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This exhibition highlights Stuart Davis’s Swing Landscape, the great mural of 1938 that depicts the Gloucester, Massachusetts waterfront in vivid hues, rhythmic patterning, and floating abstract shapes. Originally commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn, New York, Swing Landscape 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. This special loan from the Indiana University Art Museum, where the mural has been held since 1941, offers a rare opportunity to appreciate Davis’s masterpiece in the context of American abstract painting of the mid-twentieth century.
Stuart Davis was born in Philadelphia into an artistic family on December 7, 1892. His mother was a sculptor, and his father, most notably, was the art editor of the now defunct Philadelphia Press, a newspaper that included among its employees several of the artist-reporters now known as "The Eight" (e.g., Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, and William Glackens). Through this connection, Stuart Davis became a close friend of Sloan and moved to New York in 1909 to attend Henri’s school, where he studied until 1912. One year later, the artist included five watercolors in the International Exhibition of Modern Art, also known as the Armory Show, and became one of its youngest exhibitors. This exhibition introduced European avant-garde art to many Americans for the first time, and Davis later described his response to the Armory Show in New York as being "the greatest shock to me—the greatest single influence I have experienced in my work."
By the early 1920s, the artist began to utilize the vocabulary of Synthetic Cubism to capture what he viewed as the American scene: jazz, radio, film, and consumer products. His use of strong, simplified forms and bold, vibrant colors expressed his interest in abstract content and two-dimensional design as the basis of what he viewed as the new American art. Jazz and swing music, which Davis saw as a musical counterpart to abstract art, were especially 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."
In the 1930s, the artist enlarged his canvases to fulfill the ever-growing requirements of 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), to name a few. The subject matter of the Williamsburg mural, the Gloucester waterfront, was not new for Davis. In fact, the artist had spent numerous summers at this locale, and had already amassed a significant body of work on this subject. He found this particular Massachusetts 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." In Swing Landscape, we see 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 rhythmic tempo comparable to the syncopated beat of jazz music.
In addition to Swing Landscape, Stuart Davis and American Abstraction: A Masterpiece in Focus consists of an array of paintings, prints, and drawings from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including Davis’s early nautical work Boats Drying, Gloucester (1916) as well as his late tour de force Something on the Eight Ball (1953-54). Also on view is work by Davis’s contemporaries, such as Arshile Gorky, Ad Reinhardt, Francis Criss, and Patrick Henry Bruce. These paintings illustrate the spirit and variety of American abstract painting in the era of Swing Landscape, setting Stuart Davis’s masterpiece in context.