It all began with an eggbeater. When Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1927 gave the young American artist Stuart Davis a stipend so that he could concentrate entirely on his art, he “nailed an electric fan, a rubber glove and an eggbeater to a table,” he later wrote, “and used them as my exclusive subject matter for a year.” The resultant four paintings hang mesmerizingly now on a single wall in a stirring exhibition of some 100 works by the artist, “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Few visitors who see the eggbeater series for the first time could imagine what inspired these fantasies of form. But their startling, vigorous originality, a re-interpretation of French Cubism in an American key, is revelatory still. “Everything I have done since,” the artist later said, “has been based on that eggbeater idea.”
Davis was born in Philadelphia, Pa., on Dec. 7, 1892, to Helen Stuart Foulke Davis, a sculptor, and Edward Wyatt Davis, the art editor of the Philadelphia Press and a supporter of the first generation of Ashcan School artists. When Edward Davis was named art editor for the Newark Evening News, the family moved to East Orange, N.J., where young Stuart left high school at 16, with his parents’ approval, to study at Robert Henri’s Greenwich Village school. His fellow students there included George Bellows, Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent, whose shared concerns were working people and tough urban life. After three years as a star pupil under Henri, Davis left to work as an illustrator for The Masses, a radical monthly.
The International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913—the famed Armory Show—astonished and excited Davis as much as anyone. The nondescriptive color and radical freedom of form in Gauguin, van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and Braque stood out among the almost 1,600 paintings. Young Davis had already become an ardent devotee of jazz and would for the next 50 years be equally committed to Modernism. For several years, though, he continued to produce mostly street scenes in the Ashcan style. That decade is not represented at the Whitney, whose exhibition picks up instead with breakthrough, smaller works that reinterpret the Cubism of Picasso, Braque and Gris with ordinary, American subject matter—tins of tobacco, light bulbs and radio tubes, even mouthwash painted almost with reverence. In 1928, after Mrs. Whitney had bought several of his paintings, Davis and his girlfriend, Bessie Chosak, left New York for 13 months in Paris, where he gained new confidence in his own unique vision. Returning to an America that he found more modern and technological than ever, he celebrated the grit of downtown Manhattan and, in summertime, the jumble of the coast at Gloucester, Mass., with flattened pictorial space filled with intensely colored forms that jostled jubilantly against each other.
Never adept at finance, Davis struggled during the Depression and devoted most of his time to representing artists’ rights and social causes. He was active in the Unemployed Artists Group, became vice president of the Artists Union, editor of the leftist Art Front and vice president and then president of the American Artists’ Congress. His paintings in the early 1930s were enlivened with quickly recognizable images of street signs, garage pumps, dock scenes and the Third Avenue El. But the major achievement of the decade was a series of murals, several commissioned by the W.P.A. Federal Art Project. In 1932 he did one for the men’s lounge at Radio City Music Hall (dubbed, to his displeasure, “Men Without Women”) and that same year “New York Mural,” featuring a soaring Empire State Building, a tiger’s head standing for Tammany Hall and Al Smith’s derby hat, the symbol of Smith’s 1928 presidential campaign. Another enormous mural, “The History of Communication,” commissioned for the New York World’s Fair in 1939, was unfortunately destroyed when the fair was dismantled. But “Swing Landscape” (1938), commissioned for a low-income housing project in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, though never installed, is not only Davis’s major mural but one of the greatest of American paintings. Based on sketches of the Gloucester waterfront, more than 14 feet wide and over seven feet high, it transforms the gear of the sea into crisp, dynamically interlocking forms in brilliant colors to create a symphony of jazzy abstraction. In New York again from its home at Indiana University since 1942, “Swing Landscape” will be bringing many visitors back to the Whitney for repeat visits.The painting’s intense interplay of color-space logic becomes even denser in work from the early 1940s, when Davis also began to base new paintings on earlier efforts. Smaller but explosive canvases like “Rockport from Rockport,” “Arboretum by Flashbulb” and “Ultra-Marine” led to Davis’s “Pad series,” a family of five paintings that played with the twofold sense of an artist’s sketch pad and his home and culminated in the Brooklyn Museum’s fabled “The Mellow Pad,” on which he worked obsessively from 1945 to 1951. A new grandeur and simplicity emerged in Davis’s production of the early 1950s. In “Little Giant Still Life” he took a matchbook cover advertising Champion spark plugs and made that word itself the focus for a series of paintings. Earlier pieces served as inspiration for some of his most famous works: “Owh! In San Pao,” a soaring constellation of forms floating in a golden sky that was too late to be included in the 1951 Bienal de São Paulo; “Rapt at Rappaport’s,” a celebration in “color space” of his love of jazz and a boyhood toy store; and “Colonial Cubism” (1954), whose jubilant precision (and perfect title) you will never forget.Honors multiplied for the artist, and his inventive power continued through the last decade of his life. The “large simplicity” of his forms from the early 1950s continued, but now he regularly reduced his palette. Line became increasingly important. And wonderful paintings resulted, such as “Ready-to-Wear,” from a family of work in 1955, and “The Paris Bit” (1959), a late evocation of the city that had long before won his heart.
When Davis died of a stroke in New York City on June 24, 1964, the artist and critic Brian O’Doherty wrote in The New York Times that “he was one of the limited company of major painters America has produced.... He was never out of date.” Indeed, the present show—which runs through September 25 at the Whitney and then travels to Washington, the de Young in San Francisco and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.—is a bracing, confident, Whitman-esque testament to his continued relevance.