PRINT May 1974

Fooling the Eye

WILLIAM M. DAVIS IS NOT one of the major heroes in the history of American painting. The only comprehensive show ever devoted to his work lasted three days, October 16–18, 1971, in the rooms of the Historical Society of Greater Port Jefferson, Long Island, and the catalogue (Melville A. Kitchin, Port Jefferson’s Foremost Painter, W. M. Davis, 1829–1920) for it has just appeared, in the spring of 1974, thereby establishing something of a record for time lag between exhibition and publication. He was a follower of George Henry Durrie and of William Sidney Mount, but at one point he broke through to an astonishing prediction of Pop art, and is the earliest of the several 19th-century painters whose parallels to Pop are so striking as to suggest a line of descent between them and the Lichtensteins, Warhols, and Jim Dines of the present century.

The picture in question, now at The Suffolk Museum in Stony Brook, Long Island, is of the back of a painting. A sturdy canvas stretcher is held together with large, old-fashioned keys in three of its corners, and two envelopes have been inserted between the back of the stretcher and the canvas. The uppermost envelope, addressed to Davis at Port Jefferson and postmarked at Westport, New York on March 6, without a year date, has been slashed open at its right-hand end to reveal a letter and the edge of a banknote; the envelope below reveals only its stamp and two postmarks, only one of which—“New York,” without a date—is legible. The top stretcher bar bears a painted label lettered with the painfully arch title, A Canvas Back/By Kro Matic.

The brown rose stamp on the lower letter was issued on August 18, 1861. The green stamp at the wrong end of the upper letter came out on April 12, 1870. The painting of stamps of such widely separated issues is most unusual, and suggests a bit of antiquarian trickery: Davis may have been trying to make his picture look older than it actually is. But if the picture was produced around 1870, it predicts the styles and devices of the Harnett-Peto era in American still-life painting, since Harnett did not begin to paint until 1874 and Peto did not begin to amount to anything until 1880 or thereabouts.

A Canvas Back is the earliest known American embodiment of an ancient, familiar folk tale narrated in its classic form by Pliny the Elder in his account of art in 5th-century Athens—how Zeuxis painted grapes so realistically that birds came and pecked at them, and how his rival Parrhasios then brought Zeuxis a painting covered with a veil; when Zeuxis tried to remove it, he discovered that the veil was the painting.

There are countless variants of this story, mostly in verbal folklore; in Davis’ variant, instead of removing a veil one is expected to turn the canvas around to see what is painted on the other side, and then to find, of course, that the presumed stretcher is actually the painting. (Incidentally, the pleasure one gets from eye-fooling in art lies in the revelation that one’s eye has been fooled; an eye-fooler that continued always to be such would be no fun at all.)

Among the papers of John Haberle, preserved in his house in New Haven, is a newspaper clipping describing a visit to an artist’s studio, presumably Haberle’s own. Here the writer of the report saw a drawing board with pencil sketches on it, with canceled stamps stuck here and there, a photograph of an actress, and various defacements produced by scoring with knives and the scratching of matches. The artist told the newspaper man that this assemblage was the model he intended to use for a painting, and that when he was through he was going to paint the things on the other side. The reporter turned the presumed drawing board over and found that what he had been looking at was the painting itself.

The thing that holds all these versions of the folk tale together is flatness. A veil draped over a picture consists only of a few shallow puckers; a drawing board with scratches and stamps on it has no depth at all; and there is very little spatial recession in Davis’ Canvas Back. Eye-fooling illusion demands as little depth as possible, and no one knew this better than the Pop artists like Haberle and his contemporaries, painted postage stamps and dollar bills, not because they were valuable but because they were flat. Haberle also occasionally painted a slate with a pencil on a string dangling in front of it; Dine did something almost identical with his “real” knives and tools hanging before his canvases.

If Haberle ever painted the drawing-board picture, it is not known to exist today, but in the Wichita Art Museum is a painting attributed to him in which William M. Davis’ idea is given a typically Haberlean switch. One sees the stretcher and its keys but the canvas, far from being the blank reverse of a painting, contains a landscape with a lake, a church, a forest, and some cows. The idea is that the artist, dissatisfied with this work, has turned it around and painted something else on the other side. So you go look on the other side. . . .

