been ‘type-cast’ as ‘Abstract’ because my interest in Abstractions is practically zero.”(1)  Instead, he identified his paintings as “Color-Space Compositions,” in which areas of color define spatial relationships.  Davis applied his formal concepts to subject matter ranging from still lifes, to landscapes, to commercial imagery and other aspects of urban life.

Just as a jazz musician riffs on snippets borrowed from popular music or explores all the permutations of a single phrase, so Davis drew from a personal well of reference points, remaking them into new images.  In 1942 he remarked in his notebook: “I can work from Nature, from old sketches and paintings of my own, from photographs, and from other works of art.  In each case the process consists of transposition of the forms of the subject into a coherent, objective color-space continuum, which evokes a direct sensate response to structure.”(2)

During Davis’s own lifetime, his work was the subject of retrospectives at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1945) and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1957), and included in a wide variety of group exhibitions focusing on modern or abstract art.  Sometimes identified as a forerunner of the next generation’s Pop artists, Davis shared their engagement with American mass culture, if not their tendency to treat fragments of everyday life to iconic status.  Instead Davis turned the stuff—objects, imagery, and language—of modernity into grace notes within his vivid impressions of urban experience.  Keenly aware of his position as both participant in and chronicler of his cultural moment, he noted, “An artist who has traveled on a steam train, driven an automobile, or flown in an airplane doesn’t feel the same way about form and space as one who has not.”(3)

Sources:
1. Artist statement originally published in 40 American Painters, 1940–1950, catalogue of an exhibition at the University Gallery, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1951, reprinted in Stuart Davis, ed. Diane Kelder (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971), 11.
2. Davis Papers, Reel 6, February 11, 1942, cited in Karen Wilkin, Stuart Davis (New York: Abbeville Press, 1987).
3. Stuart Davis, “Is There a Revolution in the Arts?” originally published in Bulletin of America’s Town Meeting of the Air, V, no. 19 (February 1940), reprinted in Stuart Davis, ed. Diane Kelder (New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1971), 122.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia:
Stuart Davis was one of the most important American painters of the first half of the twentieth century.  He was not only prominent as a painter of American populist idealism, but his work distilled the vitality of modern life with a keen sense of form and improvisational rhythm.

Davis was born in 1892 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, of parents who had both studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  His mother, Helen Stuart Foulke Davis, was a sculptor and exhibited her work in Philadelphia and New York. Edward Davis, the artist's father, was the art editor for the Philadelphia Press, where he employed his friends John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks and Edward Shinn as illustrators.

When Davis was nine years old, his family moved just outside New York City to East Orange, New Jersey, where his father took a position at the Newark Evening News.  Stuart's early acquaintance with his parents' noteworthy artist friends, combined with their support and commitment to his artistic career, gave him a unique perspective that allowed him to develop an extraordinary place within the bohemian artistic world of the early twentieth century.

Stuart Davis was an artistic prodigy.  He began his professional career as a realist painter at the age of seventeen under the tutelage of Robert Henri, the leader and spokesperson for the Ashcan School.  Art historian Barbara Rose notes that Henri taught his students to paint a "… down-to-earth realism based on the objectivity of Dutch genre, the somber palette of Spanish tonal painting, Manet's broad painterliness… [and the] slashing brushstroke and vivid highlights of the Munich School … [employing a] facile bravura and surface glitter." (1)

This kind of realism quite obviously was removed from the traditional canons set forth by Thomas Eakins and William Merritt Chase a generation earlier.  As Rose points out, Henri became more indebted to a kind of journalistic illustration than to traditional fine art.  As Davis' mentor, Henri made certain that his protégé had exhibition opportunities in New York, and in 1910, Davis' work was included in the "Exhibition of Independent Artists."

It was during his study with Henri that Davis met and befriended Henry Glintenkamp, with whom he rented studio space in Hoboken, New Jersey, two years later.  In 1913, an exhibition commonly called the Armory Show (actually entitled the "International Exhibition of Modern Art,” which was held at the Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory) opened in New York.  Organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS), the Armory Show featured over 1200 works by leading American and European artists.  Because the exhibition energized a whole generation of artists, including Stuart Davis, it is widely recognized to represent a turning point in the history of American art.  While the Domestic Committee of the AAPS invited many established American artists to participate in the exhibition, younger artists, like Davis, submitted work for approval. (2)

Five of his watercolors were accepted for inclusion.  Davis' exposure to work by leading modern and contemporary artists of the world stimulated him to broaden his thinking about art and embrace a unique "modernist" vision.  As Patricia Hills has noted, "From the 1920s until his death …he developed a personal art theory… scorning academic banality, sentimentality and bourgeois sensibilities." (3)

Although he recognized that museums, collectors and the general public accepted realism more freely than the new, modern art during this period, Davis was convinced that his move toward abstraction was correct.  Like his contemporaries, he viewed modernism as a democratic expression that was more broadly accessible to "the people" than the academic art of the previous generation, whose formulaic reconstructions of classical motifs appealed primarily to the elite.

In the 1930s, Davis spent time painting in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and teaching at the Art Students League.  His work was exhibited in New York at the Downtown Gallery and was featured in the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Biennial. He painted easel paintings as well as a number of large murals in Manhattan and Brooklyn for the WPA Federal Arts Project. (4)

Davis was also a professional illustrator for the progressive magazine, The Masses, and became a socialist.  Living the bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village and joining the radical John Reed Club, Davis became the editor of Art Front, the publication of the Artists Union, and chaired the American Artists Congress.

Throughout his life, Davis was an articulate and outspoken art theorist: he wrote over ten thousand manuscript pages. (5) Like his European counterpart, Piet Mondrian, Davis was excited and inspired by the energy of jazz music.  As Gail Levin notes, "Rhythm is created [in Davis' paintings] by the variety of words and shapes overlapping in transparent layers.  This is the rhythm of the city [New York] where Davis first enjoyed the jazz music that he loved.  Jazz is reflected in Davis' painting" (6)

 His paintings effectively form the visual equivalent to the spirit of improvisation embodied in jazz.  They are composed of energetically arranged geometric elements interspersed with simplified representational forms, structured into a hard-edged, cubistic collage.


Sources:
1. Barbara Rose, American Painting, the Twentieth Century (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1969), 23. Also, see Patricia Hills, Stuart Davis (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996), 10.  Hills' research in the archival records of the East Orange, New Jersey, High School revealed that for many years Davis had incorrectly listed his date of birth as1894 instead of the actual date of 1892. For more current information, see Lawrence Salander, Stuart Davis: Major Late Paintings (New York: Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 2002);

2. Milton W. Brown, The Story of the Armory Show (New York: The Joseph Hirshhorn Foundation and H. Wolfe, 1963), 66.

3. Hills, 9.

4. Michael David Zellman American Art Analog, Vol. III (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986), 902.

5. Lewis Kachur, "The Language of Stuart Davis: Writing/Drawing,” Karen Wilkin and Lewis Kachur, The Drawings of Stuart Davis: The Amazing Continuity (New York: The American Federation of Arts and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992), 30.

6. Gail Levin, The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection of Twentieth Century American Painting (London: Sotheby's Publications by Philip Wilson Publishers, Ltd., 1987), 82. staff, Columbus Museum

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.


Stuart Davis is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
New York Armory Show of 1913
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915
Modernism



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