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Stuart Davis

Born: 1892, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America
Died: 1964, New York, New York, United States of America
Gender: Male


A champion of artistic modernism in the United States, Stuart Davis forged an individual modernist style that blended elements of abstraction with such expressions of contemporary life as popular commercial imagery. Born in Philadelphia, Davis was the son of artists who were well-connected in the avant-garde art circles of the day. In 1909, he went to New York City to study with the progressive artist and teacher Robert Henri, who encouraged his students to use their art to express the contemporary world around them and to develop an individual artistic voice. Davis eagerly embraced current artistic trends, and in 1913 he was one of the youngest artists to participate in the groundbreaking touring International Exhibition of Modern Art, known as the Armory Show, which introduced the American public to the latest developments in art.

Like many American artists, Davis was profoundly influenced by the examples of European avant-garde art he saw at the Armory Show, especially by cubism, the fragmented pictorial expression of forms as abstract arrangements of flat planes. Davis gradually developed his own brand of cubism that drew on his early adherence to urban realism by incorporating contemporary popular imagery. From advertisements and commercial packaging he borrowed not only pictorial motifs and symbols but text; furthermore, he used these sources as stylistic inspiration for his flat, smooth surfaces and expressive outlining of forms.

By the time Davis left for his year-long stay in Paris in 1928–1929, he had emerged as a major modernist artist in his native country. His trip abroad inspired him to a fuller embrace of the city as subject. His flat, poster-like urban montages of the early 1930s eventually gave way to his mature paintings, abstract collages of sharply defined, often contorted forms in bright primary colors. In these works, the isolated words and the rhythmic play of accented forms like cut-out scraps of brightly colored applied paper combine to evoke the pulse of the city, especially as expressed in jazz music, in which Davis saw parallels with modernist visual art.

Davis used both painting and drawing as his media for modernist artistic expression; he also executed murals under the federal arts sponsorship of the Depression era of the 1930s. Davis was a prolific writer and articulate speaker in the cause of modernism. His progressive artistic outlook was complemented by his leftist political bent and activism: in the 1930s he was a leader in efforts to organize and empower artists as workers.

Beginning in the late 1940s, the growing ascendancy of a new, emotionally subjective abstraction, known as Abstract Expressionism, marginalized Davis, who never abandoned his artistic roots in the world around him. Shortly before his death, however, the emergence of the movement called Pop Art brought renewed attention to Davis, who was hailed for his prescient early interest in the motifs and style of mass communications.
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