As part of the year-long celebration of its 50th anniversary, the Whitney Museum here has been presenting a series of mini- exhibtions of the work of major American artists.
Featured to date have been Charles Burchfield, Gaston Lachaise, Maurice Prendergast, and John Sloan. Due later in the year and early in 1981 are Alexander Calder, Ad Reinhardt, and Charles Sheeler.
For its current selection, the museum has made the most of what it owns and what it has been promised of the art of Stuart Davis, to give him a well-deserved tribute in the form of a handsome and representative sampling of his paintings, drawings, and prints.
Although the exhibition is small -- there are 19 works in all -- it is quite enough to give us a very good idea of who Stuart Davis was and why he is being honored.
David was born in Philadelphia in 1894, began studying with Robert Henri in 1909, but soon reacted against Henri's insistence that subject matter take precedence over formal principles. After a period as illustrator for the Masses , his natural tendency toward a more formal and abstract approach to art began to take root, a development that was aided by his favorable response to the paintings of the Fauves and Cubists in the Armory Show of 1913.
In 1927 he started to work on a series of geometrically abstrct paintings loosely based on the shapes, colors, and relationships suggested by an eggbeater set up in his studio. Eliminating everything but what was suggested to him by the eggbeater, Davis worked toward creating a style incorporating both the specifics of direct observation and the variables of constructivist invention.
This desire to fuse obsrvable fact and imaginative pictorial patterning remained central to his art until the very end. Even in the later, increasingly more "abstract" works of the 1950s, we sense that his formal constructions derive as much from particular places and events as from the imaginative exploitation of shapes, colors, and lines.
Thus, at a time when Abstract Expressionism was urging an entire generation to erase any reference to reality from its work and to improvise art out of impulse and sensation, David continued to anchor his paintings upon what he had seen, and what he felt about what he had seen.
Not that he was obvious abou it, nor that he made an issue out of it. Quite the contrary. At first glance such a relatively late (1959) work as "The Paris Bit seems totally nonrepresentational. Only as we begin to relate to the painting and to search for some connection between its provocative title and its extravagant patterning, do we realize that it abounds in references to specific revision and extension of a complex set of personal experiences.
Davis projected form and color, as well as the full brunt of his creative imagination, onto canvas much as a beam of light projects an image from a film onto a screen. He did not transcribe reality literally but transmuted it into shapes and patterns by screening it first through his intelligence and sensibility -- both of which were alert to this century's crucial considerations and concerns, and thoroughly abreast of modernism's every twist and turn.
In a period when art tended to be divided into realistic and abstract camps, Davis tried to bridge the best of both.
A good example of this desire to fuse apparent creative contradictions, to create a "staple" out of his art so as to prevent these opposing points of view from permanently pulling art apart, is his 1931 oil "House and Street."
Every element in this work is as much recognizably drawn from life as it is successfully realized as "abstract" shape or flat area of color. The ladders are 50 percent ladder and 50 percent pattern, and the same balance applies to the brickwork, to the steel girder, and to every other item in this urban-industrial landscape. It is a remarkable pictorial balancing act, and a fascinating historical document, for never again would a 20th-century American painter be able to juggle these conflicting forces quite so perfectly.
In this painting, realism and abstraction operate in perfect harmony. But that was not to last. The tensions between these otherwise opposing realities increased dramatically after World War II, and Abstract Expressionism soon made any thoughts of a reconciliation an idle dream.
By 1950 nothing remained of the attempts of Davis, Hopper, and a few other to reconcile and to bridhe realism and abstraction. Where the two points of view had touched before through the art of a few determined painters who refused to acknowledge the absolutism of either position; a yawning chasm now appeared. there was little understanding, let alone communication between these warring factions. The split between them was dramatic and complete, so complete in fact that even now, 30 years later, we are no closer to a reconciliation than we were then.
Whether or not such a reconciliation is possible or even desirable is not at issue here. What is, however, is the consistent and noble effort Davis made to find a middle ground between what he saw as the excesses of total freedom of impulse and sensation, and strict conformity to the appearances of nature. In this respect he and his art hold an important position in 20th-century American cultural history.
Small as it is, this Whitney Museum exhibition gives us a representative sampling of Daivs's art from his beginnings as illustrator and student of Robert Henri to his final days as one of the grand old men of American art.
Included are "Barrel House, Newark," the dark, somber, and earthy painting of 1913 which shows Davis trying to outdo the Ashcan School in local color and flavor, the delicate, pastel-colored "New Mexican Landscape" of 1923, the innovative "Eggbeater No. 2" of 1927, the elegant, French-flavored "Place Pasdeloupe" of 198, several works, including prints of the 1930s, and the mature works of his later years including the lively, "Owh! In Sao Pao."
It may not be the most dramatic or most spectacular exhibition on view in New York at the moment. But it is certainly one of the most heartwarming and notable. And, if your tastes run to balance, economy of means, and discretion in art, one of the most handsome as well.