Admired for his artistic independence, brilliant use of color, and wit, Stuart Davis is regarded as one of the finest interwar modernists. The son of artist parents who met as students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he found his place amid the currents of twentieth-century American art earlier than some of his peers. Among his first art-world mentors were the artists known as The Eight and, later, the Ashcan School. At the time of his son’s birth, Davis’s father, an art editor, employed some of these artists at the Philadelphia Press and the family connection endured over subsequent years.
As a teenager, Davis left high school in New Jersey for New York City, where he received formal art training from 1910 to 1913 at the school founded by Robert Henri, artistic father of The Eight. Although Henri worked in a realist vein, he rejected academic idealism and urged his students to observe and sketch city life as experienced on streets and in music halls, taverns, and other locations. Davis lived in Newark during his art studies; in the dive bars he frequented, he developed an abiding passion for the technical precision and expressive spontaneity of jazz.
With his contribution of five watercolors, Davis was among the youngest participants in the seminal Armory Show (International Exhibition of Modern Art) in 1913, organized by a group of artists in order to introduce Americans to new developments in art across the Atlantic and at home. Excited by the formal innovations and bold use of color displayed by the European modernists, particularly Matisse, van Gogh, and Gauguin, Davis dedicated the next several years to becoming a modern artist.
By the early 1920s, Davis had left behind the representational realism of his early career. No matter how abstract his work became—and the degree of abstraction varied throughout his career—he always considered himself an observer of the world around him. In 1951, he expressed regret “that I have long been ‘type-cast’ as ‘Abstract’ because my interest in Abstractions is practically zero.” Instead, he identified his paintings as “Color-Space Compositions,” in which areas of color define spatial relationships. Davis applied his formal concepts to subject matter ranging from still lifes, to landscapes, to commercial imagery and other aspects of urban life.
Just as a jazz musician riffs on snippets borrowed from popular music or explores all the permutations of a single phrase, so Davis drew from a personal well of reference points, remaking them into new images. In 1942 he remarked in his notebook: “I can work from Nature, from old sketches and paintings of my own, from photographs, and from other works of art. In each case the process consists of transposition of the forms of the subject into a coherent, objective color-space continuum, which evokes a direct sensate response to structure.”
During Davis’s own lifetime, his work was the subject of retrospectives at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1945) and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1957), and included in a wide variety of group exhibitions focusing on modern or abstract art. Sometimes identified as a forerunner of the next generation’s Pop artists, Davis shared their engagement with American mass culture, if not their tendency to treat fragments of everyday life to iconic status. Instead Davis turned the stuff—objects, imagery, and language—of modernity into grace notes within his vivid impressions of urban experience. Keenly aware of his position as both participant in and chronicler of his cultural moment, he noted, “An artist who has traveled on a steam train, driven an automobile, or flown in an airplane doesn’t feel the same way about form and space as one who has not.”