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at the Terra Museum of American Art

This wonderful show of Stuart Davis drawings at the Terra Museum begins with two mature works. The large, austere Little Giant Still Life (Black and White) (1950-64) consists entirely of thick black lines on a tan canvas. The word “Champion,” in irregular black letters, is centered in a large rectangle amid smaller geometric shapes. At first glance the work may not look like much, but a careful, open gaze reveals a wonderful tension between the jagged lines and angles and the empty areas they subtend and enclose. The dynamic dialogue between line and space that emerges seems to have little to do with the word “Champion”–whose lettering Davis copied from an ad on a matchbook–and everything to do with the essentials of seeing. Davis did a number of color paintings based on the same design, several of which I’ve seen; but in some ways the essence of his art is most purely presented here: simple subjects drawn from the daily world are raised to the level of art not through any associations the artist brings to them but through the way that line and space interact, contrast, collide.

The earlier, much smaller New York Attic (gouache on paper, 1928) provides a lush, sensual contrast to the larger work’s austerity. We look into the attic facing a long wall that displays abstracted elements of an urban building–windows, roof line, water tower. Each wall and the floor is a different color, and a rope strung between two walls has a few colored pennants hanging from it. Despite the room’s rectangular symmetry, each area yields some surprise: not only is the color different, but the small shapes are very different from the others. No part of the composition can be predicted from any other part; the picture is a series of tiny, beautiful variations. Perhaps this effect reflects the jazz music Davis listened to and admired all his life.

Stuart Davis, one of the first “abstract” American painters, was born in Philadelphia in 1892, grew up in New Jersey, and except for a year in Europe and summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, lived his adult life in New York City, where he died in 1964. This exhibit spans his entire career, beginning with student work from as early as 1909, and since the evolution of his drawings parallels that of his paintings, this show gives a good view of his achievement.

Davis’s lifelong interest in progressive politics is evident in the subject matter of his early drawings, from 1909 to the early 20s: industrial landscapes, street scenes of “lower-class” life, jazz clubs. In 1913 the Armory Show in New York brought a large number of European modernist paintings to the United States for the first time; though critics proclaimed it a scandal and students at the estimable School of the Art Institute of Chicago protested, burning a Matisse in effigy during the show’s Chicago run, Davis was among the artists profoundly moved and transformed by it. But he was not a slavish copier: it took a number of years for his work to gradually transform itself, as Davis found his own personal solutions to the issues of illusionism and representation that modernism raised. Gradually the space in his drawings starts to break up, and the works begin to suggest multiple views of a single subject, doubtless inspired by cubism.

Finally what I take to be his first mature work emerges, represented in this exhibit by a rather simple pencil and watercolor drawing, Pear (1921). A large outline of a pear shape reveals the tan paper it was drawn on; two swatches of color cover small parts of the pear, and below is a group of dotted-line circles and ovals, which are not at all pear-shaped but nonetheless seem inspired by the pear, itself a combined circle and oval. It is as if the artist were telling his viewer, and himself, to look beyond the surface, the appearance, of objects to the fundamental forms that underlie the visible world.

Davis’s achievement in Pear is extended in the ink drawing Buildings (c. 1923): solid black marks form straight lines, curves, angles, and a few windows, all combined in a jumble not true to any optical reality but arguably truer than any photograph could be to the dense verticality of urban life. The eye is locked into the picture’s colliding shapes rather than led into an illusory depth. Gloucester Harbor (watercolor and crayon, 1924) presents a similar cluster of somewhat abstracted objects–the word “fish” on a building, a church steeple, a clock tower, and ships’ masts and rigging are set against a bluish background presumably representing sea and sky. Twenty years later, in an autobiographical essay, Davis wrote of the importance of the Gloucester schooner to his thinking about art, because “its masts define the often empty sky expanse.” Here Davis describes finding inspiration in the visible world for the tension between line and empty space or between line and solid color.

Davis’s attention to the way ships’ masts divide the sky reveals his interest in man-made objects, his essentially urban sensibility. “In 1927-28,” Davis writes, “I nailed an electric fan, a rubber glove and an eggbeater to a table and used it as my exclusive subject matter for a year. The pictures were known as the Eggbeater series.” There are several Eggbeaters in the current show, and the original objects are not identifiable in any of them. My favorite is Eggbeater no. 4 (gouache, 1928), in which lines of various colors set against shapes of different shades or contrasting colors form a composition that suggests varying perspectives, almost as if one were looking at the same objects from different angles. The influence of cubism, with its multiple views of the same subject, is clear, but the almost musical way in which the different forms and colors interact is Davis’s own.

While Davis said later that in a sense all of his subsequent work stemmed from the Eggbeater series, he didn’t immediately abandon representational imagery. In the pencil and tempera Fishing Equipment (1930s), a cart, a barrel, a ship’s rigging, and similar objects are all clearly depicted. But each thing is depicted differently–not just with a different appearance but through different means. Thus one object is represented as a solid swatch of color, another as color with its contours defined by white lines, another with shading, creating a sense of depth. By varying his means, the artist shifts the viewer’s focus from the subject matter itself to paint, line, and space, and the “abstract” beauty they’re capable of producing. What strikes one at first as a study of things in the world comes to seem an excursion in ever-varying form and perceptual surprise. This is even clearer in the spectacular 1940 gouache Smith’s Cove. A yellow polygon, set within a blue ground, contains red, blue, black, and yellow shapes hinting of boats, houses, and a scraper or sander; but one’s primary impression is of brilliantly colored ever-colliding forms.

