Stuart Davis: In Full Swing
De Young Museum, San Francisco, through Aug. 6
“Imagine Duke Ellington with a paintbrush,” said Sura Wood in the Bay Area Reporter. Stuart Davis (1892–1964) brought a similar verve and “on-themove vibe” to modernist painting, translating the energy and syncopation he heard in jazz to hardedged, text-peppered, and color-drenched invocations of 20th-century urban life. Born in Philadelphia in 1892, Davis was a suburban New York teenager when he began studying under the Ashcan School’s Robert Henri. But New York’s 1913 Armory Show exposed Davis to works by Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Henri Matisse, and soon he was busy Americanizing cubism. A touring exhibition of 75 Davis paintings and studies, currently showing in San Francisco, offers a concise portrait of this important innovator, a key forefather of pop art.
Part of the fun of the show is seeing how Davis riffed on his favorite visual motifs, like a jazz musician recycling melodic figures, said Sarah Hotchkiss in San Francisco’s KQED.org. Frequently, words or still-life images are repeated, echoing the tactics of advertisers. But if you look closely at The Mellow Pad, “a cacophonous conglomeration of twists, dots, and x’s,” you’ll notice Davis lifted the underlying composition from his own House and Street, a cityscape he completed 20 years earlier. Davis could be guilty of forced sunniness, said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. His struggle with alcoholism and his grief over the death of his first wife leave no trace in his work. But life truly was good for him in June 1964, when, after watching a French film on television, the 71-year-old New Yorker added the word “fin”—French for “end”—to an ebullient painting he was working on and retired to bed. He died of a stroke before morning.