New York Review of Books
October 13, 2015
If there is a message in the Whitney’s large gathering of the work of Stuart Davis, it may be simply that time hasn’t dented the power of the painter’s work. While some of the pictures breathe merely a period air, a great many continue to give pleasure, and, as an added attraction—as the artist with his love for everyday turns of phrase might have said—it isn’t easy to say why.
In his day, and perhaps for viewers first coming to him now, Davis—who died in 1964, at seventy-one—was a Cubist of sorts whose special contribution was to give the style an American look. Into his Cubist-type arrangements of so many flat, interlocking shapes he incorporated details that conjured up an American world at its most generic: gasoline pumps and barbershop poles, New York City subway entrances and street lamps, and the masts of boats visible just beyond the warehouses in New England fishing towns. Bringing into his pictures words and phrases—whether from advertising, or a line from a Duke Ellington hit of 1931, or single words such as “now” and “cat” and “else”—Davis brought to Cubism as well an American sound and voice.
A populist and a man who was much given to propounding theories, Davis saw his Americanisms as part of his plan. He was convinced that a modern painter needed to give a sense of his or her time and place and to convey somehow what was novel and urgent about it. He would probably have liked knowing that the last major show of his art in New York, which was at the Metropolitan Museum twenty-five years ago, was called “Stuart Davis: American Painter.”
Yet what makes a larger impression on viewers now, I believe, is less Cubism, which is in itself a far less vital or pressing style for us, or Davis’s American note, which, certainly in his best pictures, is something we don’t take all that seriously. (It helps that he also had a long-running affair with things French, and mixed Paris in with New York.) What counts more is the way that over four decades he kept reimagining, and making more imposing, his art of form and color. Davis stands to the side of painters of his own era, such as Marsden Hartley and Edward Hopper—and of the next, such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock—in that his work seems hardly touched by psychology, or by any sense of mysteriousness, poignance, or raw tensions. At the same time, for all his evident gifts as a designer of abstract forms, his painting isn’t analytical or measured in spirit.