New York

Stuart Davis, Fin, 1962–64, casein and masking tape on canvas, 58 7/8 × 39 3/4". © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Stuart Davis, Fin, 1962–64, casein and masking tape on canvas, 58 7/8 × 39 3/4". © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Stuart Davis

Whitney Museum of American Art

Stuart Davis, Fin, 1962–64, casein and masking tape on canvas, 58 7/8 × 39 3/4". © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

If awards were given for best wall text at an exhibition, this year’s winner would be the placard inscribed for Fin, 1962–64, from “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. (The show, curated by Barbara Haskell and Harry Cooper, was co-organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, where it opens on November 20). As one read along, things swiftly took an unexpected turn: We learned that on June 23, 1964, Davis watched a foreign film that concluded with “Fin,” the French equivalent to “The End,” and decided to add the word to the painting he’d been working on before bed. He suffered a stroke later that night, dying on the way to the hospital. Aside from the strange coincidence of scripting one’s own sign-off in a final piece, what’s notable here is that Davis worked until the day he died. That the tape that he used to mask his canvas’s edges is still present indicates the show’s own looping circuit of energy—the end is unfinished—as much as the continuous processing of material and idea that made Davis among the most influential of American artists.

Despite a great fondness for Paris, Davis was an American painter through and through, and he has long been heralded as the godfather of Pop art. In his early paintings in the 1920s, of newspaper headlines, Lucky Strike tobacco packs, labels from cigarette papers, and such objects as a bottle of Odol mouthwash, Davis made still lifes of everyday subject matter that marshaled advertising’s graphic boldness and Cubism’s sophisticated tweak of quotidian life. This interest was further polished in four canvases from his important “Egg Beater” series, 1927–28, given proper breathing room on their own wall, in which he constantly reworked a still life of an eggbeater, a rubber glove, and a fan that he’d nailed to his table into an almost architectural diorama of geometric, pastel-hued abstraction. As the exhibition title suggests, Davis was a huge fan of jazz music—he was famous for playing records at full volume in his studio—and, as has been often noted, his working style borrowed the improvisational line and rhythm of this American genre. He also embraced American politics, fighting for unionizing artists and contributing to many leftist publications. (He was a prolific and often witty writer.)

But what “In Full Swing” underscored more than anything else was the electricity running through these canvases. On a radio show in 1940, Davis commented, “An artist who lives in a world of the motion picture, electricity, and synthetic chemistry doesn’t feel the same way about light and color as one who has not.” Often he was quite literal about the rush and hum of the wired world in his incorporation of lightbulbs, telephone poles, appliances, and bright cityscapes, as suggested by Arboretum by Flashbulb, 1942. In Electric Bulb, 1924, we see why Philip Guston, who shared a studio for a time with the older artist, was such a fan: Davis makes the spherical glass jagged, its reflection into geometry, and its shadows into line.

The energy of that line is on vivid view in Summer Landscape, 1930, a harbor scene of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Davis had a seasonal studio for more than ten years. He takes an American scene that we might associate more with the pathos of Edward Hopper or Marsden Hartley and plugs it in. The line becomes a dozen things at once in this painting: the electric squawk of a telephone wire, seagulls, waves, to list a few. (He adds a tree like a painter’s palette with daubs of white, black, and blue for good measure.) His final study for Radio City Music Hall Mural, 1932, made me wonder why more people weren’t getting Stuart Davis tattoos.

He was constantly rewiring his own work, too, recycling motifs and experimenting with seriality and repetition, a process that is well served by this exhibition’s design. One of his last paintings from 1963–64, a collaged reworking of an earlier motif, has the wonderful title Blips and Ifs, which sounds like what it is: spots of light on a screen, jazz syncopation, weird experimentation—unflagging suppositions in Davis’s dialogue with himself and, thankfully, the world.

Prudence Peiffer