"Arch Hotel" by Stuart Davis (1929)
"Arch Hotel" by Stuart Davis (1929)

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The new Stuart Davis retrospective at the National Gallery of Art feels like a major play that’s missing its first act. Co-organized by the NGA and the Whitney Museum, Stuart Davis: In Full Swing features more than 100 paintings in the New York artist’s mature style. Overall, it’s a cohesive, tightly conceived experience. But by skipping the artist’s journey to abstraction, and by minimizing his biography and politics within the exhibition, curators Harry Cooper and Barbara Haskell risk simplifying his messy relationship to American art history.

In Full Swing ends with the artist’s very last piece, “Fin” (1964), a lovely, unfinished effort, full of loose brushwork, simple shapes, and strips of masking tape, looking just as it did on Davis’ easel the day he died. But the show begins with works from 1921—more than a decade after Davis began studying with Ashcan School artist Robert Henri. Under Henri’s influence, Davis spent years depicting working-class people trudging through dirty New York streets. In the 1920s, though, he caught the Cubism bug and produced the paintings of cigarette papers, rendered in thin washes of watercolor and oil, that kick off the show. Without seeing the Ashcan-inspired work that came before, viewers may not understand why these four flattened, graphic pieces were such a departure.

Throughout the show, Cooper and Haskell focus on how Davis refined the motifs that made him famous—irregular polygons, meandering lines, and bits of text from signs, labels, and song lyrics. The extent to which Davis recycled these elements from one canvas to another only became clear in 2007, when Yale University Press published the artist’s three-volume catalogue raisonné. As the artist’s son, Earl Davis, explained in the preface: “…a full 71 percent of the oil paintings and caseins on canvas [created after 1940] were actually based on compositions … first drawn or painted in the 1920s or early 1930s.”

This discovery makes the artist sound like an academic abstractionist, making art for art’s sake. But Davis always insisted he was a realist, depicting the speed and simultaneity of the modern world. “My pictures are not ‘abstract’ because their subject matter is not abstract,” he wrote in 1941 to his dealer, Edith Halpert. “They are pictures of concrete things, American things. … I have never had as my purpose in painting the setting forth of an abstract thesis or ideal system of color-space ratios, because I have no interest whatever in such things.”

Indeed, Davis’ recurring abstract motifs typically come from figurative sources. The curving, sloping diagonal lines that undergird many Davis paintings, for example, refer to the rigging of schooners he once sketched in the harbor of Gloucester, Massachusetts. In the show’s catalog, Cooper explains how one 1932 sketch of ropes, masts, and stairs gave birth to many dissimilar paintings.

In “Tournos,” from 1954, Davis used this sketch as a pattern over which to stack blocks of blue, green, white, and black. Two years later, in “Memo,” Davis used the same pattern for a canvas split in half diagonally—the upper right portion is rendered in thick, white lines on a black ground; the lower left consists of color blocks reminiscent of Matisse’s paper cutouts. In these pieces, we see Davis playing with the limits of his own painterly techniques—but always referring to his own lived experiences. 

Davis operated in the gap between the glory days of American realism and the postwar rush of Abstract Expressionism and Pop. He pried the innovations of Leger and Picasso out of their original European context and applied them to depicting his city, its music, and its detritus. Davis never really let go of his Ashcan roots, and never aligned himself with Pollock, Rothko, or the rest of the AbExers who followed him. He denied the idea of using painting to express pure subjective feeling or purely formal ideas. 

“There’s always something in [Picasso’s] pictures that indicates this world, not some other, not the insane asylum, or Sigmund Freud in Vienna, or something like that,” he once explained. “It’s always a world we know about.” In Full Swing does an excellent job of defining the mechanics of Davis’ work, but it omits too much of the world as Davis knew it. 

To March 5, 2017 at the National Gallery of Art. 6th & Constitution Ave. NW. Free. (202) 737-4215. nga.gov.