"I have always liked hot music. There's something wrong with any
American who doesn't. But I never realized that it was influencing my
work until one day I put on a favorite record and listened to it while I
was looking at a painting I had just finished. Then I got a funny
feeling. If I looked, or if I listened, there was no shifting of
attention. It seemed to amount to the same thing--like twins, a kinship.
After that, for a long time, I played records while I painted"-
Considered a forefather of the Pop Art movement, Stuart Davis translated the visual imagery of New York City and the jazz music of the mid-20th Century into iconographic abstract paintings of squiggly lines and flashy colors. The career of Stuart Davis has encompassed the entire span of modern art in the United States. Stuart Davis was an American cubist painter whose colorful compositions, with their internal logic and structure, often camouflaged the American flavor of his themes.
As a boy in Philadelphia, Stuart Davis was surrounded by painters. Stuart’s father was art editor with the Philadelphia Press and among his employees was the young artists John Sloan, William Glackens, Everett Shinn and George Luks. Helen Stuart Foulke, Stuart’s mother, was a prominent sculptor who exhibited at the annual exhibitions of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In the company of his parents and their famous artist friends, young Stuart Davis grew up surrounded by art. The Davis family moved to East Orange, New Jersey at the same time as the Philadelphia artist, Robert Henri, opened his school in New York City, and Stuart Davis left high school to attend it. Like other Henri students Stuart Davis supported himself by doing illustrations for Harper's Weekly. Stuart Davis exhibited watercolors in the famous Armory show of 1913. That show exposed Stuart Davis to the revolutionary paintings of modern Europe.
In the 1930's, Stuart Davis experimented with a blend of Cubism and Futurism, combining many views of a subject into one painting. His friendship with Arshile Gorky helped reinforce one of the first bridges between the European modernists and the new American paintings. Gorky admired Davis' conception of the canvas as a two-dimensional surface plane which should not be interrupted with suggestions of depth or perspective.
The lithographs that Stuart Davis created in 1930-1931 are considered to be some of his most successful. "Barber Shop Chord " (shown here) is evocative of the frenetic spirit of jazz music, which Davis considered the musical equivalent of abstract art. By using texture and bold black and white contrasts in this work, Stuart Davis created the illusion of perspective and depth.
Stuart Davis juxtaposed recognizable symbols such as the striped barbershop sign and fire hydrant with arbitrary geometric shapes and planes that float around the work of art. The placement of words within the lithograph grounds the abstract composition. Furthermore, the tower structure in the top left hand corner of the lithograph alludes to a particular setting, and links this lithograph to Davis’ realist works; this building represents one of the two brick natural gas tanks located in Gloucester, where Stuart Davis spent a number of summers.
Art historians deem Stuart Davis one of the great artists of 20th-century America. In the '20s and '30s, when most of Stuart Davis' contemporaries were using 19th-century techniques to depict America, Davis delved into Modernism, and with it helped portray the country as it sped off the farm and into the city. In 1913, Stuart Davis was invited to participate and attend the International Exhibition of Modern Art (also known as the Armory Show). Later Davis recalled that he was “enormously excited by the show” and was deeply affected by the Post-Impressionist works by Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Matisse that were on display. Upon his return from the exhibition, artist Stuart Davis vowed to become a “modern” artist.
Stuart Davis modified Cubism so that it differed from the French by throwing in English words and American product logos, and using hard-edged shapes and high-keyed, solid colors, giving the whole a jumpy, rhythmic design on a king-size scale.
Stuart Davis paintings bent European Cubism into a native idiom and was an early step in modern art's voyage from Paris to New York. The use of contemporary subject matter such as cigarette packages, spark plug advertisements and the contemporary American landscape by Stuart Davis make him a proto-Pop artist. By the forties, Stuart Davis was concerned with translating the sights and sounds of American life. Stuart Davis was one of the first artists to appreciate jazz as a distinctly American idiom. He blended hot, fully saturated oranges, pinks and magentas and lively dancing shapes to form the pictorial counterpart of the syncopated rhythms of jazz. Davis's paintings during his last 2 decades 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.
Stuart Davis published a number of writings and taught in New York City at the Art Students League and the New School for Social Research. In the late forties and fifties, Stuart Davis began using calligraphic shapes and words in his paintings. In his last paintings of 1963-64 words and abstract symbols dominate the canvas. Stuart Davis is almost the only American painter of the twentieth century whose works have transcended every change in style; he was respected and admired by the avant-garde artists of the fifties and acknowledged by the Pop artists of the sixties as their natural predecessor.