Stuart Davis (1892–1964) was an American original. Born in Philadelphia to artists and raised in East Orange, New Jersey, he dropped out of high school to study painting in Manhattan with Robert Henri, the legendary teacher who urged his students to sketch daily life, read widely, ignore convention, and above all to find their own voices. Davis fell in love with the poetry of Walt Whitman, “our one big artist,” and hoped to capture “the thing Whitman felt—America.”
And like Whitman, he gravitated to the bustling life of ports and docks, streets and taverns. Another formative influence, indeed “a complete bombshell,” was the 1913 Armory Show in New York, which introduced him to the expressive colors and forms of modernists like Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri Matisse. From then on Davis devoted himself to painting, surviving years of poverty to become one of the deans of American painting, aware of all movements yet beholden to none. Embracing “high” and “low” culture, abstraction and realism, image and text, Davis’s vision is remarkable for its breadth and inventiveness.
Stuart Davis: In Full Swing passes over the artist’s earliest efforts to begin in 1921 with his breakthrough paintings of tobacco packages. Moving ahead through five decades to his final canvas, the exhibition often strays from chronology to explore Davis’s habit of recycling earlier work for new compositions. With more than one hundred of his most important, visually complex compositions on view, the exhibition highlights Davis's ability to assimilate the imagery of popular culture, the aesthetics of advertising, the lessons of cubism, and the sounds and rhythms of jazz into works that hum with intelligence and energy.