Conspicuous by its absence: “Ashcan” in the dustbin = mid-measure for ‘Stuart Davis In Full Swing’ Expo in San Francisco

Davis, StuartStuart Davis, “The Paris Bit,” 1959. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

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After having pilloried recent exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou for being too monographic — the everything but the kitchen sink Corbusier cavalcade was pretty crammed to the hilt for what was supposed to be an homage to a master of efficient space management, while the Paris institution’s Wilfredo Lam show should have turned off the spigot after 1950, when Lam’s tropical jungle canvasses started becoming monotonous — I’m aware it might seem contradictory to complain that the exhibition Stuart Davis, In Full Swing, on view at San Francisco’s de Young museum through August 6 before moving on to Arkansas’s Crystal Waters, omits a vital chapter in the Abstract Expressionist’s career. The omission is important, because unlike the apprentice paintings of Duchamp and Picasso, which only demonstrated that they’d mastered the basics of composition before deviating from them but were not significant for their intrinsic value, Davis’s contributions to the early 20th century fount that was the Ashcan School, starting when he was still a teenager, also prove that his social activism (notably as head of the Artists’ Union) wasn’t isolated from his painterly activity, but sprung from the same well.

Davis’s 1912 canvas “Chinatown,” for example, isn’t just a slice of Lower East Side topography, but a portrait of the desperation driving those women who weren’t going up in flames in locked factory fires into selling their bodies to survive. (The painting is part of the permanent collection of Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum of American Art, whose founders identified Davis as one of their core artists around whom they decided to build their stock.) The omission of work from the seminal part of his career that most directly responded to social conditions is particularly boggling given museum director Max Hollein’s declaration that the de Young “has always believed that artists have a duty to comment and critique our culture and we are pleased to show how one American artist responded to the tumultuous times he lived through.” Leaving aside that the ludicrous pretension of this statement is more a reflection of the social-message driven San Francisco aesthetic (and I’m a native) than a directive any artist worth his sourdough starter would take seriously, *having made such a profession of faith*, to then ignore the very work that meets this definition in the exhibition Hollein is putatively promoting is incomprehensible.

Perhaps deserving more leniency is the misapprehending of Davis’s later work by New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl, in his review of the exhibition’s tour at the Whitney last year, as “proto-Pop Art,” perhaps a mis-reading of curator Emma Acker’s statement that Davis’s “appropriation of images from consumer culture and advertising in the 1920s… predates 1960s Pop Art.” In fact, where Pop Art more often than not simply re-envisioned commercial icons as Icons — the only ingredient Andy Warhol added to Campbell’s Tomato Soup cans was his marquee name — Davis actually worked in the opposite sense. Rather than elevating pop “culture” into art, he inserted its ready symbols and recognizable images into his abstract and semi-abstract art to offer an anchor or key which would help viewers identify with the abstractions, perhaps his own manner of resurrecting the ubiquitous key in the medieval Unicorn tapestries on view at the Cloisters museum in New York, where Davis installed himself when he was just 15 years old.

 

Stuart Davis_For Internal Use Only_1944-45

Stuart Davis, “For Internal Use Only,” 1944-45. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Davis, Stuart

Stuart Davis, “House and Street,” 1931. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Odol_1924

Stuart Davis, “Odol,” 1924. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Egg Beater No 2_1963-64 smallStuart Davis, “Egg Beater No 2,” 1963-64. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Salt Shaker_1931

Stuart Davis, “Salt Shaker,” 1931. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_The Mellow Pad_1945-51 smallStuart Davis, “The Mellow Pad,” 1945-51. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Blips and Ifs_1928

Stuart Davis, “Blips and Ifs,” 1928. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Davis, Stuart

Stuart Davis, “Owh! in San Pao,” 1951. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Rapt at Rappaports_1951-52

Stuart Davis, “Rapt at Rappaports,” 1951-52. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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Stuart Davis, “Lucky Strike,” 1921. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Visa_1951 small

Stuart Davis, “Visa,” 1951. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis in His Studio

Stuart Davis in his studio.

 

Want more? Click here to see examples of some of the Stuart Davis works in the Crystal Waters collection.

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picabiaadamandeve-smallHaving caught his all-inclusive 2002 show at the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris and reflected that, as with many artists (more recently, Wilfredo Lam and Le Courbusier, both revealed in over-abundance at the Pompidou Center), the oeuvre of Francis Picabia isn’t necessarily well-served by being shown in its entirety (the later works often resemble garish studies based on magazine photographs… as many were), I wasn’t particularly excited about Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction, the monographic Picabia show running through March 19 at the Museum of Modern Art. That was before I saw the above, created in that seminal year of 1911, just one of the 200 works including 125 paintings featured — and definitely not included in the Paris exhibition. Francis Picabia (1879-1953), “Adam et Ève” (Adam and Eve). 1911. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 × 31 7/8″ (100 × 81 cm). Private collection. © 2016 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. — Paul Ben-Itzak

New York Gallery Hop-o-thermia: Fear & loathing in Chelsea

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK — Only a true art fanatic with a death wish would walk 50 blocks downtown from his digs on the Upper West Side to the Chelsea Art Valley on a polar night in Manhattan, when the towering buildings on the seemingly interminable blocks between 10th and 11th Avenue make the art voyager feel particularly naked in the Naked City. So there I was — oui, moi — with a scribbled list of a dozen galleries hosting openings Thursday night, in search of high middle-brow art ‘arrosed’ by red, red, wine. What I found was middle-concept middling art watered down by tepid white wine (doesn’t stain like red), with only one artist worth remarking among the 12, this defeated art voyager treading wearily home in his Fort Worth Mexican flea market tan cowboy boots, only to be saved by Joel McCrea riding out of the high country with Randolph Scott riding herd.

To get the rest of the article, first published on February 12, 2011, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Arts Voyager for just $49.95/year ($25 for students and unemployed artists) and receive full access to all Arts Voyager stories and art, including stories archived since 2011. To subscribe via PayPal, just designate your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, Euros, or British pounds. Subscribe by January 31, 2017 and receive a second, gift subscription for free.

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beckmann-carnival

One of the 39 paintings on view through February 20 at the Metropolitan Museum for its exhibition Max Beckmann in New York: Max Beckmann. German, Leipzig 1884–1950 New York, “Carnival Mask, Green, Violet and Pink (Columbine),” 1950. Oil on canvas, 53 3/8 × 39 9/16 inches(135.5 × 100.5 cm). Framed: 61 3/8 × 47 3/4 × 1 3/4 inches (155.9 × 121.3 × 4.4 cm). Saint Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Morton D. May. SL.9.2016.24.2. Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. To access the full version of the article, including more images, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Not a subscriber? 1-year subscriptions are just $39.99, or $19.99 for students and unemployed or under-employed artists. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address for information on how to pay by check or in Euros or British pounds.