by Roderick Conway Morris

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Memorial Gallery, University of Rochester
Landscape with Garage Lights by Stuart Davis, 1931-32

Jazz for the Eyes: Hot Colors and Syncopated Forms

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE, Italy 23 August 1997


It was characteristic of Stuart Davis that he should have founded a 'school' of painting, Color-Space Realism, of which he remained the sole exponent. A talented and dedicated artist, he won recognition in America during his lifetime, and since his death, at the age of 71, in 1964, his stock there has continued to rise. But his work is still comparatively little known outside his native land.

The fact that Davis does not fit neatly into any major movement in 20th-century art has both been a factor in retarding a wider appreciation of his achievement and the reason why his painting is so interesting today. However, over 60 canvases spanning his career from 1912 to 1963, almost all from American museums and collections, are now on show here at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (until Oct. 5), after which this illuminating retrospective goes on the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome this autumn, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, early in 1998, and the National Museum of American Art, Washington D.C., next summer.

Born in Philadelphia of artist parents, Davis trained in painting in New York and spent most of his life in the city. He was chosen as one of five young American artists to participate in the landmark Armory Show of 1913, which directly exposed him for the first time to the current European avant-garde trends.

'I was enormously excited by the show, and ... sensed an objective order in these works which I felt was lacking in my own. It gave me the same kind of excitement I got from the numerical precisions of the Negro piano players in Negro saloons, and I resolved I would quite definitely have to become a 'Modern' artist,' as Davis later recorded, identifying in the same breath the twin engines - jazz and European modern art - which were to launch the extended solo flight of his long artistic career.

As the sequence of pictures done between the time of the Armory Show and about 1930 in the exhibition illustrate, Davis came under the influence of Gauguin and Van Gogh, Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism. The sale of two pictures in 1928 provided him with the funds to go to Paris until the summer of the following year, which could, in theory, have completed his enslavement to European prototypes. But by then Davis had already demonstrated in his 'Lucky Strike', 'Cigarette Papers', 'Odol' and other compositions of the early '20s, which took images from commercial packaging (and predated Pop-art by decades), that he possessed a strong streak of originality that ultimately guaranteed his autonomy.

Equally important in this respect was his passion for jazz. Perhaps no other artist has ever tried as Davis did to translate the sound of jazz into pictorial form, but with the hot colors, syncopated forms and intricate variations on themes of his mature work, he created a unique visual equivalent - as is pointed up by the jazz musician and writer Ben Sidran's outstanding contribution to the show's catalogue, one of several commendably concise and lucid essays by various hands.

In many ways Davis's stay in Paris seems to have finally inoculated him against the potentially overwhelming grip of the European artists he admired, consolidated his self-confidence and allowed him to develop an idiosyncratic approach to composition and color, and inventive use of lettering (his signature, often quite prominent, becoming a calligraphic 'tour de force' in itself).

Davis was always an extremely self-aware artist and, as is confirmed by the many quotations from his writings in the catalogue, an articulate commentator on his own work, and art in general. It would be difficult to sum up better than Davis did himself, in his explanation of 'things that have made me want to paint, outside of other paintings', written in 1943, the multifarious subject matter that went into the making of his pictures, which he described as being: 'American wood and iron work of the past; Civil War and skyscraper architecture; the brilliant colors of gasoline stations, chainstore 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'.

During the Depression Davis became seriously politically engaged and the time he diverted to writing and efforts to help other artists much reduced his artistic output. But he never thought of employing his painting skills for the purposes of radical propaganda. 'Art is not politics, nor is it the servant of politics,' as he asserted at the time. 'It is a valid, independent category of human activity.'

Although Davis's work became more stylized, it never lost its figurative foundations - something that is sometimes clearer when seeing his canvases in the flesh than when looking at illustrations of them - nor did he ever consider himself an abstract artist. Thus, even his most seemingly, at first glance, 'abstract' productions are firmly based in a realism striving to distill an essential vision of the actual world. Interestingly enough, he not only rejected pure abstraction but Surrealism, too, came in for sharp criticism: 'Surrealism denies the objective world and is escapist. It denies the classic function of art - bold assimilation of the environment'.

In 1922, the artist defined in his notebook the qualities a work of art should have: 'It may be as simple as you please but the elements that go to make it up must be positive and direct... The work must be well-built, in other words.' Davis faithfully carried out this credo, both in the thoughtful inception and in the painstaking care he devoted to the physical execution of each canvas. The result was some remarkable paintings that will retain their freshness for a long time to come.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023