Stuart Davis, 'Owh! in Sao Pão' (detail), 1951. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Stuart Davis, 'Owh! in Sao Pão' (detail), 1951. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

de Young Show Proves Stuart Davis Ought to be a Household Name

de Young Show Proves Stuart Davis Ought to be a Household Name

Art historians and curators offer disparate explanations for Stuart Davis’ absence from the list of American artists who are “household names.”

Stuart was ahead of his time, say some. His paintings bridged modernism and pop, but they weren’t quite one or the other, say others. There hasn't been a major retrospective of his work in 20 years, goes the more recent argument; many of his paintings, now fragile, rarely travel.

But really, there is no excuse: Stuart Davis should be a household name. Stuart Davis: In Full Swing, opening Saturday, April 1 at San Francisco's de Young Museum, works hard to prove that point, packing 43 years of hard-edged color, overlapping shapes and enigmatic text into just one second-floor gallery space. (The museum’s main blockbuster for the months to come will be The Summer of Love Experience, opening Saturday, April 8, but more on that next week.)

Installation from 'Stuart Davis: In Full Swing,' de Young museum, San Francisco.
Installation from 'Stuart Davis: In Full Swing,' de Young museum, San Francisco. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Born in 1892 in Philadelphia to artist parents, Davis pursued art from an early age, dropping out of high school (with his parents’ blessing) to study painting with Robert Henri. The Henri School’s philosophy that “art cannot be separated from life” greatly appealed to the hard-drinking, jazz-loving teenage Davis. In later life, the artist reportedly kept the television on constantly with the sound off, to stay abreast of commercial imagery.

In Full Swing begins with some of Davis’ earliest abstract works -- paintings of Lucky Strike tobacco boxes and Odol mouthwash jars -- rendered in a synthetic cubist style that flattens text and texture to the canvas surface. The muted tones betray none of the artist's future love for the whole spectrum of colors, but Davis’ subject matter is decidedly populist, from the details of printed packaging to the racing results in the sports pages.

Stuart Davis, 'House and Street, 1931.
Stuart Davis, 'House and Street, 1931. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Additional prologue is provided by Davis’ 1927-28 Egg Beater series, a suite of four paintings (three of which are on view at the de Young) made possible by a $125-a-month stipend Davis received from sculptor and heiress Gertrude Whitney (yes, that Whitney). The still lifes feature an electric fan, a rubber glove and the titular egg beater as solid geometries that Davis merged with color and line to the architecture around them.


The chronological emphasis of In Full Swing ends there -- and for good reason. Though Davis’ career could be carefully plotted over the next four decades, his practice was a recursive one. Like the jazz musicians he so admired, Davis returned again and again to old compositions, reworking the colors and scale of themes he first broached in the 1930s. Comparing those “families” of work is part of the fun of viewing this particular retrospective, which allows you to pick apart the ways in which Davis zoomed in here and added a word there.

Stuart Davis, 'The Mellow Pad,' 1945-51.
Stuart Davis, 'The Mellow Pad,' 1945-51. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

House and Street, a painting Davis made in 1931 following his return to New York from a Whitney-funded trip to Paris, shows a split, almost stereoscopic view of the city. It’s a literal representation of urban America’s modernity and simultaneity. Fourteen years later, Davis began working on The Mellow Pad, a cacophonous conglomeration of twists, dots, x’s and vibrant hues so frenetic it’s easy to miss the composition of House and Street underneath.

Davis was interested in distilling paintings down to their essential elements -- like the orange and black Cliché derived from the four-color Ready-to-Wear. But he also had a tendency to complicate them, as in 1959’s The Paris Bit, based on his 1928 painting Rue Lipp. In Davis’ reworked version, the Parisian street scene, with its surreally oversized carafe, espresso cup and seltzer bottle, fills with large-scale text, jumbled outlines and contrasting blocks of red, white and blue. Adding to the topsy-turvy feel, Davis rendered his own angular signature upside down.

Stuart Davis, 'The Paris Bit,' 1959.
Stuart Davis, 'The Paris Bit,' 1959. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

His sense of humor and willingness to pun -- a trait that should endear you to just about any artist -- is most visible in his use of words, both as graphic elements and in his own titles. When he didn’t finish Owh! In Sao Pão in time for the 1951 São Paulo biennial, he opted for a title with a pleasant rhyming structure instead of spelling accuracy. If spell-checkers tried to correct him, Davis reportedly said, “It’s a painting, not a geography lesson.”

If you have seen Davis’ work before, chances are you were on vacation or it was in a book; the majority of the paintings on view at the de Young come courtesy of East Coast institutions. His paintings hold up well in printed reproductions. With their precise edges, contrasting colors, thick lines and cut-and-paste aesthetics, images of Davis’ work feel fresh and energetic over half a century later. But as any jazz lover -- Davis once included -- will argue, it's the live experience where the magic happens.


'Stuart Davis: In Full Swing' is on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco April 1 - Aug. 6, 2017. For tickets and more information, click here.