As Americans, we take Stuart Davis for granted. Although he has achieved a certain canonic status, in practice that means little more than that we no longer feel that we really need to look at him. It takes an exhibition like the Whitney's "Stuart Davis: In Full Swing" to see, with redoubled force, just how good he really was. His works are striking, original, and, in their way, perfect, allying the exuberance of a jazz musician to the precision of a jeweler.
Davis, who was born in Philadelphia in 1892 into a family of illustrators and died in New York City in 1964, does not fit comfortably into any of the existing taxonomies of art history. Like so many American painters of his generation, he was transformed by a visit to the great Armory Show of 1913, which imbued him with a reverence for Modernism that he never lost. At the same time, however, he never forgot where he came from: His fixation on jazz and ragtime and the American scene in general has few parallels in Modernism before the end of the Second World War. Summing up the resulting synthesis, he once said that "In Gauguin, van Gogh and Matisse . . . I sensed an objective order . . . it gave me the same excitement I got from the numerical precisions of the Negro piano players in the [Newark] saloons."
From these two influences, Davis arrived at a synthesis of Modernism and Americanism that earlier artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe and Stanton Macdonald-Wright never attained with the same mastery or authority. In fact, Davis arrived at that synthesis, so central to art history in the postwar era, fully a generation before anyone else.
The exhibition's 85 paintings and drawings from over four decades do not amount to a true retrospective. The show ignores Davis's early flirtations with Expressionism and the Ashcan School, and begins only at the point when, nearly 30 years old, he achieved complete artistic competence. Over the 40 years covered by the show, his art underwent many changes. But in a more important sense it remained strikingly consistent, defined by its jazzy syncopations of color and line and by the promiscuous collision of abstract forms and the ads and signage of modern life.
For that reason, many critics have viewed Davis as a precursor of Pop Art, if only in the superficial sense that, as early as 1921, he tossed words, like live grenades, into the prim context of his Modernism, together with such fixtures of mass culture as a pack of Lucky Strikes or a bottle of Odol mouthwash. In New York Mural from 1932, a depiction of the Manhattan skyline, he discharges a storm of clashing yellow, purple, and tangerine that recalls Roy Lichtenstein. So pervasive is the preference for half-tones and chromatic nuance in prewar Modernism that we scarcely notice it until we set it beside the works of Stuart Davis, with their pure, saturated, unrelenting passages of color.
In another similarity to Pop, he exhibits a certain ironic engagement with his paintings in the very act of creating them. He does not simply use the forms of synthetic Cubism and Miró and the School of Paris. He seems to be referring to them so self-consciously that you almost see the scare quotes flanking each of his canvases.
Combined with this ironic element is that impassioned control that Davis exhibited at all times. Despite his wholehearted embrace of the clamor and chaos of modern times, he refused to relinquish one iota of control over any square inch of his paintings. You will be hard put to find in him a single gestural marking of the sort that defines such full-bodied action painters as Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. Each apparent gesture, each curve or squiggle or loop, is really a precisely planned-out composite of lines calibrated as carefully as the brush strokes of a Dutch still-life painter of the 17th century.
In this painstaking deliberateness, Davis seems to anticipate the hard-edge abstractions of Barnett Newman. But there are many differences between him and Newman, and none more essential than the fact that Davis is never sober-sided or morosely serious. At the core of his art is a hyperactive happiness in the very process of creation. That mood is something that the New York School never felt or ever allowed itself to feel. Whether in the roughly figurative landscapes and still lifes of the twenties, the murals of the thirties, or the near-abstractions of the second half of his career, Davis's paintings, even at their most ironic, are essentially acts of joy.
To be sure, they possess that higher seriousness that defined the entire Modernist movement. But even as humanity was passing through some of its darkest moments, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, there is no register of pain in the art of Stuart Davis. He may well be the only important Modernist of whom that can be said.
James Gardner's latest book is Buenos Aires: The Biography of a City.