NARRATOR: In this 1951 painting, Stuart Davis revisited one of his earlier works, transforming an abstract still life that had focused on a coffee percolator. Here, he’s so abstracted the structure of the object that it’s impossible to identify. The painting becomes all form and color. Its visual rhythms and jazzy, high voltage colors create an energy of their own.
In many ways, Davis is a forerunner of Pop art. His lettering here mimicks signage or other printed matter, and looks forward to Pop’s fascination with advertising. The painting also explores mass communication in a very forward-looking manner. Look at the square field of red dots at left. These are exaggerated Ben Day dots. In commercial printing, such dots were placed close together and intended to blend optically into the appearance of a solid color. Beginning a decade after Davis completed this painting, the Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein would make Ben Day dots a hallmark of his work.
Davis originally called this painting Motel. He changed the title when it was chosen to be included in the Sao Paulo Bienale.
Audio guide stop for Stuart Davis, Owh! In San Paõ, 1951
NARRATOR: Stuart Davis once described this lively picture from 1951 by saying “Owh! in San Pao has the general character of a still life, seen in a blasting international mood. Instead of a utensil, we see an event.” The utensil in question was a coffee percolator; the centerpiece of a picture Davis had painted nearly 25 years before. For the painting you see here, he totally rehashed the composition of the earlier work, transforming it with jazzy, high-voltage colors. He also added various words and calligraphic elements—a process he described in his daily calendar entries as being similar to driving a fast car. He wrote: “Put the shift in reverse on Motel”—this painting’s first title—“watch the gravel flee.” Many entries later he noted, “Finished color-shape content of Motel at export level. Name changed to Owh! In San Pao.” Before the name change, the work had been chosen to be included in the Sao Paulo Biennial, but then it wasn’t shown. It seems likely that Davis changed the name of the work as a reaction to this rejection.
Davis’s use of contemporary subject matter and signage suggestive of advertising helps us to see him now as a forerunner of Pop. He is one of the most admired artists of his generation, and is particularly appreciated by other artists.