New York

Stuart Davis

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Stuart Davis, American Painter”—the title of his first retrospective since 1966—begs the question of just how heavily Davis’ success has leaned on nationalistically biased evaluation. But then doubts of this sort have haunted Davis’ career since he was first exposed to European Modernism at the fateful Armory Show in 1913, a contact that ended his previous commitment to the drab but gutsy Ashcan School realism he had so precociously mastered. Though Davis would go on to produce brash, in-your-face illustrations for The Masses during the teens, his painting of the same period breaks out in a spectacular array of Continental diseases contracted from Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso; indeed, it required more than the usual scholarly mettle to linger long before the apprenticeship work displayed in the first rooms of the show. In two self-portraits from 1919, Davis stares morosely out through the thick post-Impressionist strokes composing his features as if overwhelmed by influence.

What saved him was his turn toward an all-American subject—the commodity. Davis (along with Gerald Murphy) pioneered the use of American advertising imagery, painting four canvases that have the look of collages but are actually trompe-l’oeil renderings of cigarette packages. Cleverly flattened out, they achieve a cubist oscillation between two and three dimensions while maintaining their bland, ironic familiarity. With the brand name of the product represented in large black letters across the top of the canvas, Lucky Strike, 1924, the first of this series, seems to confirm Davis’ conviction that he had finally hit a vein. The best work from this phase, however, is unquestionably the proto-Pop Odol, 1924, a portrait in the grand tradition in which a bottle of disinfectant stands nobly in profile against a green checkered background. The product’s name appears at an angle across the coat-of-arms-like aqua label with the slogan “It Purifies” below it.

As a rule, themes in Davis’ work, once adopted, tended to reemerge, syncretized, later on. But Odol, a piece that recalls earlier works of Francis Picabia, pointed in a direction Davis declined to pursue. In paintings from the early ’30s the impact of Surrealism can be detected in oneiric scenes such as Television, 1931, but Davis spent most of that decade half-heartedly resisting the conformist pressures of “American Scene” cheerleaders, and, in the process, compromising his exploration of abstraction with elements in a Social Realist register. This is apparent in the quaint Landscape with Garage Lights, and in innocuous murals such as Mural (Men without Women), both 1932.

The ’40s and ’50s saw the full flowering of Davis’ bright, jaunty, vernacular cubism and his signature signature. After ’52, the year he represented the U.S. in the Venice Biennale, his prominence within the art establishment remained unquestioned. But, as if driven by the critics who claimed that his work depended too much on Fernand Léger and Matisse, a lot of Davis’ best-known paintings seem to strain after their “distinctively American idiom.” There is something tragically nerdy about his “jazzy” use of language in, for example, Rapt at Rappaport’s and Blips and Ifs. And yet the inevitable comparisons of his work to that of Pop artists such as Richard Hamilton and Andy Warhol in the early ’60s irritated Davis. As Visa, a 1951 painting based on a matchbook advertisement for Champion spark plugs, suggests, there is an amazing continuity to Davis’ career—a steady, focused exploration of problems of color, volume, and compositional space. Unfortunately (and ironically), his preoccupation with Americanness twisted this achievement into safer, decorative forms and away from the incisive tendencies present in early works such as Odol.

Thad Ziolkowski