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Born in Philadelphia, Stuart Davis grew up in an artistic milieu. His mother was a sculptor, and his father was the art director of the Philadelphia Press. When Robert Henri, leader of the Ashcan group of painters and a colleague of Davis’s father, opened an art school in New York in 1909, Davis dropped out of high school to attend. According to Davis, the school was a chaotic, creative center that encouraged students to go out and paint the everyday urban life around them. Davis was a jazz fan, and began painting watercolors of the local jazz dancehalls and bars. In 1913, he encountered what he would call “the greatest single influence I have experienced in my work” when he attended the Armory Show in New York, which introduced American audiences to the avant-garde developments in European art. He was particularly drawn to the work of Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, and Henri Matisse for their bold use of non-associative color and simplified forms.
During the 1920s, Davis developed a style that combined the fractured vocabulary of Cubism with American vernacular subjects, using everyday objects such as eggbeaters and cigarette boxes as his inspiration. He also painted street scenes of New York and Paris, often rearranging the forms of signs, fire escapes, and skyscrapers into flat planes of color and texture. His distinctive fusion of simplified, abstracted forms with imagery drawn from American popular culture made his work a forerunner of Pop Art. In the late 1930s, Davis’s paintings became even more vibrant than previous works and more closely associated with jazz, which he saw as the musical counterpart of abstract art.
During the Great Depression, Davis took a position in the Works Progress Administration’s mural and graphics division. His assignment included the creation of a mural for the New York World’s Fair called History of Communications. Politically active at that time, Davis joined various organizations designed to protect artists’ cultural freedom and economic security and wrote numerous articles on these topics. Reflecting on his career in 1943, Davis’s autobiographical sketch poked fun at art world labels: “Paris School, abstraction, escapism? Nope, just color-space compositions celebrating the resolution in art of stresses set up by some aspects of the American scene.”
Claude Marks. World Artists 1950-1980: An H. W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary. (New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 1984), 183.