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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Stuart Davis

Garage No. 1, 1917, Stuart Davis,
Robert Henri's student
One of the hallmarks of parents, going back at least to Adam and Eve, maybe before, is that they want to protect their children from bad influences. During the 1800s, and early 1900s, this instinct was especially a problem for parents of fresh young artists, right out of college, at a time when the only way to round out and complete a thorough art education was to study abroad primarily France, but also sometimes in Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. The problem was, that parents worried about what exposure to the radical influences of modern art from these countries might do to their impressionable young sons and daughters. It wasn't that they did not trust their offspring, but the fear that in returning, the work of their artistic treasures would forever be tainted with "foreign" influences. This was no doubt the feeling as the parents of a young Stuart Davis enrolled him instead in the New York art school of Robert Henri.

Father's fears realized, jazz and a foreign influence,
Hot Still-Scape for Six Color--7th Avenue Style,
1940, Stuart Davis, lingering Picasso.
Henri was thoroughly American. Stuart's father knew him well, and in fact, as art director of the Philadelphia newspaper, The Press, he actually employed as illustrators the work of many of Henri's artistic proteges, including John Sloan, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens. The elder Davis felt his son was "safe" with Henri. And in 1914, when young Stuart was fortunate to have  five watercolors accepted in the International Exhibition of Modern Art, his father was no doubt overjoyed at his son's success. However when the show opened at the Sixty-ninth Regimental Armory, what has since come to be called "The Armory Show" not only confirmed a father's suspicions regarding the "foreign" influence of "modern" art, but also proved his worst nightmare. No longer did a would-be artist have to study in Europe for his mind to be polluted by the "worst" that continent had to offer.  Stuart saw Van Gogh, he saw Picasso, he saw Gauguin, and Matisse; and to his father's dismay, it changed his art forever.

International Surface No. 1, 1960,
Stuart Davis, Pop goes the Abatract.
Robert Henri had always encouraged his students to paint what was around them. Stuart Davis was no exception. From the beginning, like Henri's famous "Group of Eight," his work had always centered upon the urban scene. Perhaps somewhat to his father's relief, he didn't reject his American culture, just the traditional ways of depicting it. He painted New York like Picasso might have, using Matisse's flaring colors, emphasizing the undeniable picture plane of the canvas as did Van Gogh, while all along searching for a deeper meaning to the gaudy signs and billboards that defined the American city, much as Gauguin tried to do with the South Pacific. He came to reject all tendencies toward illusion. His work became more and more, that of flat design, never devoid of subject matter, but ever more and more abstract. However it was an abstraction of realism rather than illusion. The result was that, not only was he a strong forebearer to Abstract Expressionism, but amazingly, with his heavy emphasis on words, letters, and signs, he also served as a direct link from the past to the Pop Art that replaced it.

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