Stuart Davis (1894
) was, along with Edward Hopper
, the most important American painter of the 1930s. He was a bridge between the homegrown naturalism
of the Ashcan
school and the European
influenced abstract expressionism
, and his work was a forerunner of Pop Art
before Andy Warhol
was even born.
His parents were both artists who encouraged him and nurtured his talents. His father was the art director for a Philadelphia
newspaper where he worked with many of the members of the Ashcan school. At the age of 15 or 16 he, with the encouragement of his parents, dropped out of high school to study with Robert Henri
, the leading figure in the Ashcan movement. At night, he and his fellow students stalked the streets of New York
, listening to jazz
and absorbing material for the socially conscious street scenes favored by the Ashcans.
For many artists in America, the 1913 Armory Show
was an epiphany. Like other US artists, he displayed work in the show – it featured five Davis watercolor
s. But he and other American artists had never seen work like that of the European avant-garde
. Davis moved away from realism and towards an abstraction
heavily influenced by synthetic cubism
. His work could be easily mistaken for Pop Art of the 1960. His paintings, often based on collage
s he made, reflected the cacophony of advertising, abounding with product packages and brand names. They resembled the cubist
, but at their core they retained that sense of objective, unemotional naturalism present in the realistic work of the Ashcan school.
, he took an even more radical leap towards abstraction. He nailed an eggbeater, a rubber glove, and an electric fan to a table and painted it as a still life
over and over again, producing his "Eggbeater
" series of paintings. Barely recognizable as objects, they became geometric shapes, planes of shapes and colors, in Davis’ hands.
He made a trip to Paris
, like most of his fellow artists who had been influenced by European artistic currents. Unlike many of them, he did not take to Europe
, and soon returned. As influenced as he was by Europe, it is important to remember that he was an American artist at his core, and America is as central to his work as it was to Walt Whitman
’s. He chafed at complaints that European influenced art was "unamerican". "I am as American as any other American painter…Over here we are racially English
- or Jewish
-American – and artistically we are all Rembradt
-American and Picasso
-American. But since we all live and paint here we are, first of all, American."
During the Depression
, like many other American painters, he painted mural
s for the WPA
. He developed a more whimsical style, perhaps influenced by jazz, with a jumble of colors and patterns that blends together the ideas of his previous work, the geometric abstractions and the Pop Art imagery. Imagine if Jackson Pollock
was a Pop artist, and then you might get the idea. The best example of this is probably Swing Landscape
), painted for a Brooklyn
housing project but now in Indiana
Davis’ work is overshadowed future art movements like pop and abstract expressionism, but his achievements are more significant when you remember that he was doing his work before their heyday. Even outside of the context of the development of American art, Davis’ work can be appreciated on its own merits. It is damn impressive and a hell of a lot of fun to look at.