Although the exhibition called Stuart Davis: Art and Theory, 1920-31 , which Diane Kelder has organized at the Morgan Library, is small in size-a mere 12 items-it’s nonetheless a milestone in the posthumous reputation of this American master, who died in 1964 at the age of 71. It’s also something of a milestone for the Morgan Library, which has lately embarked upon a mission to acquire what its director, Charles E. Pierce Jr., describes as “a representative collection of works on paper by 20th-century artists.”
In pursuit of this laudable goal, the library has now acquired two significant works-Davis’ earliest known diary, dating from 1920-22, and a sketch book from 1926-that provide detailed documentation of the ideas that laid the foundation for the artist’s future pictorial development. It has long been known, of course, that Davis was a gifted and prolific writer as well as a brilliant painter and draftsman. Back in 1978, John R. Lane mounted a show called Stuart Davis: Art and Art Theory for the Brooklyn and Fogg art museums, and more recently Karen Wilkin, William C. Agee and Ms. Kelder herself, among others, have made important contributions to our understanding of the intellectual aspect of the artist’s career.
As a footnote to the subject, I should mention that back in the 1950′s, when I was editing Arts Magazine , I succeeded in persuading Davis to write a reminiscence of Piet Mondrian for one of our Arts Yearbooks. I found the writing so dazzling that I then attempted to persuade Davis to write a full-length autobiography. For a while, he seemed genuinely interested in the project, but nothing came of it. What I couldn’t have known at the time was that Davis had been filling his diaries with a vast quantity of personal and professional observation and reflection since the early 1920′s.
After reading Ms. Kelder’s essay for the catalog of the show at the Morgan, I can see that I was hardly alone in my ignorance of the scale of Davis’ literary oeuvre . “Although he published more than fifty essays, statements and lectures in catalogues, magazines and newspapers,” she writes, “the majority of his writing was intensely private. Over ten thousand pages in journals, day books and calendars document his complex process of clarifying and systematizing his perceptions about the [painting] medium.” Over 10,000 pages! No one is likely to quarrel with Ms. Kelder’s own observation that “No other American artist has been as articulate as Davis about the problem of making paintings.”
Needless to say, we are given only a tiny glimpse of this vast diaristic project in the current show, but what we do see and are given to read is more than enough to provide us with a sense of the intellectual probity that guided Davis’ pictorial endeavors. Equally important, it also gives us a vivid sense of the intellectual energy and aesthetic inspiration Davis derived from his joyful embrace of modernity itself: from industry and advertising, commerce and fine art, tabloid culture and crazy-quilt juxtapositions of high and low, and sheer speed and exuberance. Jazz music was famously a key to the kind of syncopated rhythms he favored in his pictures, but so, of course, was Cubism, which he quickly synthesized with the popular imagery of the American scene.
To every aspect of his painting, Davis brought a keen analytic intelligence that he refined in his diaries by conducting a kind of dialogue with himself, giving himself orders and cautioning against error. The earliest entry, dated May 1920, reads: “The drawing should not be considered as something to be done first and then colored. In looking at nature we do not analyze the drawing and color separately. It is a one thing and a simultaneous impression.”
Another entry for the same date reads: “Strive to make the picture a ‘thing’ by itself. It should be as simple and self reliant as a Chinese clay figure of very early date. It should depend on nothing outside itself for the comprehension of it by one capable of comprehension. No course in literature should be necessary to get its full meaning. An appreciation of form is necessary however.”
Although madly in love with the visual excitements of modernity, Davis was constantly warning himself against the temptation to aggrandize his subjects. In an entry dated December 4, 1920, he wrote: “Is the subject of a picture of any significance? No-since all visual objects have form and reflect light it is possible to observe the phenomena of lighted form in space in any object.”
Yet in a subsequent entry for May 29, 1921, he wrote: “I want to paint a series of pictures the subject matter of which will be popular.” And further on the same date: “By ‘popular’ pictures, I mean those phases of the modern life which I am capable of understanding. One of these things is the beauty of packing. Where a few decades ago everything was packed in barrels and boxes they now are packed singly or in dozen or half dozen lots as the control over distribution increases. This symbolizes a very high civilization in relation to other civilizations. The newspaper and magazines are of enormous interest to me conceived as a whole.”
He was constantly shuttling between the romance of his subjects and the aesthetics of modernist formalism. “The basic laws of painting are a recognition of the facts that the actual painting is a compound of colored shapes on a base,” he wrote on April 26, 1922. A month or so later, he took a different tack: “Ask yourself-what will my subject be-street scene-still life-portrait-landscape-interior?” And on the same date, he insisted that “a picture must be ‘ built .’” The last entry for Oct. 7, 1922, reads: “The abstract style which deals in concepts of weight, texture etc.”
In the paintings and drawings in the Morgan exhibition, you can see Davis working his way through the concepts and cautions that are articulated in the diaries. By 1922, moreover, he was already a master of modernism himself, as the painting called Lucky Strike (1921-22) amply illustrates. He knew it, too, and boasted in his diary about the success of his “tobacco” paintings.
Is it too much to expect that Davis’ voluminous diaries might someday be edited for publication? It would certainly be a daunting task to assemble a readable volume, or even a series of volumes, from that mountain of 10,000 pages. Meanwhile, this delightful exhibition does give us a glimpse of what might be possible. Don’t be put off, by the way, by the word “theory.” For Stuart Davis, theory had nothing to do with the kind of obscurantist blather that has come to be associated with late-20th-century academic discourse. Davis’ theories were all about the creative vitality of art and life.
Stuart Davis: Art and Theory, 1920-31 remains on view at the Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street, through Dec. 15.