Stuart Davis at the Whitney

Back at Stanford University in 1973-75, Keith Boyle used to say things like, “Don’t hedge your bet.” He was a hard-edged painter, a gifted composer and colorist who deeply admired Stuart Davis. Keith and the other Stanford art professors (Nathan Oliveira, Frank Lobdell, and Jim Johnson) would open their studios to students so we would go to the studio building in downtown Palo Alto and see their work.

What it is to be American began to dawn on me when I lived in California. The light, sense of space, and attitude become open, bold, and maverick. These qualities emanate from Davis’ work in his In Full Swing at the Whitney Museum from June 10 to September 25, 2016.

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Davis’ paintings of Paris are most exciting to me. They naturally address the then ground-breaking innovations of the world according to Cubism while holding a flare for a kind of Regionalist nostalgia for landscape.

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When I was living in Brooklyn, New York from 1985-1996, I painted a lot of street scenes. The Davis paintings were my main inspiration in terms of feeling and technique/approach. He had a system: Large color zones, then details. Each were seen as elements for improvisation based on the information in nature, the observed place.

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This Davis painting of Rockport is great too and reminds me of Bernie Chaet who of course worked there in Rockport, Massachusetts, decades later than Davis. I love the big U shape of gray and then the blue tall rectangle at center salted with notes of receding white shapes and peppered with black accents including the jazzy riff on the phone wires. The musicality of these compositions is of course a major element for Davis. Graphic and economically descriptive, they bring to mind another hero from this time, Ben Shahn.IMG_1113A wonder to me in seeing the Whitney show was the line study for the composition Champion. The curators (Barbara Haskell, and Harry Cooper, with Sarah Humphreville) aligned the series of works in a fascinating way; and I could see how Davis established a composition and then did different versions. DAvis

I was interested to read in the NY Times review of the show, that the above composition (of which there are several) features four figures at upper left who stand for Kline, deKooning, Graham, and Davis himself. A sense of the time in which these great paintings were done was enhanced by the fine audio guide that included Davis talking about his work.

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This is another one of the Parisian paintings. They are my favorite. There is something a bit modest and clumsy about them bringing to mind Utrillo and yet of course pumped up with optimism and charm, an American in Paris.

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