Stuart Davis: A Seminal Year in Paris

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 Don’t delay, hurry on down before September 25th to see “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing,” a retrospective of more than 80 significant works by the American modernist painter on exhibition at the Whitney Museum.  

At the age of 16, Davis talked his parents into letting him quit school and join a group of painters known as the Ashcan School, under the leadership of Robert Henri. Other notables in this group included Edward Hopper and George Bellows, both of whom have major works in the Whitney’s permanent collection. What was revolutionary about the Ashcan School was their subject matter—the urban landscape of America, bustling with millions of immigrants and stamped with grittiness and vitality. 

A few years later, Stuart Davis entered four of his Ashcan-style watercolors in the 1913 Armory Show in New York, a world-shattering exhibition that brought the radical works of Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh and Gauguin to the attention of the Americans, many of whom promptly felt themselves markedly less ‘modern.’

Davis would say of this show that it was the ‘greatest single influence on his life,’ that it made him more determined than ever to be a ‘modern’ painter, a modern American painter, that is, tapping into the promise and spirit of America. His paintings are infused with the rhythms of city-life punctuated by jazz, vaudeville, advertising, billboards, signs, and the saloon.

From the avant-garde of the European movement, Davis embraced the bold colors and the flat two-dimensional style common to Cubism and to advertising. But then he took it a step further, and unlike Cubist works, he used the entire canvas, border-to-border, to show the energy and movement of the city.  When you look at the dynamic works by Stuart Davis, the eye moves from one element to another.

And then, thanks to a purchase of two of his paintings by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney—he had been a founding member and exhibitor of the Whitney Studio Club, the forerunner of the Whitney Museum—he would spend a seminal year, 1928, in Paris.

The Paris pictures are geometric, abstract canvases draped with easily recognizable signs, shutters, gates and a variety of French touches. Upon returning to the United States, Davis continued working in this mode on his New York and Gloucester canvases, imbuing them with the trademarks of life in America—from salt & pepper shakers to Champion batteries.

A master colorist, he was able to reuse the same geometric shapes but, by varying his choice of color, achieve markedly different effects. In later years, he restricted himself to using reds, greens, chrome-yellows and splashes of black which, if anything, increased the vitality and power of his paintings.  Don’t miss the exhibit.

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And don’t miss Santina. Abutting the museum, on the corner near the entrance to the High Line is Santina, with its glass walls, fanciful Murano chandeliers and a lively crowd.  A new offering from the Torrisi group (soon to take over the former Four Seasons space in the Seagram building), the menu is both innovative and superb: Tuscan chickpea pancakes, served with a choice of accompaniments such as Salmon Affumicato, a smoked salmon with mascarpone; spicy tuna tartare; truffle egg salad; or an avocado Trapanese with tomatoes and almond paste. All mouth-watering, all divine. And what’s more, unbelievably, all the items, including the pastas, are gluten-free. Is that possible? Our waiter insisted it was.

I settled in with a glass of rosé, “My Essential Provence,’ from France and my companion chose a Verdicchio San Lorenzo from the Marche. So relaxed were we that I forgot to take a few photos until the end of the meal, when we had a soul-satisfying ‘grandmother’s cake’ and the most ambrosial espresso ever. See for yourself. And see for yourself, my companion’s expression when the bill arrived.

Bon week-end mes amis et à bientôt… See you after Labor Day, when I’ll have the coffee brewing. 

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