The present work is the third in a series of four gouache on Photostat studies that Stuart Davis made for his mural Allée, which was originally commissioned by the Gardener and Florence Cowles Foundation for the Eero Saarinen designed Hubbell Dining Hall at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa (fig. 1). The mural, which measures eight by thirty-three feet remained in its original location until 1981, when it was moved to the university's Olmstead Student Center.
Davis considered Scale Study #1 for "Allée" the most important of the color studies, and wrote of the work in his January 1, 1955 calendar entry, "The best one and quite good." (A. Boyajian and M. Rutkowski, eds., Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. II, New Haven, Connecticut, 2007, p. 683) According to Ani Boyajian, "Although completed third in the series, Davis must have assigned '#1' in this work's title to reflect the fact that this was the first of the color scale studies on Photostat that arrived at the colors and composition used in the final mural. It was also the only one of the gouaches on paper to have been consigned to the Downtown Gallery." (Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné, p. 683)
Davis paints with a characteristically reduced palette in Scale Study #1 for "Allée", using only four pigments: red, black, blue and white. He carefully balances and overlays these bold contrasting colors to establish a variety of spatial relationships, creating a sense of recession, mass and depth in the work. An enormous tension emerges out of the interlocking planes pushing and pulling against one another. The resulting composition seems alternately complex and quite simple; it is a "color-space event" that supersedes any anecdotal or literal references.
The Allée commission marked Davis' return to mural painting after a fifteen year hiatus. He wrote of the finished work:
"Allée is a French word meaning an alley or long vista. It is a long painting. Its length over-powered my studio and made a deep impression on my mind. Also, there is another French word with the same sound which means "go." I like this association. I like the variety, the animation, the vigorous spirit which is part of college life. This feeling of energy and vigor was in my mind during the painting of the mural.
"Following my first visit to the Drake campus, I carried back to my studio a strong impression of the simplicity and directness of the architecture. I set out to make the mural harmonize with the room. The composition of the mural is vigorous in keeping with its surroundings. The figures in the mural are severely rectilinear. I did not clutter it up with detail, yet there is considerable variety of size and positional relationships.
"I remembered the whiteness of the room-its ceilings and walls-the black floors, the blue sky outside those high windows, and the red rectangles of the brick dormitories. Therefore, I decided to use blue as the main color on a white background and chose red and black as the other two colors. I determined to use only four colors. This was a real challenge but I was sufficiently interested and took enough time to succeed. As a result, I feel the mural is more colorful than if I had used many more colors.
"Do not look for meanings and symbolism which are not there. Instead, look for the color-space relationships which give the painting its vigorous tone and its structural feeling. The placing of the figures and colors were done with feelings and thoughts which were the products of my interest in life. The meaning of the mural will change as the viewer gives meaning to it.
"I feel I was successful in doing what I setout to do which does not depend on events or depicted replicas for its meaning. I tried to achieve simplicity and directness. When I think of a college campus, I think of intellectual issues debated with vigor, of football, poetry, jazz music, of excitement. These were in my mind when I painted the mural. During the long months the mural was in my studio, I had the notion it would look all right when it was mounted; now that I have seen it in the Dining Hall, I feel that it does." (in D. Kelder, ed., Stuart Davis, New York, 1971, p. 94)