1930s Radicalism and Plenty of Smokes at the de Young

"Stuart Davis: In Full Swing," a retrospective on the complicated American artist, shows his admiration for Walt Whitman and penchant for revising his paintings.

In Stuart Davis’ exuberant art, he combines text and images, realism and abstraction, European and American influences. Looking at the show, “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing,” at the de Young Museum, you see the movement and energy in Davis’ work, how your eye travels around the canvas.

“Davis was of his time and ahead of his time,” said the director of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, Max Hollein.

That seems about right, with Davis’ colors sprawling all over the canvas as well as his depiction of everyday objects like cigarette packages, rubber gloves, and radio tubes, that make his work a precursor to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Davis’ favorite poet was Walt Whitman, whom he called “our one big artist” — and you can see that, like Whitman, Davis was an original, looking to do something new and to capture life in America.

He was the child of artists, and unlike many parents, they felt just fine about their son dropping out of high school to study in Manhattan with Robert Henri, the leader of the Ashcan School. Henri encouraged students to develop their own style, and Davis took to heart his philosophy that “art cannot be separated from life.” The Armory Show in 1913 included five of Davis’ watercolors, and the show had a big influence in him, introducing him to European Modernists like Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Matisse.

Stuart Davis (1892-1964); Egg Beater No. 2; 1928; Oil on canvas; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; 1996.9

The exhibit starts with a painting Davis did in 1921, Lucky Strike, which has a flat Cubist style with an American twist of a cigarette package and the graphics of an ad. Hanging next to it is 1924’s Odel, another commercial themed work, with a bottle of mouthwash against a checkered background. The show includes three out of Davis’ four Egg Beater paintings, done in 1927-28, with still-lifes featuring an egg beater (of course), an electric fan, and a rubber glove.

Although certainly not the first American artist to do so, Davis went to Paris for a year, which Acker calls one of the most important periods in his artistic life. He painted the streets and cafes of the city in pastel colors, in works like Place Pasdeloup from 1928, and Café Place des Vosges, 1929.

Stuart Davis (1892–1964), “Lucky Strike,” 1921. Oil on canvas, 33 1/4 x 18 in. (84.5 x 45.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York; gift of the American Tobacco Company, Inc., 1951. © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York

In 1929, Davis returned to New York, losing most of his money in the stock market crash soon after. Following this, he threw himself into political action during a lot of the ’30s, editing the left-wing Art Front, and working with groups like the Unemployed Artists Group, the Artists’ Committee
of Action, the Artists’ Union, and the American Artists’ Congress, until he was disillusioned by Congress’ support of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland. During the time he was focused on politics, his artwork was mostly murals, and one of these, 1932’s New York Mural, hangs in the show. It’s full of images relating to New York’s four-term governor, Al Smith, including the Empire State Building, a brown derby hat Smith was known for wearing, and a Champagne glass. (Smith was not a fan of Prohibition.)

One of the pleasures of the show is seeing how Davis, a jazz fan, would take his earlier compositions and rework them again and again, adding words or stripping away colors, sort of an art version of improvisation. His American Painting is dated “1932/1942-54,” showing how it’s been revised multiple times.

The show ends with Davis’ last painting, Fin, still on the easel with tape on it when he died of a stroke in 1964. Always wanting to take in what was going on in the world, Davis supposedly kept a TV on with the volume muted in his studio, to absorb commercial images, and Acker says the word “fin” was added to the painting after Davis watched a French movie.

“Stuart Davis: In Full Swing,” through Aug. 6, at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Free – $25, 415-750-3600 or deyoung.famsf.org

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