With the Whitney Museum opening a massive, 100-work Stuart Davis retrospective, we turn back to the April 1957 issue of ARTnews, in which Elaine de Kooning reviewed a different retrospective, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. (Coincidentally, that show also traveled to the Whitney.) De Kooning wrote that the painter was as American as modernism could be. “Davis’ palette has always been, in spirit at least, strictly red, white and blue,” she wrote. “His subject has always been America—not America as seen in American art but as seen on a walk down Broadway or a drive past a harbor in a fishing village. He resists art by being true to life.” Below, de Kooning’s review follows in full below.
“Stuart Davis: True to life”
By Elaine de Kooning
Today, when hectic, automatist techniques so often and so surprisingly result in ingratiating, decorative and vaguely naturalistic imagery, a painting by Stuart Davis, with its plain, strong, “ready-made” colors and sharply cut-out shapes, has somewhat the effect of a good sock on the jaw, sudden, emphatic and not completely pleasant.
Davis, now sixty-three, apparently always knew, as few painters have, what he wanted and who he was. The character of his work does not change through the years. The present show (at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and coming to the Whitney Museum in the fall), covering the years 1925–56, is as scrupulously extrovert, conscious and uncompromising as was his retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art twelve years ago, which included some scenes painted as early as 1912. Comparing the two shows, one is struck again with the singularly impersonal, almost disembodied nature of his art. One does not feel a contact with its inception (as with Abstract-Expressionist work) or recognize in it the sensuality of an individual effort. It seems to be there all at once—the product of an aggregate impulse and perception, like slang.
Fiercely independent, but not an eccentric, Davis reacts against the momentum of a current style with a reflex of self-insulation. He has successfully resisted the devouring intellectual camaraderie (or is it anxiety?) that keeps most avant-garde artists breathing down each other’s necks and that makes group shows look like the game of Musical Chairs as artists grab each other’s styles, subjects and mannerisms before the paint is dry. His style developed between two continents and two wars, is as insistently remote from the Synthetic Cubism that was his starting point as it is from the American Action-Painting that surrounds him today.
He achieves his separated position by an act of will or rather, by an operation of logic: he chooses to be à rebours. His paintings made of, in or through Paris are swept clean of the gentle, expansive and complex intimacies that envelop Parisian art. When he began working in the Cubist manner, he immediately dispensed with their subtle tones, their discreet scale, their paraphernalia of private property and locale. His street scenes of that period, rendered in an over-simplified, almost cartoon-strip style, have a breezy, open, New England quaintness; his still-lifes are about as cozy as factories on Houston Street on Sunday. Cubism, after all, is an indoor art, full of nice, comfortable, old furniture and friends of the family. But, although for Davis, a pack of Lucky Strikes could be unobtrusively substituted for a guitar, you really can’t have Whitman’s Open Road run through the parlor without changing the look of things.
Davis’ palette has always been, in spirit at least, strictly red, white and blue. His subject has always been America—not America as seen in American art but as seen on a walk down Broadway or a drive past a harbor in a fishing village. He resists art by being true to life. More intensely than any painter in our history, he offers a specific, objective, national experience. It is the experience not of our natural landscape but of America as man-made. The brittle animation of his art relates to jazz, to movie marquees, to the streamlined decor and brutal colors of gasoline stations, to the glare of neon lights, to the flamboyant sweep of three-level parkways, to the fool-proof shine of stainless steel diners, to the big, bright words that are shouted at us from billboards from one end of the country to the other. In our common public existence (which is the only existence Davis, as a painter, is interested in), this is the land of layout and lettering, of engineering and industrial design, of big cities and long roads that Somebody built. Obviously Davis feels a profound sympathy for the grand and broad expression of Abstract Artists Anonymous. What are the names of the men who designed the words ESSO and REM or Coca-Cola? Who designed the viaduct at Sixty-first Street and the East River? Or certain jukeboxes? Like this company, he expresses in his work the concept that one glance should be enough to see what you’re looking at, since the chances are you’re going someplace else fast. And so, although his pictures are not big (as big pictures go nowadays), their expression is. If one were slapped against a building like a bill-board, it would hold its own. In fact, Davis is one of the few abstract painters in the country whose work authentically relates to modern architecture.
