Technological advances and Stuart Davis’s postcards

Artist Stuart Davis used color and form to wise effect, forcing upon the canvas a vibrancy that at times jumps a painting’s support.

Davis was a painter influenced by the burgeoning jazz scene, and he sought to portray the canvas as a field of forms that mirrored the syncopation of jazz rhythm while also reflecting on the urban environment from which the musical genre sprang in New York City.

Davis’s artistic career began early (he was the youngest artist to be represented in the infamous Armory Show of 1913) and changed as it reflected his growing maturation.

He began working under the artist Robert Henri and was influenced by the Ashcan painter’s use of realism. As the times began to roll and as history began to play itself out, Davis would abandon such realism in favor of abstraction to evoke the sociological and technological changes around the world.

Davis’s fascination with technology is evident in two postcards he sent to Meyer Schapiro.

One fashions the Empire State Building as a beacon of industrial life in a metropolitan city. To the left shines the mascot of human ingenuity, a skyscraper of steel. While, to the right, the city dweller’s life is compartmentalized to illustrate the sender’s emotion, feelings, and daily activities. Life, in this instance, is as ready-made as an assembly line.

The other postcard, a TWA “Constellation” carrier in flight, can be seen as a skyscraper in the skies: a feat of human innovation aided by technological advances.

But Davis, in all his admiration for technology, was also aware of the individual living in it. As Davis writes to Schapiro in 1952 about the latter’s work on the middle ages: “I [received] new information [regarding] the existence of the human individual in what had been an historical abstraction of monolithic sanctity, that is, the middle ages.” One can also argue that this is true of post-war America, where the individual became subsumed in an ever increasing world of mass production.

Davis and Schapiro were friends who worked together in the group American Artists’ Congress that was founded in 1936 to “organize artists against war and fascism and to defend the economic and social interests of artists.”

Davis would later abandon the Congress because of the organizations silence on the rise of totalitarian regimes in the late 1930s. Davis would write: “The American Artists’ Congress has done much in the past to give a backbone to progressive sentiments among American artists, and I was most reluctant to resign from it, and did not do so until I felt sure that the centrifugal motion of its original policy had become unalterably centripetal, with a constant loss of influence in the environment.”

Davis’s insistence on understanding the local environment is as evident in his politics as it is in his aesthetics: it is the inspiration and understanding that the local gives to the global.