Davis set down his thoughts on artistic practice in several essays written throughout his life. He was an articulate defender of the basic modernist position that visual art should not try to produce illusions of some other reality but should seek, in a way true to its materials, to create an experience that is its own reality. For Davis such a goal was consistent with his worldview. The illusionistic art of old was produced by hierarchical societies and meant for “the glorification of some extraneous power,” he wrote, while our current democratic age called for an art made by individuals according to their own unique selves and materials.

Davis believed that if painting is essentially light modified by color, shape, and line, then those elements are what should command the viewer’s attention. The work could be inspired by an event or object in the world but should at most seek to parallel it, never to replicate it. He said of American abstract painters: “We will never try to copy the uncopyable but will seek to establish a material tangibility in our medium which will be a permanent record of an idea or emotion inspired by nature.” The idea was to produce an “autonomous sensate object” to be experienced in itself, an experience that could not be translated into words any more than such an art would “translate” the world into pictures. Almost by definition the ecstatic, nearly riotous colors and shapes of Smith’s Cove elude elucidation: the drawing is surprising in part because the collisions of colors and shapes cannot be described.

The way that Davis addresses the viewer in his art nevertheless makes strong statements about the individual, human perception, and the culture in which we live. The rectangles that frame many of his compositions within the canvas or paper’s rectangle–the yellow polygon of Smith’s Cove, for instance–remind the viewer that these are only pictures, not stand-ins for potentates or saints or gods. The words taken from advertising signs and packages prominent in many of his pictures are used primarily as compositional elements–Davis drains them of the iconic, almost commanding power they have in our culture, a power similar to that invested in images of gods or kings in earlier times. No one will see the word “Champion” and go out and buy some product. (“Champion” what? Spark plugs, it turns out, but you couldn’t learn that from the picture.) Such words are drained of their directive power, and we’re encouraged to find joy in their design alone.

A number of pictures, some already noted, seem inspired by an urban landscape’s dense thicket of forms. In some, Davis seems especially interested in the collisions of buildings, signs, windows, and mirrors within a cityscape: the juxtaposition of word fragments with actual, mediated, and reflected images undercuts the representational authority of the image that forms the basis for much of older art. The small 1931 ink drawing Drugstore Reflection is a skein of fragments that suggest buildings without actually depicting them; there are words too, some mirror-reversed. In a large, untitled work (variation on Windshield Mirror) from 1956, heavy black lines on a tan canvas depict a dense agglomeration of forms, some of them words, presumably inspired by what might be seen in an automobile rearview mirror in the course of a drive. While in some of Davis’s more lyrical works multiple forms that are all different from one another produce a feeling of pleasurable surprise, in these the starkly outlined shapes seem locked in a battle with each other; such a picture can’t be resolved into a single view. Davis is perhaps being true to his sources of inspiration: while a New York attic can presumably be decorated to suit one’s wishes, the urban roadscape is out of any one person’s control, and at its densest is full of contradictions that the eye–to say nothing of the mind–cannot resolve.

There is also a quality in these urban images present to some degree in all of Davis’s mature work: the viewer is denied a certain kind of entry. While Davis’s forms create varying illusions of depth, any attempt to enter the image as if it were an illusory world is blocked by some aspect of the composition. At times this happens explicitly, as when a few perspective lines in Black and White Variation on Town Square (1940-1950) lead the eye to a large building in the background and the irregular cloudlike shapes above it. At other times the forms are so interlocked, so jigsawlike, that the eye is forced into erratic sideways motions by the multiple tensions; the formal conflicts give pleasure but we never feel that we’ve achieved a complete vision or complete understanding.

This effect is tied to Davis’s theories of art: that our modern, machine-made world, with its fast travel, mass-manufactured objects, and generally increased pace of change, makes the single-perspective-point visions of earlier times irrelevant; that a true respect for the nature of the individual implies that no one can ever fully know another. If Davis’s work, particularly in his last years, seems almost designed to deny full understanding, perhaps that denial is itself in service of a deeper truth–the autonomy of each human spirit.

Certainly some of the later works in this show are extremely enigmatic as well as extremely beautiful. The more limited palette of Davis’s later years, consisting of only a few bright, solid colors, created works whose aggressive sensuality has an autonomy that seems to make further explanation irrelevant. But then Davis sometimes suggests a hidden meaning; he gives one such work the title Ivy League (gouache, 1953) and scatters a few Is about the composition for good measure. This picture’s diverse abstract shapes are even more different from one another than in the earlier color pictures, and one has the sense of a private, almost glyphic visual language. Even stranger is Hightstown Turnoff (1960), in which “over–excerpt not thro'” has been handwritten next to brilliantly colored shapes.

But if one comes away from such works a bit puzzled, one comes away energized as well. Even at their most “abstract”–a word Davis himself disliked–these pictures employ a visual vocabulary directly related to our daily experience of seeing, and in that sense his art is arguably more universal than illusionistic art. As a result of the artist’s “power to see the world with a fresh eye,” Davis wrote, “man’s senses were restored to him.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Scott Bowron Photography, New York.