Stuart Davis (1894-1964) was an American cubist painter whose colorful compositions, with their internal logic and structure, often camouflaged the American flavor of his themes.
Stuart Davis was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 7, 1894. His father was the art editor of the Philadelphia Press. At the age of 16 Davis began studying art with Robert Henri, leader of "The Eight," a group of artists also known as the "Ashcan school." In the famous 1913 Armory Show, Davis exhibited five watercolors. His works of this period are close to the realistic style of "The Eight," but Davis soon began moving toward the more lively, Fauve manner, visible in Gloucester Street (1916).
Davis's new interest in cubism is partly explained by his statement that "a painting … is a two-dimensional plane surface and the process of making a painting is the act of defining two-dimensional space on that surface." He experimented with the geometric visual language of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian in his own painting The President (1917) and tried synthetic cubist devices in the more pictorially ordered Lucky Strike (1921).
Davis's trip to New Mexico in 1923 manifested itself in more simply conceived, flatter paintings. Still Life and Supper Table (both 1925) reflect a move toward minimal pictorial elements, with a bold outline accentuating objects. The resolution of these earlier abstract tendencies can be found in the Eggbeater Series (1927-1930), still life paintings in which Davis sought to "focus on the logical elements" of the composition instead of establishing a "self-sufficient system" that worked apart from the objects. The late paintings in this series show a less abstract approach and an increased clarity of form and color.
In 1928 Davis traveled to Paris. In general, the work that followed reveals not only a greater interest in urban landscape but a move toward more lively, linear composition, often using sets of words within the picture to carry the rhythm. Places des Vosges Number 2 (1928) juxtaposes line and color on a lightly textured surface, showing Davis's skill at rendering rhythmical equivalents of visual phenomena.
During the Great Depression, Davis became art editor of the Artists' Congress magazine, Art Front. Like many contemporary painters, he executed public murals: Men without Women (1932) at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City; Swing Landscape (1938), now at the University of Indiana; a mural for WNYC radio station in New York City; and the now-destroyed History of Communication (1939) for the New York World's Fair. But unlike many artists working under government auspices, Davis did not alter his esthetic outlook to accommodate public taste.
Davis's paintings during his last 2 decades (he died in 1964) show continued preoccupation with the lyrical order of visual experience. They draw on the tradition of Henri Matisse and Joan Miró, yet their content is indigenous to America. Hot Stillscape for Six Colors (1940), explosive with color and rhythm; Visa (1951); and The Paris Bit (1959) all integrate the visual feel of words with related color schemes and shapes.
Davis published a number of writings and taught in New York City at the Art Students League and the New School for Social Research.
The most lively interpretation of Davis is E. C. Goossen, Stuart Davis (1959), which includes a useful bibliography and numerous illustrations. Autobiographical material can be found in James Johnson Sweeney, Stuart Davis (1945), and the exhibition catalog to the Museum of Modern Art show of the same year edited by Sweeney. A recent assessment of Davis's work is by H. H. Arnason in his History of Modern Art (1968). □