STUART DAVIS (1892-1964)
STUART DAVIS (1892-1964)
STUART DAVIS (1892-1964)
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Modern American Masterworks from the Ted Shen Collection
STUART DAVIS (1892-1964)


STUART DAVIS (1892-1964)
signed 'Stuart Davis' (lower right)—signed again and dated '1931' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
18 x 22 in. (45.7 x 55.9 cm.)
Painted in 1931.
The artist.
The Downtown Gallery, New York.
John Carney, New York, acquired from the above, 1946.
Estate of the above.
Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1998.
A. Boyajian, M. Rutkowski, Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. III, New Haven, Connecticut, 2007, pp. 248-49, no. 1575, illustrated.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 127th Annual Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture, January 24-March 13, 1932, no. 417.
College Art Association Exhibition, locations unknown, November 1933.
St. Paul, Minnesota, Minnesota State Fair: Thirty-sixth Annual Fine Arts Exhibition, August 23-September 1, 1947, no. 182.

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Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art

Lot Essay

Stuart Davis’ Wharf cleverly transforms an everyday harbor scene in Gloucester, Massachusetts, into a vibrant puzzle of color blocks, juxtaposed with familiar motifs which evoke the New England coast. Davis visited Gloucester every year from 1915 to 1934, continually inspired by the area’s piers, schooners, landscapes and architecture. Over these years, his depictions of the locale became less realistic and more stylized, developing into his boldly abstracted interpretations of the 1930s. As noted by Lowery Stokes Sims, his best works from this period, including Wharf, “demonstrate Davis’ working method of balancing the dynamics of recognizable phenomena with the will to engage a modernist vocabulary of his own." (Stuart Davis: American Painter, New York, 1991, p. 224)

Davis completed Wharf in 1931, a few years after his first trip to Paris in 1928. He was struck by the works of Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian and the Cubists that he encountered abroad, and particularly impacted by a visit to Fernand Legér’s studio. With this immersion in European modernism, Davis built upon the concepts in his seminal 1927 Eggbeater series and created his own form of synthetic cubism to capture the Parisian cityscape. Upon returning back to America, he further personalized and perfected his version of the modernist idiom by applying his theories to subject matter closer to his own home and heart.

Wandering around the familiar rocks and docks of Gloucester, Davis drew in his sketchbook daily scenes that caught his eye. Combining multiple such studies into a single, fragmented composition, he abandoned typical perspective and representative color. Writing about his works from this time period, Davis explained, "the interest which really existed in the scene was the result of a coherent and various order of space relations which the particular lighting of the hour made visible. This information...made it possible for me to eliminate...all irrelevancies...such as…the exact relation of the color tone of the sky, to the tree, to the water, etc. Instead I examined the view to discover the chief color-space fields which composed it." (Stuart Davis: American Painter, New York, 1991, p. 203)

Indeed, in Wharf, Davis composes his painting from bold yellow and green color fields, divided into quadrants by a horizontal white line suggesting rigging and a brown vertical perhaps representing a mast or ladder. Detailed elements are then overlaid in flat forms and outlines of white and black without regard to usual size relationships; a panoramic view of sailboats along the coast combines with magnified tools of the fishing trade, including barrels and lightbulbs. The curved brown lower edge suggests that perhaps the viewer’s perspective is from inside the bow of a boat, adding to the elusive geometry of the scene. The disparate quadrants are then united by a bold painted frame of blue, red and orange, underscoring the importance of viewing these elements all together, at once, to fully appreciate the artist’s overall impression of the environment.

Alison de Lima Greene has written that Davis “condensed time and space...into one vision. He united the past, present, and future by giving us both immediate shapes (identifiable things) and more general shapes.” ("Twentieth-Century Art in the Museum Collection: Direction and Diversity," The Museum of Fine Arts Houston Bulletin, Summer 1988, p. 11) Wharf indeed provides both birds-eye distance and intimate perspective within one modern composition—simplified and heightened to create both an immediate relatability as well as an elusive wonder that continuously engages the viewer’s attention.

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