Dynamic Impulse
The drawings of Stuart Davis at Hollis Taggart Galleries

STUART DAVIS DISLIKED THE WORD “ABSTRACT.” He battled against the tendency to divide representational painting from “so called abstractions.” They are identical, he insisted, because both represent an illusion of the three-dimensional space we inhabit. A witty polemicist, he argued his case with panache: “A radio is the product of an extremely complex set of abstract generalizations but no one calls it ‘an abstraction,’ or ‘an escape from reality’ because the loud speaker is not equipped with a set of false teeth.”

Torso & Head with 2 Figures, Stuart Davis, 1928

His refusal to separate art into camps originated in his devotion to drawing, to a linear conception of form and to Cezanne's insistence on the unity of painting and drawing. “Dynamic Impulse: The Drawings of Stuart Davis” exhibits approximately 60 works from as early as 1909 to his death in 1964. It is a wonderful medley of sketches, doodles, diagrams, and preparatory studies not originally intended for viewing. Add to these finished drawings and black and while linear versions of the same paintings.

Artmaking was in Davis’s blood. He was born in 1894 to parents who were artists and who surrounded themselves with artist friends. Art editor of the “Philadelphia Press,” his father employed John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens and Everett Shinn, all members of The Eight. Robert Henri, standard-bearer of the group and a friend of the Davises, later exerted great influence on Stuart’s development as a painter.

Sloan opened his own art school in New York in 1909. After one year of high school, young Stuart was allowed to enroll in his classes. Under Henri’s tutelage, he absorbed skepticism of academic rules and the importance of looking closely at the world around him.

He entered the New York art world at a tumultuous time. By the age of 19, he was a practicing artist, working regularly as an illustrator and exhibiting in the 1913 Armory Show. A watershed event in American painting, it exposed Davis to the European, particularly French, avant-garde for the first time. It fired desire for new pictorial forms — not simply new subject matter — to replace the old rules. He sought these out in Paris where a stay was obligatory for a member of Hemingway’s generation.

Davis embraced Cubist analysis of line, color, texture, and shape and its liberation of drawing for sheer expressive purposes. At the same time, he scolded American artists for their “foolish worship of a foreign god.” In a notebook entry, he declared "America is unquestionably the healthiest nation in the world today." That was 1921, when consumer culture carried the same excitement as the Jazz Age emerging simultaneously with it.

You see in his drawings the impact of European modernism on a cartoonist’s son who found a moral premise for his own visual vocabulary in popular art and raucous urban culture. Davis seized upon common things met on the street or at the five and dime. Egg beaters, gas pumps of a pack of Lucky Strikes were more accessible to Americans — so more credible to Davis — than the symbols of Parisian café culture in Cubist still lives.

Unsurprisingly, the earliest item on show is a narrative cartoon strip: “J.J. McSherry” (1909), a prizefighter precursor to Ham Fisher’s Joe Palooka. Through the Twenties and Thirties, syndicated comic strips were hugely popular, the cartoonists celebrated as spokesmen for ordinary Joes. John Updike put it this way: “When I was growing up, the cartoonist occupied a place in the cultural hierarchy not far below that of the movie star and the inventor.”

Davis boasted he could make compositions out of anything, and he did. Two Popeye frames, turned sideways, provided orchestration for “G & W” (c. 1944) and the related painting “For Internal Use Only” (1994-45). The spatial games and saturated color of Davis’s “color compositions” owe as much to the cartoon studios as to modernist aesthetics. Davis made no secret of his preference for popular art.

Davis’s linear inventions perforate each other with a verve that remained part Roaring Twenties, part Sunday comic section. (Picture Fearless Fosdick, Al Capp’s zany spoof of Dick Tracy. Perpetually riddled with bullet holes, the detective’s body is a sieve for objects that travel through the craters.) The black/white graphic punch of Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat provided an existing model for the visual syncopation Davis sought in his painting.

Davis’s earliest drawings, like his paintings, repeat the concerns and postures of the Ash Can School. “Negro Dance Hall” (1915) and “Atlantic City Night” (1915) are typical of the social and economic observations practiced by The Eight. “Dancers in Spotlight” (1915) suggests Lautrec in both composition and the angular contours of the foreground figure.

Things progress quickly to the flat, declarative shapes that became his signature. The carefully ruled “Drawing for Percolator” (1927) and the study for it on gridded paper rank among those drawings here that are beautiful in their own right. Many others are freewheeling sketch book explorations most compelling as windows into the fertility and precision of his compositional thinking.

Davis’s imagination followed a linear trajectory but, for the most part, was content with a casual, sometimes brusque line. He did not tease his kinetic squiggles into the fluent spirals of his contemporary Joan Miró.

Yet even the slightest pencil study by Davis exhibits radical assent to the architectonics of artmaking, still a crucial measure of inventiveness. He created in obedience to Matisse’s dictum: “ A work without drawing is a house without a frame.” The preeminence of drawing in his work gains it more substantive dignity than all the attitudinizing that followed him in the name of abstract expressionism.

This exhibition coincides with the publication of “Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné” published by Yale University Press.


“Dynamic Impulse: The Drawings of Stuart Davis” at Hollis Taggart Galleries (958 Madison Avenue, Tel. 212-628-4000).

This review appeared first in The New York Sun, December 13, 2007.

Copyright 2007, Maureen Mullarkey

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