PRINT May 1998


IN ART, STYLE IS NEVER only technique or mannerism; it is everything. Style articulates difference as sameness. In nature, samenesses are distributed as differences. The Chihuahua, fox terrier, and Great Dane are all dogs. All the varieties of oaks are recognizable by their leaves, which are more alike than unlike. In art, style makes, as we can say, all the difference.

When Stuart Davis was in Paris for fifteen months in 1928 and 1929 he saw styles—Leger’s, Mondrian’s, Delaunay’s—of radical individuality. He introduced the stylistic strategy that The Paris Bit realizes in full maturity: making visual information into signs, much as Art Deco designers made trademarks for industry or boldly simplified posters.

In Davis’ native Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin had once shown a hatter that he didn’t need a wordy sign on his shop front: Ben sophisticated it all into a painting of a hat. This reduction to essentials has a long history. All the writing in all cultures began as pictures that came to be the graphing of sound we know as the alphabet (A was an ox, B a house), the Chinese ideogram, Egyptian hieroglyphics. Davis at one point remarked that the words in his canvases, as graphs, are no different from the other shapes.

The Paris Bit (the title is macho understatement, and would have made Gertrude Stein smile) is at once a landscape, a still life, and a doodle pad. Its iconography is bold but difficult. Davis has made a collision, a jazz harmony, of Parisian essences that he had painted thirty years before. His deployment of images is curiously closer to that of Joseph Cornell than to Dufy or Utrillo. Cornell and Davis found the word hotel talismanic. Like tabac and eau, it is a word strangers look for. The other words in this painting (lines thicken; ’28; belle France; pad; unnecessarily or unnecessary; any; and the defiantly illegible word above eau) are typical of a Davis canvas. They are like the syntax-free words and phrases of Stein, though other analogues might come to mind: the taxi horns in Gershwin, the fragments of print in Schwitters, the trade names in Cummings.

There are many traps for the iconographer in The Paris Bit. The carafe, for instance, wears a shape that looks like the head of a wrench. There’s a shape very like this in Davis’ New York Mural, 1932, where it is a jaguar’s head, a Mayan glyph for the name of a month. Or is it the Tammany Hall tiger or a trademark of some brand of tequila or cigar? In the red border Davis has written lines thicken. This may be an observation (a meditative voice-over) on his own lines from 1928 to 1959. Or is it a loose quotation from Pound’s Usura canto (XLV): “ with usura the line grows thick (Petrarch’s, for instance, coming after Dante’s hard, incised line) and lines in architecture and drawing (Rubens’ ”meatiness" after Piero della Francesca’s diaphanous and elegant linearity).

And what are the Xs? Two of them were added when color was being applied to the meticulously outlined drawing (as were the “Mayan glyph,” the word unnecessarily, and the cross-hatched rectangle that we helplessly read as a basketball goal). There are several shapes platonized almost beyond identity. The pitcher above the upside-down signature might be a café pressé except that its handle is wrong.

Most of the iconography becomes evident when we see that The Paris Bit is a redoing of a canvas of 1928, Rue Lipp. Here we learn that LA BELLE FRANCE is the name of a hotel, that the “café pressé” is in fact a beer mug, and that the shape above it is a street lamp. Between these two paintings Davis’ grammar of transmuting visual legibility into abstraction is made clear: every shape began as an object that any diligent—very diligent—student of his work could identify. This brave student has delightful witticisms to bump into. The fizz-water syphon of the Paris paintings becomes an American gasoline pump in the Rockport paintings of the ’40s. It is from this period that the phrase mellow pad is taken, shortened in The Paris Bit to Pad. This ’60s-ish locution was congenial to the reclusive Davis, who was as private and obsessive as Mondrian.

With its aggressive red, white, blue, and black as its only colors, The Paris Bit is a sixty-five-year-old’s reprise of “a mellow pad” he knew when he was thirty-four. He has signed it upside down to indicate that he was excepting this canvas from the series of his ongoing work. He is on record as saying that it’s his favorite.

In Rue Lipp the carafe is drawn in academic perspective but has a cartoonist’s squiggles and bubbles in it. In The Paris Bit this carafe has been Picasso-ized in homage to Cubism. If Rue Lipp is understated in pale French yellows, powder blue, ocher, and gray, and kin in spirit to, say, Poulenc at his most neoclassical, The Paris Bit is blatant and joyful jazz. An innocent eye can find an Olympic torch, a pupil and iris, a peanut, a matchbox where Davis meant something else. What we don’t see is the young Davis’ quiet delight in neighborly Parisian squares. In memory his Paris of 1928 became a Gershwinian rhapsody as happy as a Matisse and as wild as Louis Armstrong fortissimo.