Stuart Davis in Havana
On the last day of 1919, when he was 27 years old, Stuart Davis traveled to Havana. By the time he returned to the United States two months later, Prohibition had been implemented and a new era had begun. “Stuart Davis in Havana,” on view at Kasmin Gallery, features ten watercolors painted by Davis directly after returning from Cuba. In each work, colorful figures slither and strut, flattened into forms that frequently appear to have been projected onto the surface of the page like pigmented shadow puppets, momentarily frozen in place. If nothing else, this depthless quality and attention to shape hints at the same modernist impulses that would eventually find their purest realization in the paper cutouts of Mattise.
Jazz was ascending into the position of cultural dominance when Davis created these images, swiftly establishing itself, not only as a fashionable category of music, but also as a contentious generational signifier that epitomized an ethos of feverish abandonment, impossible to separate from collective memories of slavery and war. Like many of the popular jazz songs of the time—in which fragments of military marches, plantation gospel, and au courant minstrel fantasies assumed the form of zippy dance tunes—race is simultaneously present and forgotten in these paintings. More obvious, however, is the manner in which prosaic scenes of Cuban life are pushed and pulled by the playfulness of the paint, so that their compositions adopt the spirited exaggerations of the music with which Stuart Davis—and his reputation—have been inextricably entwined since the beginning of his career.
In one painting, a small creature jubilantly flaunts its own taxonomical ambivalence. After close inspection, it appears to be a pig; however the casual nonchalance of its figuration refuses to fully deny the possibility that it might also be a dog, or even an armadillo. This elasticity of form is consistent across the rest of the images, which do, indeed, seem to accord with the transformational promise of early jazz—which is to say the idea that literal references can sublimate, through the force of vivacious intent, into a feverish musicality that bounces and swings. Davis is clearly attracted to this threshold. Even his most pedestrian characters seem to flirt with their own figurative boundaries, threatening, at all times, to escape into an ecstatic geometry of color and form—or perhaps to simmer quietly in place until they take flight, like the thin shark in one painting has already done, its body twisted into a delicate arc above the enthusiastic spines of a gregarious cactus. —Atticus Bergman
Stuart Davis, (Three Women with Terrace), 1920. Watercolor on paper, 16 3/4 x 23 1/4 inches. © 2021 Estate of Stuart Davis / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Kasmin, New York.