Center Stage: Stuart Davis leaves lasting artistic impressions

stuart davisAn example of artwork created by modernist painter Stuart Davis, from the "Stuart Davis: In Full Swing" exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. COURTESY PHOTO  

WASHINGTON – An exhibit of the early 20th century American modernist painter Stuart Davis just opened to the public at the National Gallery of Art.

Entitled “In Full Swing”, this exhibit is a comprehensive examination of Davis’ career, including 5 rooms of his artwork and a short documentary created by the museum.

Davis, as described in the background summary adorning the entrance, was born to artists in New Jersey and dropped out of high school to study painting in Manhattan under Robert Henri.

Henri, among other things, encouraged his students to “find their own voices.”

Davis began painting landscapes and subjects in the style of both Vincent Van Gogh and the cubist style of Pablo Picasso.

However, following his mentor’s advice to find his own voice, his first breakthrough was his paintings of flattened tobacco packages.

These paintings had hints of both cubism and still life, yet retained an originality that had not been replicated. According to the description, “After a decade of emulating various styles, Davis had become ambitious.”

After years of emulation and practice, Davis was ready to mark his own style, reflected in his desire to capture “the thing Whitman felt—America.” 

Interestingly, in the first room of the exhibit, viewers can compare the vast difference between Davis’ own style and the styles of past artists whom he first emulated. “Red Still Life” is a cubist study of a table that looks like it was painted by Picasso himself.

“Red Still Life” is painted with browns and grays, which are shaded in a gradient that emphasizes light and shadow. On the other hand, “Super Table” is a more original work that hints at cubism yet retains Davis’ own unique modernist blend.

“Super Table” has virtually no gradient shadows, instead having solid, marked borders and an elegant simplicity that would define Davis’ later works. This style is distinguishable by his use of neutral colors and an almost but not-quite cartoonish look.

Paris charmed Davis during a visit in the late 1920s. He painted it in sugary colors with whimsical lettering that looked like the illustrations from a storybook like “The Little Prince”.

According to the documentary, upon returning to the United States, Davis was disconcerted by his homeland’s great size, questioning what art could mean in this environment.

It was only a little later Davis realized America’s dynamism and energy was what defined modernism. He incorporated these concepts into his art for the rest of his career.

The frenzy of American life in the form of squiggles and shapes on unusual color schemes was the perfect way for Davis to express himself.

As he stated in 1962: “I couldn’t have painted any other way than I did. It simply didn’t interest me.”

The second recurring theme in Davis’ work was the American idea of reinvention.

During his later period, Davis repainted many of his prior works in different color schemes, adding extra shapes and patterns, and making them look more disjointed. 

“The Mellow Pad” is a recreation of Davis’ work “House and Street” from 1931, which is near indistinguishable save for a few elements of the former work poking out from underneath layers of jam-packed abstract shapes and colors, accompanied by the addition of the words “The Mellow Pad” drawn in the lower corner. 

Davis’ work is particularly unique for showing a clear evolution of his artistic voice, accomplished through his constant reinvention of his art and a pared-down style that layered new ideas on top of old ones.

His career, which occurred at the intersection of changing art forms, is a breath of fresh air that contains hints of other styles while maintaining a bold and distinguishable sense of self. 

“Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” is open free of admission through March 5.

It is located in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art’s Main Floor at: 6th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W.

Hours: Mondays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Phone: (202) 737-4215.



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