Affirming America on Canvas
AMERICA has been the art capital of the world since World War II, but 60 years ago, when Stuart Davis (1892-1964) began his career as a painter, the most fundamental question facing an ambitious American artist was why he wasn't in Europe taking part in the revolution of modern art.
Like many other artists before and since, Davis first solved the problem of being in America by painting in a largely realistic style, untouched by the most recent innovations and relying on subject matter to make his work seem interesting.
To support himself, he did cartoon-like illustrations for publication in magazines. Such distinguished painters as Winslow Homer and John Sloan had taken up magazine work before him, his own father was a newspaper art editor and cartoonist, and Davis himself seemed to be destined for a career as a realistic artist.
Instead, he became one of the most highly regarded avant-garde painters America has ever produced. In 1913, he saw the Armory Show, which brought the most innovative French art of recent decades to a largely conservative American art public. Many American artists sneered: Davis felt challenged to go beyond his easy success.
At first he learned from the nonrealistic line and color used by such painters as Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Matisse. By the 1920s, however, he had settled on Cubism as his favored approach to depicting the American scene.
The most typical form of his painting was an array of semi-abstract shapes, almost as flatly depicted as the stars and stripes of an American flag or the lettering of a shop sign.
Davis never gave up the recognizable forms of boats and houses and painted words, but he played with color and outline; his paintings seldom looked like simple recordings of the scene before him.
During the 1920s and '30s, Stuart Davis was one of the most inventive artists in America. His series of still lifes based loosely on the form of an eggbeater could bear comparison with much that was being done in Europe and was in the forefront of American avant-garde painting.
Picasso, Braque, and the other early Cubists began with the most traditional subject matter of art - the nude, the still life, and the portrait. However strange their work seemed, they could honestly claim to be painting the old pictures, admittedly in new ways.
In his mature style, Davis did not paint nudes or portraits, and few of his still lifes were of such long-established subjects as fruit and wine glasses, which appeared so often in the work of Picasso and Braque.
Instead, he often used such industrial products as an eggbeater, a coffee percolator, or an electric light bulb as the subject matter of his own still-life paintings. The shapes lent themselves to formal experiments similar to those done in Paris, but the objects themselves reminded the viewer of America's genius for mass production.
Davis was torn between his admiration for the liveliness of America, on the one hand, and the experimental art of Europe on the other. Americans generally disliked modern art; before World War II there was little support for avant-garde painting from critics or museum curators, far less from the general public. Nevertheless, it was important to Davis that his art be true to American experience.
He wrote, in a statement published in 1943, "Some of the things which have made me want to paint, outside of other paintings, are: American wood- and ironwork of the past; Civil War and skyscraper architecture; the brilliant colors on gasoline stations, chain-store fronts, and taxicabs; the music of Bach; synthetic chemistry; the poetry of Rimbaud; fast travel by train, auto, and aeroplane which has brought new and multiple perspectives; electric signs; the landscape and boats of Gloucester, Mass.; 5 & 1 0 cent store kitchen utensils; movies and radio; Earl Hines' hot piano and Negro jazz music in general, etc."
Davis was especially fascinated by jazz. His work seems colorful and exuberant, and it is easy to imagine that he painted without much thought, but in sober fact he was a slow, careful worker who made many preliminary drawings for each painting.
He thought of the jazz musician as creating a "sound object," like a painter's visual object. Although educated jazz fans commonly thought of the music as a primitive art, valuable precisely because it was so casual and spontaneous, Davis saw jazz as a sophisticated form of expression, with an underlying structure.
He loved it as music, and perhaps also because it provided a metaphor for what he wanted his painting to be.
Jazz improvisation took place within method, and the result was a coherent if not academic work of art. As a painter, Davis aspired to precisely this mixture of rigorous method and seeming informality.
His paintings manage to be lively without being personal. Their energy seems to come from their sources in the life Davis saw around him, not from any revelation of the artist's inner experience. Behind his easygoing choice of subject matter there was a sensitive, cultivated man who had to spend much of his life reassuring the public that he was a plain fellow who liked the look of gas stations.
After World War II, when avant-garde art gained some degree of acceptance in the United States, Davis no longer needed to fight the same battles as before. But his triumph did not last long. A younger generation of artists, the Abstract Expressionists, soon made him seem old-fashioned.
For Davis, the work of the artist was to find the right arrangement of visual elements; it was a matter of experiment and careful thought, not romantic anguish. The evenness and flatness of his paint application avoided any suggestion of emotional turmoil. To judge from Davis's paintings, both making art and being American were matters for simple celebration.
That is part of the truth, and it makes his art enjoyable. But the material success of America after World War II encouraged younger artists to look inward and try to represent their own feelings, whether happy or sad. Davis went on showing us American exuberance as it came to him from radio, television, movies, and the cityscape outside his windows.
In letters and conversation, Davis could be bitter at times: As a painter he chose to express the optimism and dynamism of a brash young nation. America is now less young, the sky seems less uniformly sunny, and art history has gone in other directions.
Both personally and as an artist, Davis was forced to struggle against major obstacles - the narrow-mindedness of the American art community before World War II, and the poverty and fear brought about by a worldwide economic depression. In spite of those difficulties, he made high-spirited paintings whose affirmation of America and sheer visual charm can still please us. "Stuart Davis: American Painter," a major exhibition organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has been seen in New York and will be on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through June 7.