Late-Cubist Davis, An Abstract Master Right to the End

Lucky is the artist who is born to his vocation. For an optimum outcome, however, what seems to be required-in modern times, anyway-is being born to a father of limited gifts who tries and fails at a comparable creative pursuit. In the history of 20th-century art, Picasso is the outstanding example: His father was an art teacher who never made it as an artist. In modern literature, both Henry James and William Butler Yeats were similarly blessed with talented fathers who never made the grade. To the roster of this oddly privileged fraternity we should also add the name of the American painter Stuart Davis (1894-1964), whose late work is currently the subject of a major exhibition at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries.

Davis’ blessings in this respect were many. His father was an artist who was better known in his day as the art director of the Philadelphia Press , a daily newspaper where half of the painters who later won acclaim as members of “The Eight”-William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn and John Sloan-were regularly employed as illustrators. Davis’ mother, Helen Stuart Foulke, was a sculptor. It is little wonder, then, that Davis himself was destined for the life of art from an early age.

“It is not unusual,” he later observed, “for artists to dwell on the obstacles they have had to overcome before gaining opportunity to study. But I am deprived of this satisfaction because I had none.” At the age of 16, he was in New York, studying with Robert Henri. At 19, he was the youngest artist to be represented in the historic Armory Show, which afforded many Americans-the young Stuart Davis among them-their first encounter with European modernism. At 23, he had his first solo exhibition in New York.

Davis was quick to acknowledge that it was the Armory Show, with its stunning inventory of Post-Impressionist, Fauvist and Cubist pictorial innovation, that turned him into a modernist. Post-Impressionist color, especially in the work of Van Gogh, had the most decisive long-term impact on his artistic thought. A Self-Portrait that he painted in 1919-with its electric blue shirt and bright red lips in a yellow face, set against a darker red monochrome canvas-is at once an acknowledgment of Van Gogh’s influence and a preview of Davis’ later, more abstract style. (The painting is now in the collection of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Tex.) Absorbing the pictorial implications of Cubism-the other decisive influence on his work-and submitting them to the primacy of modernist color took a while longer. So, initially, did the young Davis’ withdrawal from the conventions of urban realism he inherited from the painters of his father’s generation.

Still, nothing that we know about Davis’ painstaking and sometimes breathtaking development in the two or three decades following the Armory Show quite prepares us for the mastery and originality of the late work (1945-64), which-for the first time, by the way-is the focus of the current exhibition at Salander-O’Reilly. It’s a show that compels even those of us who have long admired Davis to upwardly revise our assessment of his achievement. It certainly puts to rest-or ought to-whatever remains of the negative judgments that have sometimes been made of so-called late Cubism.

I think it was the late Robert Goldwater who once quipped that for certain critics-principally, of course, Clement Greenberg-”late Cubism” had come to mean almost anything painted after Les Demoiselles d’Avig-non (1907) that continued to show traces of Cubist influence. Be that as it may, it’s a term that has often bedeviled a serious appreciation of Davis’ quality. More often than not, it was used to discredit almost any mode of abstraction that failed to conform to the aesthetic imperatives of Abstract Expressionism.

Needless to say, this is not the way Davis regarded Cubism, which he understood to be an aesthetic correlative of the dynamism of American urban experience. He was nothing if not explicit on this subject. In an essay called “The Cube Root” (1943), he wrote his aesthetic credo: “Some of the things which have made me want to paint, outside of other paintings, are: American wood and iron work of the past; Civil War and skyscraper architecture; the brilliant colors on gasoline stations; chain-store fronts, and taxi-cabs; the music of Bach; the poetry of Rimbeau [sic]; fast travel by train, auto and aeroplane which brought new and multiple perspectives; electric signs; the landscape and boats of Gloucester, Mass.; 5 & 10 cent store kitchen utensils; movies and radio; Earl Hines hot piano and Negro jazz music in general, etc. In one way or another the quality of these things plays a role in determining the character of my paintings.”

It was no doubt for this reason that Davis emphatically rejected the term “abstraction” to describe his own work. He much preferred to characterize his own paintings as “Color-Space Compositions celebrating the resolution in art of stresses set up by some aspects of the American scene.” His prose, by the way, is often as brilliant as his paintings, and some of his best essays are reprinted in the catalog of the current exhibition.

Despite his protestations about “abstraction,” however, Davis was, after all, one of the most accomplished abstract painters of his time, and he produced his greatest work in the years encompassed by this show. If he was still underrated in this period, it was no doubt because he found himself overshadowed by the juggernaut of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the very years when he was producing his best work. Abstract Expressionism owed much to the automatist impulses of Surrealism and the facture of Expressionism, and both were alien to Davis’ sensibility. It probably didn’t do his reputation much good, either, that at the very moment-1943-when the European avant-garde was exiled to New York to escape the horrors of the Second World War, Davis announced in the essay I’ve already quoted that “The development of modern art in Europe is probably at an end.” He wasn’t entirely wrong about that, either-but it wasn’t a view widely shared at the time. All the same, in the most ambitious paintings he produced in the decades following the war, he was a greater abstract painter than any of the Europeans who emerged in the postwar period.

That, too, may not yet be a view widely shared, but the Salander-O’Reilly show does a great deal to establish his pre-eminence. In his own generation of American modernist painters, his only rival in sheer quality is Milton Avery, another figurative painter who drew closer and closer to the aesthetics of abstraction in his later years, when he produced his greatest work. Did both Davis and Avery derive some benefit from the ambition and dynamism of the New York School in their later work? You bet they did, and why not? Yet they remained essentially unswayed on the courses they had set for themselves long before the emergence of the New York School.

Many of the 16 paintings in Stuart Davis: Major Late Paintings are on loan from museum collections, and will thus be familiar to most museumgoers. But there is one- Fin ( “Last Painting” ) (1962-64)-that is unfamiliar and especially moving. Although it has much of the dynamism that is characteristic of Davis’ late work, it was still unfinished on the day of his death. The composition is blocked out with tapes that are superimposed on the painted areas in a way that gives us a very intimate glimpse of his working methods.

Stuart Davis: Major Late Paintings remains on view at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, through May 11.