Finally, one should mention the Peto version of the back-of-the canvas painting, with an oval photograph of Lincoln tacked across the stretcher bars.

The stretcher bars and the back of the canvas is a favorite subject of Roy Lichtenstein. Diane Waldman publishes four versions of it in her book on this artist (Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1971, plates 162–165) and doubtless there are others, too. But there are major differences between Lichtenstein’s handling of this motif and that of his 19th-century predecessors.

In modern European art, flatness was employed as a means of escape from illusion; only one thing was Holy Writ, and that was to “preserve the picture plane” at all costs in order not to compromise the integrity of the painting as such. Forty or 50 years earlier, the trompe l’oeil painters preserved the integrity of the picture plane in order to obtain the highest degree of illusion of which they were capable. Lichtenstein’s stretcher-frame pictures play in and out of this paradox. The proverbial man from Mars, never having seen a Lichtenstein before and being unfamiliar with the Benday dots in which the presumed back of each canvas is rendered,might be tempted to turn one of the stretcher-bar paintings around to see what may be on (he other side, but to those who know this artist, the dots convey a signal: this is it. The stretcher-frame paintings may also be regarded as a parody of geometric abstraction. Indeed, from his early pictures in comic-book style through his paintings à la Picasso, Mondrian, Cézanne, Monet, and the Art Déco manner of the 1930s, Lichtenstein has been the most conscientious parodist in American art.

Haberle was also a powerful parodist of art, although by no means on so grand a scale as Lichtenstein and for different ends. Haberle liked to use paintings as still-life subjects or parts of still-life subjects. His Torn in Transit series, for example, exploits the notion that a painting has been shipped in a paper parcel which has been damaged. The wrapping paper, the string, and the shipping labels are done with the utmost meticulous Realism, but the paintings inside the torn wrappings must be totally different in style or the whole idea is lost; in two instances, therefore, the paintings inside the wrappings are in the cheapest imaginable buckeye style; in one instance it is in a shimmering, dappled, impressionistic manner. It would be a grotesque exaggeration to imply that Haberle’s pictures of wrapped pictures gave the cue to Christo, Stephen Posen, and others who delight in the mystery of wrapped objects, but these Haberles do have a certain prophetic quality in that regard.

The buckeye element in Haberle is important in considering his relationship to Pop art. In the Metropolitan Museum is a work of his called A Bachelor’s Drawer which is of special importance in drawing a parallel between his work and Pop. The fascination with commonplace illustration, suggested by the magazine illustration of the gent with the fancy whiskers, the "cigarette pictures, and the book entitled How to Name the Baby all draw close to Lichtenstein. The Confederate bills and the stamps and cards are straight Warhol, while the raucous nudity of the naked girl in the photograph is pure Ramos. All this in a painting completed in 1894.

The thrust of the entire work, with its cigar-box lid, its broken comb, its pipe, matches, theater-ticket stubs, baggage checks, and so on is a zesty, hell-on-wheels assault on the high falutinness of art. Mark Twain would have understood it perfectly. From the point of view of vernacular subject matter, no better work of Pop has ever been produced in this country. Notice, however, that the artist’s need for flatness in his illusionism forces him into as unillusionistic a device as may be: all the objects in the bachelor’s drawer are pasted onto its front in a totally impossible fashion. And this brings the question of flatness and illusionism full circle. Haberle was given to such extremes; and they brought his era of Pop imagery to its end.

In the pictures of wrapped pictures the point of the illusionism is that three-fourths of the canvas is not illusionistic. In the picture called Night at the New Britain Museum of American Art, not only does a considerable part of the illusion depend upon nonillusionistic devices but upon a deliberately incomplete effect as well. Night is a large, completely finished picture of an unfinished picture. When you go that far, you have reached the end of the line; there is nowhere else to go, and the American Pop tradition had to lie fallow for half a century before it sprang up fresh again.

––Alfred Frankenstein