STUART DAVIS (1892-1964)
STUART DAVIS (1892-1964)
STUART DAVIS (1892-1964)
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STUART DAVIS (1892-1964)

New York Street

STUART DAVIS (1892-1964)
New York Street
signed 'Stuart Davis' (lower right); signed again and dated 'STUART DAVIS OCT. 1941' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
11 x 16 in. (28 x 40.6 cm.)
Painted in 1941.
The Downtown Gallery, New York
Richard Loeb, 1945
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 4 December 1986, lot 280
A. Alfred Taubman, Bloomfield Hills
His estate sale; Sotheby's, New York, 18 November 2015, lot 8
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
The Artist's Account Book, November 7, 1941, pp. 60-61.
A. Boyajian, M. Rutkowski, Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. III, New Haven, 2007, p. 330, no. 1640 (illustrated).
Washington, D.C., The Labor Department Building, National Art Week Exhibition, November 1941.
New York, The Downtown Gallery, Stuart Davis: Selected Paintings, February 1943, no. 14.
The Arts Club of Chicago, 3 Contemporary Americans: Karl Zerbe, Stuart Davis, Ralston Crawford, February 1945, no. 2.
Kansas City, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery and Atkins Museum of Art, Exhibition of Paintings by Louis Bouché, Stuart Davis, Joe Jones, Doris Rosenthal, Walter Stuempfig, Max Weber, April 1945.

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Lot Essay

Stuart Davis’ best paintings are often described as “jazzy.” Vibrantly energetic visualizations of Modern American life that burst with high key colors and offbeat notes, his work rhythmically combines, as the artist described, “taxi-cabs; radio; art exhibitions and reproductions; fast travel; Americana; movies; electric signs; dynamics of city sights and sounds; these and a thousand more are common experience and they are the basic subject matter which my painting celebrates.” (“Stuart Davis,” Parnassus, vol. 12, December 1940, p. 6) Like a jazz improvisation, Davis’ paintings of the 1940s also often riff on his own previous work to create new visions of both higher decibel and clearer tone. Using elements from his 1920s and 30s oeuvre, and combining a stereographic film-like viewpoint with bold lettering and color, New York Street of 1941 epitomizes why Davis is considered not only the “Ace of American Modernism” but also an important precursor to the Pop Art of the post-War period.

Long before Andy Warhol painted his famous soup cans, Davis pioneered the incorporation of imagery from commercial advertising into his paintings. For example, in the early 1920s he painted Lucky Strike (1921) and Odol (1924, both Museum of Modern Art, New York), elevating the branded packaging of cigarettes and mouthwash into the realm of fine art. In the years to follow, Davis spent time abroad in Paris experimenting with his own version of synthetic cubism, and his appropriation of popular culture and existing motifs transitioned from these initial literal representations into more nuanced, fragmented and heightened reflections on modern society.

The present work is a reinterpretation of Davis’ seminal 1931 oil House and Street, which was acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1941. That same year, Davis transformed the original composition into New York Street. Both works derive from a sketch he completed in 1926 from the corner of Front Street and Coenties Slip in Lower Manhattan (Drawing for ‘House and Street,’ The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York). Davis would again experiment with the composition in The Mellow Pad (1945-51, Brooklyn Museum), further extracting and complicating the street scene to the point of almost pure abstraction.

This series of works plots the course of Davis’ bold play with lettering as his career progressed. Davis once explained, “Physically words are also shapes…[they are] a form, an analogue, of physical architecture…We see words everywhere in modern life; we’re bombarded by them.” (as quoted in Stuart Davis: In Full Swing, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2016, p. 17) In the 1931 House and Street, Davis accurately labels the left side of the scene “Front Street;” in the present work, this street sign is relabeled “2nd Ave,” perhaps cleverly hinting to the work’s status as the second iteration of the scene. Similarly, in House and Street another sign includes the Bell Telephone Company logo on an advertisement for “Smith,” likely referring to New York Governor Alfred E. Smith who was seeking a presidential nomination at the time; in New York Street that sign becomes “Jones” depicted in a more modern, electrical format. In both cases, the 1941 work takes a less literal approach to the signage, starting to emphasize the feeling and wit of the words rather than specific political messaging. This progression would continue in The Mellow Pad of 1945-51, where the title—jazz lingo for the cool place to be—becomes the slogan on the sign, while script-like curves proliferate across the entire canvas as pattern rather than legible writing.

In addition to his proto-Pop play with lettering, the present work also demonstrates the connection between Davis and the collages of Henri Matisse. House and Street was notably the first composition in which Davis bifurcated his canvas into two halves, mirroring adjacent frames in a film reel. Davis himself referred to House and Street as a “mental collage,” and Lowery Stokes Sims explains two practical purposes of this design: “The framing of the two scenes functions both to isolate one from the other, and, in the case of that on the right, to suggest the spectator’s position in an underpass, beneath the tracks of El.” (Stuart Davis: American Painter, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1991, p. 208) In New York Street as well as two other 1941 works—Still Life in the Street (Private collection, formerly in the collection of Barney Ebsworth, Seattle) and Landscape with Clay Pipe (The Brooklyn Museum)—Davis also purposefully leaves a border of blank canvas around his two-part design, underscoring the sense that each element is applied to the surface of the picture plane like a Matisse cut-out. The present 1941 iteration also pushes forward Davis’ juxtaposition of elements, adding a curvaceous armchair within the middle of the geometric city streetscape. This unlikely pairing anticipates similarly unique collaged elements within the works of Pop artists like James Rosenquist and Robert Rauschenberg.

With his innovation bridging European Cubism and Modernism with American art movements of the post-War period, Davis is acknowledged as one of the greatest American painters of the twentieth century, and his work has had a considerable impact on several artists of following generations. For example, Diane Kelder writes, “His spirited advocacy of modernist art also encouraged such younger artist friends as Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and David Smith, who were just coming to terms with Cubism in their own work. Gorky was among the first to recognize Davis’s constructive use of color and to applaud his affirmation of the inherently two-dimensional character of the canvas.” (Stuart Davis: American Painter, p. 27) Davis’ influence continues today, with contemporary artists from Nina Chanel Abney to Jonas Wood crediting the Modernist icon as an inspiration.

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