The blockbuster Stuart Davis retrospective came two years ago at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, drawing rave reviews and big crowds. But this year, a far smaller but uniquely important Davis exhibition is on at New York’s Kasmin Gallery. Centered on Davis’ black-and-white paintings and drawings, “Lines Thicken: Stuart Davis in Black and White,” curated by Priscilla Vail Caldwell and on view until December 22, underlines a more academic side of Davis’ oeuvre: how his black-and-white works led the way to innovations in Minimalism throughout the 20th century.
“These really reductive black-and-white compositions about form and shape were important precursors to many things, including Minimalism,” Laura Lester, the gallery’s director, told The New York Times. There are, for instance, 14 drawn studies done in pen on show, which look toward his well-known “Package Deal,” a painting he would complete in 1956. Davis’ drawings were also terminal works in and of themselves, with Davis considering many of them to be of equal importance to his paintings. “At various points he decided to focus just on the integrity of the drawing as a finished painting and considered black and white colors unto themselves,” Earl Davis, the artist’s son, who has created a catalog of archival material to complement the exhibition, also said.
Born in Philadelphia in 1892, Davis came from an artsy family — his mother was a well-known sculptor; his father edited the art section of the Philadelphia Press. For his part, Davis studied under Robert Henri, who led the Ashcan School. He soon became a masterful draftsman — drawing was a critical part of his artistic career from the start — but throughout his 20s he became best known for his use of color. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s, when he was in his 30s, that Davis turned from colorful works on paper toward ones drawn in a more serene and studied black and white, often done with ballpoint pen.
As his career progressed, Davis constantly looked to reduce, to hold himself to a tighter, more significant selection of shapes and lines, which seemed to be a response to the geometric art coming out of Russia and Eastern Europe, a region whose politics Davis increasingly began to share. By the 1930s, he began editing Art Front, a magazine for Marxist and socialist artists and thinkers. The Great Depression had pushed him significantly to the left politically, and he began taking a concretely anti-capitalist stance, which continued to dovetail with his preference for abstraction over realism. Davis’ feeling was that only abstract art could harness and wield the sociocultural frustrations and dreams that bubbled up during this time of societal desperation and malaise.
As abstraction trumped realism, in his mind, so too line took precedence over color. In subsequent works by other artists, like Willem de Kooning’s black-and-white series, Yayoi Kusama’s white paintings, and Frank Stella’s black paintings, Davis’ Minimalist, black-and-white influence can be clearly seen.
In 1952, Davis represented the US at the Venice Biennale alongside Alexander Calder, Edward Hopper, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. He continued to simplify his symbols and lines — what he called his “beat-up subject matter” — which led to his late-career works, in the 1950s and ’60s, which have become arguably his most influential. His use of loud, intentional, linear symbols and forms, which had the power to break up and break through the clean thoughtfulness of Abstract Expressionism were soon seen in the styles of Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Donald Judd (who often expressed his artistic debt to Davis).
Created the year he died, at age 71, Davis’ black-and-white “Quinciette” is also being exhibited here at the Kasmin Gallery for the first time in public. 25 other works are on show. Caldwell, the curator, and the gallery have done well to keep this show particularly focused, and, as a result, a viewer is able to track the artist’s turn from color toward black-and-white and toward an increasingly simplified form of Minimalism. The show is also a trial run of sorts for the gallery, given that Davis’ estate recently moved from the Salander O’Reilly Gallery after that gallery’s owner, Lawrence B. Salander, was found to have sold around 90 of Davis’ artworks in secret. (In March 2010, Salander pled guilty to a fraudulent selling scheme to the tune of $120 million.)
From the looks of this exhibition, the gallery deserves the privilege of continuing to represent Davis. A pioneering artist and one of the quintessential “artist’s artists,” Davis has not always been a household name; but, here with “Line Thickens,” one can see him for the artist he was: a man whose politics and aesthetic influence would reach de Kooning, Warhol, Judd — and no doubt many artists of the future as well.
“Lines Thicken: Stuart Davis in Black and White” is on view at Kasmin Gallery in New York through December 22. More information: www.kasmingallery.com