American painter and printmaker. He was born into an artistic family: his parents studied with Thomas Anshutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and his father was the art editor at the Philadelphia Press, a newspaper that included among its employees the Robert Henri circle of artist–reporters. Davis studied art under Henri in New York between 1909 and 1912. His earliest works, which chronicle urban life in the streets, saloons and theatres, are painted with the dark palette and thickly applied brushstrokes typical of the Ashcan school style inspired by Henri. Davis also published illustrations in the left-wing magazine The Masses between 1913 and 1916, and in The Liberator, which succeeded it in the 1920s.
With his contribution of five watercolours Davis was one of the youngest exhibitors at the Armory show, the international exhibition of modern art that opened in New York in 1913 and introduced European avant-garde art to the USA. In the following years Davis abandoned his Ashcan realist style and experimented with a variety of modern European styles, including Post-Impressionism and Cubism. From 1915 he began to spend his summers in Gloucester, a seaside town and artists’ resort north of Boston, where he painted panoramic landscapes with an artistic vocabulary derived from Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse and van Gogh. He travelled and painted in Havana in 1918, and in New Mexico in 1923.
In the 1920s Davis began to develop the themes and artistic style that characterize his mature work. He painted images of American commercial products in a style loosely derived from Synthetic Cubism. In 1921 he began a series based on cigarette packaging in which the large, flat, overlapping shapes reveal the influence of Cubist collage. A work such as Odol (1924; priv. col., see 1965 exh. cat., no. 24, p. 58), depicting a popular mouthwash bottle, uses strong simplified forms and vibrant colours and shows an interest in surface brushstrokes. The title of Itlksez (1921; Leominster, MA, Lane Found.)—a shortening of the phrase ‘it looks easy’—reveals a further debt to Cubism in the form of Picasso’s word play. From the 1920s Davis’s works share certain characteristics with the paintings of Precisionist artists such as Charles Demuth, whose sharply defined forms and visual puns were also inspired by European avant-garde styles including Cubism and Dada.
Davis grew increasingly dissatisfied with his work towards the end of the decade, because he felt it lacked the structure of European art, and he started working on compositions freely abstracted from a still-life consisting of an egg-beater, electric fan and rubber glove. The resulting four paintings, known collectively as the Egg-beater series (1927–8; priv. col., see 1978 exh. cat., pp. 44, 80, 103, 141), play with the tension between plane and space, allowing the eye to recede along suggested orthogonals, then leading it back to the surface again with the interposition of flat coloured planes. In 1928 his predilection for realism briefly re-emerged when he spent a year in Paris painting scenes of French cafés and aging buildings.
On his return to a Depression-ridden America, Davis tried, throughout the 1930s, to balance his dedication to painting with his commitment to politics. During the period of the Popular Front Davis joined various organizations designed to protect artists’ cultural freedom and economic security. In 1934 he became a member of the Artists’ Union and was elected its President; between January and November 1936 he served as the editor of the Union’s journal, Art Front. In 1936 he became National Secretary of the American Artists’ Congress and its National Chairman in 1938. His personal journals, which include sketches, reveal his concern to reconcile abstract art with Marxism and modern industrial society. His pen-and-ink drawings from this period work out spatial relationships with lines and planes and serve as studies for his oils, in which the element of colour adds to the abstract sense of space.
Davis’s works of the late 1930s, which continue to celebrate the urban and technological environment, are increasingly complex and frequently recall Léger’s brightly coloured geometric forms. They also reveal the strong influence of jazz, which Davis considered to be the musical counterpart to abstract art. Some of his earliest works depict saloons and ragtime musicians; both the titles and images of his works of the late 1930s, however, reflect the syncopations and unusual rhythms of jazz, particularly Swing. Among his murals for the WPA Federal Arts Project are Swing Landscape (1938; Bloomington, IN U. A. Mus.) for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn and an untitled work (1939; New York, Met.) for Studio B, WNYC Municipal Broadcasting Company, a radio station in New York, both of which are filled with references to jazz.
In 1942–3 Davis produced several paintings abstracted from nature, but after World War II he returned for inspiration to the urban environment, maintaining a continuity with the imagery and witty calligraphy of works of the 1930s. His post-war paintings also have affinities with Abstract Expressionism through their abstract ‘all-over’ composition, surface texture and shallow illusionistic space, for instance the paintings from the Mellow Pad series (1945–51; examples in 1978 exh. cat., pp. 63, 148, 149, and Honolulu, HI, Acad. A.), which also contain single words taken from jazz or slang. Owh! In San Pao (1951; New York, Whitney), based on a work from 1927 entitled Percolator (New York, Met.), demonstrates the artist’s tendency to rework motifs from earlier paintings in a new idiom. This working method epitomizes the continuity of pictorial themes and painting techniques that Davis maintained throughout his career.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press