Like modern architecture, his art has a distinctly argumentative character. Nothing is suggested or implied. Everything is stated flatly. Here are no evasive tones or ambiguous colors, no vague distances or irresponsible implications of scale, no meandering sentiments. There is in his paint-stroke no description, no point of view; it delivers the unprimed fact to you. Every proportion is measurable, every effect predetermined. Detail is massive. The remnants of stylized representation—the roads, clouds, waves, smoke, chimneys, shingles, ladders, wagon-wheels windows, barrels that still crop up in his work, superimposed in rigid patters over the large paper-flat planes—are related with a cheerful, bold and heavy hand to the whole. The taciturn impastoes, the highly deliberate patterns, the inflexible scissor-sharp edges all seem to indicate an insistence on “the last word.” And he has it. In the protestant economy of Davis’ art, nothing is superficial and everything is necessary.
His is an art of solid certainties. He never seems to have been involved with those rather bitter changes of heart which beset so many artists and which result in their working consecutively (or what is even more painful, simultaneously) in contradictory styles in their search for an identity. For Davis, his identity was never in question. He is aware that his approach is in conflict with the approach of most abstract painters around him and he is somewhat contemptuous of their condition, which might be termed “the anguish of possibility,” to use Harold Rosenberg’s phrase.
“I think of Abstract Art,” Davis wrote in 1951, “in the same way I think of all Art, Past and Present… I see it as divided into two Major categories, Objective and Subjective. Objective Art is Absolute Art… [It] sees the Percept of the Real World as an Immediate Given Event… Subjective Art is Illustration, or communication by Symbols, Replicas and Oblique Emotional Passes… Its Universal Principle has… the character of a Universal Bellyache… It has a Perverse Passion for the Detour.”
Clearly all the possibilities Davis sees, as an Objective artist, are in the realm of solutions not problems. If, as some critics have pointed out, his solutions always seem to fall more or less in the same territory, there is no sense of self-indulgence, of relaxation of the spirit in the fact that he has never substantially deviated from the style he defined for himself so early in his career. On the contrary, one might get the impression of an iron stubbornness in his cleaving to certain principles of clarity now largely abandoned by painters (although commercial artists and architects are of course still involved with them). His paintings have the “look” of another decade, specifically, the ’thirties—not the provincial but the International “look.” But Davis, like Léger and Mondrian, with whom he shares a passion for conscious, objective art, has made his particular “look” timeless. Convictions that ardent kept their immediacy.
In the sense that he starts with the idea that the canvas is a limited area to be divided, to be designed, he is following a European tradition. It is the opposite of the concept of the image which unfolds and spreads out, as in the panoramas of the Hudson River School or the panoramas of American Action-Painting where the edges of the canvas are the last facts to be considered, not the first. Many abstract painters today, for instance, work on unstretched canvas tacked to the wall and decide on the size and proportions of the painting after it is finidhsed. This would be as unworkable an approach for Davis as it would for Mondrian or Léger, since the exercise of will and consciousness can only be accomplished within a fixed space. For artists who insist on complete control, the world must be square; there must be boundaries to act against.
In the face of this framework of calculation, one of the paradoxes of his work is in its extraordinary animation—an element we usually associate with spontaneity. But even here he is deliberate, aspiring to what he has called the “Consciousness of Motion” in art. This he achieves mainly in his use of color, and here he is a craftsman second to none. His colors, although strong and opaque, are oddly without physical presence. They do not create surfaces but rather, sheets or flashes of light. This spurting electric quality of his color has less to do with the choice of pigments—they could be interchangeable, one feels—than with the spacing, proportioning and repetition of the areas into which the colors are so carefully placed. The light doesn’t act in but between the colors. The larger areas are pulled and twisted into different dimensions by the contradictory presence of the smaller. He uses the “scale” of different colors—their various propensities for expansion and contraction—to achieve the fantastic, mechanized activity of his compositions.
A version of the story originally appeared in the April 1957 issue on page 40 under the title “Stuart Davis: True to life.”