A painter, muralist, illustrator, and theorist, Stuart Davis was one of the first American artists to incorporate elements of European modernism introduced at the 1913 Armory Show in New York. Both his teacher, Robert Henri, and his supervisor at the Socialist journal The New Masses, artist John Sloan, taught him to record everyday life in a realist mode. Following the Armory Show, however, Davis began to experiment with reconciling abstraction and representation.
Davis's entire printed oeuvre consists of twenty-seven works, mostly lithographs, created between 1915 and 1964. While in Paris in the late 1920s, he made his first prints, most likely at the renowned lithography workshop of Edmond Desjobert, where other American artists gathered. When Davis returned to the United States in 1931, he began work on five lithographs, three of which are illustrated here. They represent his mature style and his most accomplished efforts in printmaking. Exploiting lithography's potential for rich blacks and contrasting grays against a background of white paper, Davis suggests a sense of visual syncopation in his overall compositional structure. This creative manipulation of the medium was probably achieved with the guidance of the distinguished American printer, George C. Miller.
Davis's ability to express the dynamic atmosphere of the American scene is evident in all three prints. Planar and curvilinear abstract forms are combined with references to commercial culture. Barber Shop Chord and Theatre on the Beach, both amalgams of the imaginary and the real, include motifs from Davis's seaside retreat in Gloucester, Massachusetts, but the latter also incorporates the facade of a Parisian theater and a figure suggesting a cellist. Sixth Avenue El refers primarily to New York City. These lithographs were exhibited at the Downtown Gallery, one of the primary venues of the day for contemporary American art, and received critical acclaim.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Jennifer Roberts, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 122.