One of the many revelations to come out of “The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913,” the excellent exhibition organized three years ago by Gail Stavitsky at the Montclair Art Museum, was a small watercolor of a rowboat on a lake. A blond woman leans over the stern, nearly submerging it in water as she seemingly smiles back at us. Behind her, standing on the upturned bow, a man twists on one leg as he attempts to remove his trousers—startled, it would appear, at our arrival.
Immediate, part quick illustration, part louche intrusion, the work may have been as shocking for its content in 1912 as it would be to us, today, for its attribution. Titled Romance or The Doctor, this watercolor was one of five examples to be put on display in the 1913 Armory Show by none other than Stuart Davis (1892–1964), the American modernist whose work would soon take a bold turn away from such realistic scenes towards angular shapes, flattened colors, and the interweaving of text and imagery.
At the time the promising disciple of Robert Henri and “The Eight,” just twenty-one years old, Davis was among those American artists most affected by the radical examples of European modernism that came stateside for the Armory Show’s infamous three-city tour—a “masochistic reception,” he later recalled, “whereat the naïve hosts are trampled and stomped by the European guests at the buffet.”
Yet with his watercolors exhibited alongside eye-opening examples of modernist painting by Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, and Duchamp, Davis also saw the “vindication of the anti-academy position of the Henri School, with developments in undreamed of directions.” The awakening was pure Davis, telling us a great deal of how he saw through the surface of style and looked to deeper meaning, always staying independent of trends. At that time, Davis was one of the artists whose interest in saloon life and popular entertainment would earn him the label of “ash can,” a term meant as opprobrium for his focus on the underbelly of American culture and the one that came to define the movement of his older contemporaries.
The particular genius of Davis’s subsequent modernist direction was how he went on to integrate European stylistic innovation with his unique Ashcan vision. Through the flattening, flickering, fleeting perspectives of modernist composition, Davis did not so much abandon his Ashcan beginnings. Instead he found ways to electrify them, to broadcast the frenetic American century with the syncopation of jazz and to illuminate it with the glow of neon.
Just take his House and Street (1931), from the Whitney’s collection, where windows, fire escapes, garages, smoke stacks, scaffolding, advertising symbols, and campaign signs all come together like the colorful pieces of a jigsaw puzzle framed by the shadows of an elevated train. Or consider the frenzied cataract of Ultra-Marine(1943), a favorite of mine from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where any lingering sense of single-point perspective is overtaken by Davis’s development of “serial centers” of focus. And then there is The Paris Bit (1959), also from the Whitney, a late masterstroke where colors, silhouettes, signs, and shadow lines seem to reassemble not as a single image but as a long-remembered impression—a deep feeling coming together out of forgotten sights.
So the fact that “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing,” a major, traveling exhibition now at the Whitney Museum of American Art, would omit Davis’s entire early Ashcan development, and instead start its show in the 1920s, would seem to do a curious disservice to both Davis’s own achievements and the understanding of the museum-going public.1
That this omission of “Davis’s decade of apprenticeship” turns out to be a deliberate “interpretive gambit” meant to “depart in significant ways from their predecessors,” as the co-directors of the Whitney and the National Gallery explain in their catalogue preface, is a startling revelation of curatorial intent that hints not only at Davis’s evolving place in the canon of American art but also at the shifting interests of the contemporary American museum.
We are therefore left with an exhibition that is both required viewing for what it reveals of Davis’s American vision but also a flawed, precariously off-balance presentation of that vision. With approximately one hundred works on display, there is, it should be said, much to be thankful for here. Despite the over half-century of Davis research that has followed the artist’s death in 1964, a complete chronology has only recently come to light with the publication of his catalogue raisonné by Ani Boyajian, Mark Rutkoski, William C. Agee, and Karen Wilkin in 2007, as well as—finally—the full access to his archives granted by the artist’s estate. Through her catalogue essay and wall texts, at least, the Whitney’s Barbara Haskell, our most dutiful curator of early American modernism and the co-curator of this exhibition, gives every indication of a deep interest in the full span of Davis’s development, including the early history. Her extensive catalogue chronology, starting with Davis’s childhood in Philadelphia, where his father was a graphic artist and art editor, on through his life and career at the center of bohemian New York, furthermore offers a singular addition to Davis scholarship.
At the same time, it must be increasingly difficult to propose a major museum survey of a canonical artist that relies on scholarship alone and does not attempt realignment and revisionism. Writing in 1965 at the time of Davis’s memorial exhibition, H. H. Arnason of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum summed up the then-established consensus: “Davis is almost the only American painter of the twentieth century whose works have transcended every change in style, movement, or fashion.” Such an appreciation only occurs when you consider Davis’s development in his own time. Yet in a reversal of priorities that is fast becoming the norm of museums today, rather than allowing history to challenge our present assumptions, the past must now conform to contemporary diktats. In Davis’s case, this means understanding the artist not on his own terms but for the movement he inadvertently foreshadowed—pop—the one art movement, it would seem, that is now unquestionably allowed to occupy our own time and place.
There is no other reason to start a Davis survey with his paintings of illusionistic flattened packaging of the 1920s than to frame him as a pop artist. And indeed, “framed” is right, since there is reason here to suspect that Davis has been framed. Calling these paintings of consumer products “Davis’s breakthrough,” the exhibition narrows Davis’s achievements to one that merely “merged the bold, hard-edge style of advertising with the conventions of European avant-garde painting.” Forget the fact that this particular imagery is part of an older tradition going back to the nineteenth century in American trompe l’oeil and might be considered something of a tributary in the main currents of his artistic development. Why not instead look to his more innovative cubist still lifes, also from the early 1920s, and now in the collection of the Vilcek Foundation?