Need Cheering Up? Go See Stuart Davis at the Whitney Museum of Art

Stuart Davis: Owh! in San Pao, 1951

Stuart Davis (1892–1964), Owh! in San Pao, 1951. Oil on canvas, 52 3/16 × 42 in. (132.6 × 106.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 52.2. © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York

Want to forget Brexit, Trump, and the rest of the long, dark list of summer events that seems to be lengthening by the day? Go to the still sparklingly new Whitney Museum of American Art and immerse yourself in the Stuart Davis retrospective In Full Swing. It is a view of “America the Optimistic”—even though Davis himself was troubled by its economic inequalities and the Great Depression, not to mention his own personal tragedies.

Born in 1892 to artist parents, little Stuart grew up with a paintbrush in his mouth. His parents were part of Robert Henri’s circle and Stuart indeed attended his art school. From the very beginning he developed his own style. In 1913, when he was 21 years old, five of his watercolors were part of the famous Armory Show. At that exhibition Davis familiarized himself with the work of modern and contemporary Europe’s painters, including Cezanne, Derain, Picasso, Léger and others. Ever thereafter Davis credited the Armory show as a turning point in his career.

Davis’s work, rendered in strong primary colors, looks amazingly fresh. Most canvases display letters or enigmatic words like “champion,” “else,” “fin” or brand names. Early pictures, looking like collages, play with the packages of Lucky Strike cigarettes, Zig Zag cigarette paper, or Odol mouthwash. The so-called Eggbeater series, based on common, deconstructed kitchen implements arranged on a square table, illustrates the charm of Davis’s highly original geometric style.

It is fitting that Stuart’s retrospective is held at the Whitney Museum. During the late 1920s, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney bought several of Davis’s works, a windfall that enabled him to spend thirteen months in France. According to an exhibition caption, the sojourn did not change his style, but rid him of his inferiority complex.

Davis’s landscapes are often playful, with different parts of the locale, or even of widely different locales, appearing on the same canvas. In Landscape with Garage Lights, two dimensional street lamps compete with gas pumps, sailboats and trees. The largest work of the show is Swing Landscapea huge mural commissioned by the WPA for a Brooklyn housing project. The image, inspired by Gloucester Harbor in Massachusetts, is densely packed with interlocking shapes derived from houses, sailboats and furniture and “swinging” with the rhythm of American jazz and throbbing colors. The WPA rejected the mural and it ended up at the Museum of Indiana University.

***

At the Whitney, as museum fatigue overtook me, I repaired to a lounge and sank into one of three comfortable couches. Through the enormous plate glass window I saw the tops of a platoon of birch trees, surmounted by a flawless blue sky filled with picture-perfect clouds.

One of the great pleasures of the new Whitney is its indoor character. The modest structures that not so long ago sheltered the city’s meat market hug the base of the new building. Tourists and New Yorkers fill the ground-floor café and the open plaza and outdoor tables. More people crowd the museum’s terraces and its outdoor stairs to savor the bird’s eye view of the Manhattan skyline: the Hudson, the Empire State Building, smoke stacks, Lady Liberty, the High Line, and the Freedom Tower. The Whitney is an oasis in our worrisome world.

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