Painted in 1960, Stuart Davis’s Ways & Means is a dynamic and intricate composition that represents an important culmination of the artist’s artistic exploration. Like many of his paintings of the 1950s and 60s, it is a reinterpretation of subject matter he first explored decades earlier — and a mastery. Stuart Davis expanded upon his own already daring and iconic abstractions to make some of the boldest American paintings of the 20th century in the decade before his death, as exemplified in Ways & Means.
‘The Amazing Continuity’
Davis coined his revival in the 1960s as ‘the Amazing Continuity’ — a reference to the new freshness that imbued his ideas and techniques that had absorbed him all his life. He first developed the themes of Ways & Means in sketches of the harbour in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1932. Shortly thereafter, he created a bold ink drawing called Composition No. 5 that combined these studies into a single image. In 1954, Davis revisited this composition. Switching his focus from graphic line to colour, he painted a vibrant oil entitled Midi, representing the same scene solely through colour blocks in blue, orange, green, white and black against a shockingly pink background. In 1960, Davis reimagined this imagery of Gloucester Harbour for a final time in Ways & Means in the new and increasingly graphic style that distinguishes his work of the 1960s and synthesizes his entire career.
Stuart Davis (1892–1964), Composition No. 5, circa 1932–34, gouache on paper, 22 x 29 7/8 in. (55.9 x 75.9 cm.), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller / Art © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York.
Theory of ‘Color-Space’
The artist’s son, Earl Davis, wrote that Ways & Means is ‘the culmination of the evolution of my father’s theory of Color-Space.’ The precision and detail in constructing rigid lines and areas of colour reflect the artist’s interest in paint from a nearly architectural perspective. A linear network of thickened black and white lines cut into each other and create colour shapes and planes, while swaths of green and red with touches of yellow recede toward the edges. An enormous tension emerges out of the interlocking planes pushing and pulling against each other, heightened by a very rich and visually active surface created by the heavy application of paint. Davis relies on precise areas of bold colour to establish a variety of spatial relationships, resulting in a composition that seems alternately complex and quite simple.
Stuart Davis working in his studio at 15 West 67 Street in New York City, circa 1955.
Influences from abroad
Transformed by his early exposure to the revolutionary Armory Show of 1913, Davis embraced formal artistic ideas derived from European art theory. In the first half of his career, he was inspired by the Fauvism of Henri Matisse, the palette of Paul Gauguin and the Synthetic Cubism of George Braques and Pablo Picasso. The renewed intensity and boldness in Davis’s use of colour after 1950 suggest the influence of Matisse’s late cutouts, which had attracted wide attention in the U.S. when they were included in the retrospective of the French artist’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1951, as well as in the museum’s recent blockbuster exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. Davis’s constructions, with each shape having its own autonomous identity and position — as if placed in as well as on the canvas — most patently references Matisse’s cutouts. Noted scholar of American Modernism and contributor to his catalogue raisonné, William Agee, argues that the directness, surface patterning and rich lines of black and white can be seen as paralleling, and perhaps even responding to, the works of Abstract Expressionists like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. Davis’s distinct brand of almost proto-Pop work also seems to directly foreshadow, if not influence, the generation of Pop artists who followed him, including Roy Lichtenstein.
Stuart Davis (1892–1964), Ways & Means, 1960, oil on canvas, 24 x 32 in. (61 x 81.3 cm.) Estimate: $2,000,000–3,000,000. This work is offered in our American Art auction on 19 November at Christie’s New York.
‘Ace of American Modernism’
An early proponent of the Ashcan School and a student of Robert Henri, Stuart Davis was one of the first American painters to embrace the new forms of Modernism that changed the course of art in the early years of the 20th century. Drawing on the diversity of contemporary American life, he forged a personal iconography inspired by the vibrancy of the city as well as the tranquillity of the seaside. Despite the strong streak of European influences in his art, Davis maintained a remarkable dedication to forming his own vocabulary, and deference to distinctly American subject matter, throughout the entirety of his career.
‘I am an American, born in Philadelphia of American stock. I studied in America. I paint what I see in America, in other words, I paint the American scene. I don’t want people to copy Matisse or Picasso, although it is entirely proper to admit their influence. I don’t paint paintings like theirs. I make paintings like mine. I want to paint and do paint particular aspects of this country that interest me.’
Browse this and other works in our upcoming American Art sale>, held at Christie’s New York on 19 November.