At Crystal Bridges, Stuart Davis Will Color Your World

“American Painting” (1932/1942–54), by Stuart Davis, is part of an eye-popping survey of the American modernist’s works opening Sept. 16 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. (Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha; on extended loan from the University of Nebraska at Omaha collection)

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art: “Stuart Davis:In Full Swing”

As a painter, Stuart Davis (1892-1964) represented a trailblazing strain of 20th-century American optimism. His jaunty canvases extended European modernism over a wide range of territory and human subject material. He celebrated urban streetscapes, shorelines and mundane life with an eye-popping sense of jazz-influenced rhythm and invention.

A major critical survey of Davis’ paintings from the 1920s to the 1960s has been making the rounds on the coasts, and now, beginning Sept. 16, “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” will spend nearly four months at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. It’s worth the drive.

To walk through the exhibit, as I did last summer at the Whitney Museum in New York, is to glory in a wonderland of color and dynamic forms that sizzle on the walls and are bound to make one smile.

Davis was famously his own man, making art that absorbed the ideas of, say, cubism but spinning them in singular ways. As Whitney curator and the show’s co-creator Barbara Haskell writes in the accompanying book, Davis was “aware of all movements but beholden to none.” As a result, for years he lived and worked in virtual poverty. Yet, his evolution from flat deconstructions of everyday objects — cigarette packages, the egg beater — to all-over canvases intensely colored and dancing with angular squiggles, words, and subtly readable visual stimuli amounts to a manifesto of artistic individuality.

One crucial aspect of this show is its interest in following Davis as he revisits themes and ideas over the years. The seaport of Gloucester, Massachusetts, with its ships and buoys and haunting light, is the starting point for the huge centerpiece mural, “Swing Landscape,” but pieces of it also recur in other canvases in often surprising ways. Davis also returned to some of his earliest cubist-inspired tabletops to re-examine them through later ideas, such as his self-discovery that line and area, turbo-charged by color, were no longer two separate things but one and the same.

The Crystal Bridges installation incorporates some local substitutions for a few of the Whitney canvases. Crystal Bridges also planned to place a greater emphasis on the jazz element that meant so much to the artist, fueled in part by his friendship with musicians beginning in the 1940s and also by Matisse’s “Jazz” project of that decade.

Davis can be found in bits around this region. The Wichita Art Museum and the Spencer Museum in Lawrence have representative examples. The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City owns only a small Paris sketch, a minor relative of works in this major show. Davis notably had a very public, Depression-era feud with Thomas Hart Benton. He considered Benton a backward-looking regionalist in the age of emerging abstraction. So perhaps the resulting personal spat has had something to do with local attitudes. Maybe someday a provocative curator would have the courage to show Davis and Benton in an exhibit side by side.

In the meantime, “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” represents a real and rewarding occasion in these parts to dive deeply into the work of one of the 20th century’s most important and effective abstract artists. For Kansas Citians, Bentonville is a mere three hours’ drive down the highway.

“Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” opens Sept. 16 and continues through Jan. 1 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. For more information, 479.418.5700 or crystalbridges.org.

About The Author: Steve Paul

Steve Paul

Steve Paul, a longtime Kansas City writer and editor, is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen: The Pivotal Year That Launched an American Legend,” published this fall by Chicago Review Press.

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