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Artists Born This Month: Stuart Davis

Stuart Davis, born December 7, 1892, was a modernist painter, popular during the 40’s and 50’s with his bold and colorful primitive pop paintings. He was also known for his paintings from the Ashcan school, an artistic movement originating in New York, which often depicted scenes of everyday life, usually in poor neighborhoods.

Davis was raised by his two parents, surrounded by art; his father being an art editor and his mother being a well-known sculptor. He began his formal training in 1909 at the Robert Henri School of Art in New York and was within a few years the youngest to exhibit at the International Exhibition of Modern Art, known as the Armory Show in 1913, where he exhibited 5 paintings. There he was exposed to works by Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. And like them he committed himself to being a modern artist, exploring the styles of cubism and modernism; analyzing forms in terms of geometry and space. He considered the show the “greatest single influence” on his work.

The primitive pop elements in Davis’ work first appeared when he started painting in his more mature style in the 1920s, as shown in his cigarette packages and spark plug advertisements. In 1928 on a visit to Paris he began to paint street scenes. Davis was a huge fan of jazz and swing music. He also loved America, and although his style of painting was one that originated in Europe, he included billboards, jazz rhythms and other symbols of America in his paintings.

Davis’ work was intentionally political, for he felt that his work could affect the sociopolitical environment of the country. He belonged to several Left-wing Artists groups, feeling that abstraction was an ample vehicle to make social comment.

Feeling the effects of the Great Depression, as did the rest of the country in the 1930’s, and even though he was already a famous artist, Davis was one of the first to apply for the new federally-funded arts program, the Federal Art Project of the WPA (Works Progress Administration). He painted many murals for the program between 1933 and 1939. In the 1940’s Davis taught at the Art Students League and the New School for Social Research.

Davis enjoyed international success and leisure through the later years of his life, frequenting jazz clubs with his wife and even becoming friends with Jazz greats like Duke Ellington. He was awarded the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum International Award in 1958 and 1960. Davis died suddenly from a stroke in New York on June 24th, 1964.

By his subject matter, like gas pumps, billboards and cigarette packages, Davis introduced pop art to the world through his paintings long before it was made famous by the likes of Andy Warhol and other pop artists. Stuart Davis stands in history as one of America’s truly American modernist painters.

"Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life".
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