Stuart Davis’s Swing Landscape, his great mural of 1938 that represents the waterfront of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in a rhythmic patterning of floating abstract shapes and vivid hues, will be the centerpiece of Stuart Davis and American Abstraction: A Masterpiece in Focus, on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from January 15- April 17, 2005. This special loan from the Indiana University Art Museum, where the mural has been housed since 1941, offers a rare opportunity to appreciate Davis’s masterpiece in the context of American abstract painting of the mid-twentieth century.
Originally commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn, New York, Swing Landscape (oil on canvas, 86 ¾ x 172 1/8 inches) is considered one of the artist's most important works, a synthesis of color and form, space and flatness, and ultimately of realism and abstraction. The painting’s subject matter, the Gloucester waterfront, was not new for Davis. In fact, the artist had spent numerous summers in Gloucester and had already amassed a significant body of work on this subject when he began to embark on his ambitious Swing Landscape. He found this fishing village to be "the place I had been looking for. It had the brilliant light of Provincetown, but with the important additions of topographical severity and the architectural beauties of the Gloucester schooner." Swing Landscape conveys his interest in the nautical details of this waterfront area through the juxtaposition of sails, masts, and girders, which gyrate back and forth with a tempo comparable to the syncopated beat of jazz music.
In the 1930s, the artist enlarged his canvases to fulfill the ever-growing need for mural painting. Besides the Williamsburg Housing Project commission, which led to the creation of Swing Landscape, Davis also painted murals for Radio City Music Hall (1932) and the New York World’s Fair (1939).
Swing Landscape was deemed too abstract for a popular audience, and was never installed at the Williamsburg Housing Project. It was placed in storage in Manhattan until 1941, when The Cincinnati Modern Art Society borrowed it for the two-person show, Marsden Hartley, Stuart Davis. One of the society’s members was a graduate student at Indiana University and the curatorial assistant to the new director of the University Art Museum, Henry Hope. Hope, a dedicated modernist who had come to Indiana from Harvard, sent a truck to pick up the painting after the exhibition closed, and negotiated a long-term loan for the painting.
In addition to Swing Landscape, the exhibition will feature about 15 prints, drawings and paintings by Davis from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including Davis’s early nautical work Boats Drying, Gloucester (1916) as well as his late tour de force painting, Something on the Eight Ball (1953-54). Also on view will be work by Davis’s contemporaries, such as Arshile Gorky’s Abstraction with a Palette (ca. 1930), Ad Reinhardt’s Abstraction of 1940, and Francis Criss’s Words and Music of Two Hemispheres, (ca. 1940). These paintings will illustrate the spirit and variety of American abstract painting in the era of Swing Landscape, setting Davis’s masterpiece in context.
Davis was born in Philadelphia into an artistic family in 1892. His mother, Helen Stuart Foulke, was a sculptor, and his father was art director of the now defunct Philadelphia Press, a newspaper that employed several of the artist-reporters now known as "The Eight" (e.g. Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, and William Glackens). Davis became a close friend of Sloan and moved to New York in 1909 to attend Henri’s school, where he studied until 1912. In the following year, Davis became one of the youngest artists to exhibit in the landmark International Exhibition of Modern Art known as the Armory Show, which introduced European avant-garde art to many Americans for the first time.
By the early 1920s, Davis began to utilize the vocabulary of Synthetic Cubism to hone a vision of the American scene based on jazz, radio, film, and consumer products. Jazz and swing music, which Davis saw as a counterpart to abstract art, soon became significant factors in his artistic development. He explained later in life that: "For me at that time jazz was the only thing that corresponded to an authentic art in America . . . I think all my paintings, at least in part, come from this influence."
Stuart Davis and American Abstraction: A Masterpiece in Focus will be on view in Gallery 119 of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibition is organized by Kathleen Foster, The Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Curator of American Art, and Michael Taylor, the Muriel & Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art.