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Art: Blaring Harmony

3 minute read

Painter Stuart Davis is a small, rotund man who complains a good deal these days about not feeling too well. When asked specifically what ails him, he sweepingly announces, “I’m sick!” He may be—but the paintings in his current show at Manhattan’s Downtown Gallery reflect a state of glowing health. They are young, bright, intense, and filled with the jazzy rhythms that have always been to Davis the pulse of modern life. In all his notable career, Davis at 67 has never seemed more vigorous.

To a large degree, modern art has been one long exercise in rebellion, and that has suited Davis’ temperament perfectly. At 15 he joined a class run by Robert Henri, an “Ashcan School” painter who was in revolt against all the ready-made standards of beauty and proportion handed down year after year by the powerful Art Students League. Davis’ next teacher was the 1913 Armory Show, which he saw when he was not yet 20. It was sheer emancipation to see that Van Gogh and Gauguin used color, not as nature had it, but almost arbitrarily in accordance with artistic instinct. Davis also discovered that “cubism allowed you to form the concept of the object as you saw it from different views.” When he had absorbed the show, he knew what direction he would take: “I would be a modern artist. So easy. Except for one small matter: How?”

A Ballet Set to Jazz. Like so many other young men in the arts, he plunged into experiment. “I’d cut things out of pressed wood and fasten bolts and locks onto them. In New Mexico I painted tin cans in a more or less naturalistic way—that was a gesture against the romantic idea of natural beauty. And on the docks in Gloucester, I remember doing a collage with pieces of cotton and a button sewed on the canvas and a piece of tin.” Finally, in 1927, he “nailed a rubber glove, an electric fan and an egg beater to a table and, like Monet with his haystack, stuck with that single subject for a whole year.”

In doing the egg beater over and over again, Davis was able to explore, distort and transform the objects into endless arrangements on the canvas. This meant that though his inspiration might come from the object, he was not imprisoned by it. Davis’ paintings became ballets of what he called “color-spaces,” but the beat of the ballets was always jazz. What caught his imagination was everyday America—the gas pumps, factories, cities, the hep talk and hip music—even the signs, “the visual dialect of the city.” Since he never lost touch with reality, Davis refuses to be called abstract. His color-spaces are merely “a language to express daily observations.”

A Confection of Vulgarities. He uses only a few colors—black, white, a specially mixed blue and green, a bright yellow and deep red. He compares them to notes on a scale that can produce whatever melody he wants with no need for half tones. The colors form rectangles and crosses, recognizable words (among them, invariably, his own big scribbled signature as part of the design), and an occasional figure all producing a blaring harmony that with time has gained in both boldness and refinement. It is a razzle-dazzle, man-made world that Davis paints, a world of cities, honky-tonks and brightly packaged products, a confection of vulgarities superbly composed into symphonies of brash and breathless beauty.

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