Friday, January 25, 2013

Davis, Stuart

Hot still Scape for six colors - 7th Avenue style
oil on canvas
91.4 x 114 cm (36 x 44 7/8 in.)
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

Hot still Scape is one of the undisputed masterpieces of 20th-century American painting. It captured the heady, sensory experience of the modern city. The term “still-scape” was his own invention: a combination of abstract landscape and still-life elements he had used in other paintings, coupled with those he had made up. “Hot,” according to him, described the dynamic mood created by the juxtaposition of the six colors: white, yellow, blue, red, orange, and black. The designation “7th Avenue” refers to the New York City street on which he had his studio for fifteen years. It was in the heart of a bustling West Village neighborhood with lively street life and noisy automobile traffic (indicated by the syncopated street signs in the picture), and just blocks from a number of the hot jazz clubs in the Village. A month after he finished the picture, he wrote, “It is the product of everyday experience in the new lights, speeds, and spaces of the American environment.”

Stuart Davis (1892 - 1964), born in Philadelphia, was an early American modernist painter. He was well known for his jazz-influenced, proto pop art paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, bold, brash, and colorful, as well as his ashcan pictures in the early years of the 20th century. He viewed technological developments such as radio as forces which changed the fundamental experience of American life. He believed visual art needed to change in style in order to reflect the fragmentation brought by modern twentieth century media.

From the outset of his career, Davis was associated with Avant-garde artistic movements. Beginning in 1909 he studied in New York with Robert Henri, leader of the early twentieth-century realist painters nicknamed the Ashcan School. His earliest subjects were the seamy urban scenes favored by that group. In 1913, Davis was one of the youngest painters to exhibit in the controversial Armory Show - a leading international contemporary and modern art fair and one of the most important annual art events in New York - where he displayed five watercolors, resulting in his determination to alter the direction of his own work. Exposed at this exhibition to the works of European modernism artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, Davis became a committed "modern" artist and a major exponent of cubism and modernism in America.

Over the next few decades, he experimented with simplified, abstracted forms, multiple perspectives, and collage, and he also started to incorporate words into his paintings. He used everyday objects and references to popular culture as points of departure, and the places he lived in or visited - New York City, Paris, and Gloucester, Massachusetts - recur as themes in his paintings.

In the 1920s, Davis’s pictures bordered on the completely abstract, the objects in them often unrecognizable. He developed his mature style of Hard-edge paintings, mainly abstract still lifes and landscapes; his use of contemporary subject matter such as cigarette packages, spark plug advertisements and the contemporary American landscape make him a proto-Pop artist. In the 1930s, he became increasingly politically engaged. According to a scholar, his goal was to "reconcile abstract art with Marxism and modern industrial society". In 1934 he joined the Artists' Union; he was later elected its President. In 1936 the American Artists' Congress elected him National Secretary. Toward the end of the decade he turned once more to abstraction. Through it all, his work often retained an underlying sense of humor.
Davis died of a stroke in New York at age 71.