The Shy Museumgoer


Stuart Davis is hip to the jive

Nobody knows precisely when or where jazz arrived. It wasn’t called jazz in the 1900s. Jazz was a word you didn’t say in polite society because it was slang for what goes on in the bedroom, as in the “Jazz Me Blues.”

Jazz was probably called “barrelhouse” when a young Stuart Davis and his friend combed the African-American bars of Newark, New Jersey, looking for the lively scene. There were no jazz records in 1907, so how did a couple of white teenagers know the music existed?

“We were hip to the jive,” said Davis.

And there you have him. For six decades, Davis’s language and paintings were animated by the distinctly American timbre of jazz. And why not? The jazz musicians he admired didn’t just play music, they played music for fun.

Stuart Davis, "Salt Shaker" (1931)
Stuart Davis, Salt Shaker (1931)

Davis took his fun seriously. He dropped out of high school after his freshman year to begin formal art training under Robert Henri, a trailblazing instructor who urged students to select subject matter that reflected their own, less genteel experiences in New York City.

Within a few years, the burgeoning artist became one of the youngest participants in the International Exhibition of Modern Art, famously known as the Armory Show. He contributed five paintings, all done in a realistic style.

The Armory Show was the greatest shock to me. It’s difficult today to visualize the impact of this gigantic exhibition. Only isolated examples of European modernism had been seen before in America. I responded immediately to Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Matisse. I didn’t have any trouble wondering, “What the hell is this?” I thought, “That’s it!

I resolved to become a modern artist. Eventually I could paint a green tree red without batting an eye.

Stuart Davis, Archives of American Art interview, 1962

Davis pivoted from realism to modernism, but Americans didn’t pivot with him. For years he had trouble selling his paintings. After the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression, he faced financial ruin.

Stuart Davis, "Mural for Studio B, WNYC (1939)
Stuart Davis, Mural for Studio B, WNYC (1939)

Help arrived in the form of a New Deal initiative called the Federal Art Project, which commissioned Davis to create murals for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn (Swing Landscape, 1938), the Radio City Music Hall smoking lounge, and public radio station WNYC.

Mural for Studio B, WNYC (1939) is a lively medley of flattened shapes that may (or may not) represent a music note, a saxophone, a clarinet, a radio antenna, ether waves, an operator’s panel, a radio mast, and some rigging. The artist depicted these elements imaginatively, not realistically, to create a mood.

A wall mural is seen over and over again. If it simply tells a story, such as who discovered the radio wave, then once learned, the spectator loses interest and has no reason to look at the mural again.

Stuart Davis, in his working notes for the Studio B mural, 1939

For the smoking lounge in Radio City Music Hall, Davis created a tour de force of exaggerated masculinity (Men Without Women, 1932). He hated the title and had misgivings about the mural’s location, but decided “it was an opportunity to get my work out in public, even if it is in the men’s room.”

Stuart Davis, "Colors of Spring in the Harbor" (1939)
Stuart Davis, Colors of Spring in the Harbor (1939)

Davis’s eligibility for government funding ended in August of 1939. Free to choose his own subject matter, he painted “the many beauties to be found in the common things in our environment.” He fixed his attention on coastal Massachusetts, not the rat-infested, third-floor walkup on Seventh Avenue near 13th Street where he was struggling with poverty and alcoholism.

Can a painting also be a melody?

At critical moments in his career, Davis turned to jazz for inspiration. He worked on The Mellow Pad, the pictorial equivalent of rhythm and syncopation, for six years.

I was learning things and doing things I hadn’t done before. I don’t like to use the word trouble, but if you want to be factual I did have a little trouble with it. But the main point is that I kept at it until all the trouble disappeared.

Stuart Davis, Archives of American Art interview, 1962

The Mellow Pad (1945-51) is a signature work, a virtuoso orchestration of vibrant hues and flashing, angular lines. In jazz lingo, the high-key colors are his tone (the sound of his artistic voice) and the two-dimensional shapes are his harmonic structure (his compositional signature).

Stuart Davis, "The Mellow Pad" (1945-51)
Stuart Davis, The Mellow Pad (1945-51)

It’s been said the title refers to a “cool place” or a musical “sweet spot,” but Davis downplayed these interpretations.

In fact, the term pad was coined in 17th-century Britain to describe a place where criminals fraternized. The word kept its underworld association well into the 20th century, when it referred to a place where addicts could recover from heroin or opium. It wasn’t until the 1960s that hippies rehabilitated the term, using it to refer to an easy-going place with no criminal association.

I believe Davis used the term pad the way musicians use it. A musical pad is a harmonic background. It’s not the bass line or a kick drum. Pads are sustained notes or chord progressions that bind the various elements of a song together and give the music more depth.

If I digitally remove the background (the pad) from his painting, the remaining elements become discordant. They clash. They really do need something to bind them together and give them more dimension. With the right pad, the lines and swirls in the foreground seem to improvise and groove.

Stuart Davis, "The Mellow Pad" (without its pad) and a page from the artist's working notes
(left) “The Mellow Pad” without its pad
(right) A page from the artist’s working notes

From my own (limited) experience, I know it’s hard to find just the right pad for a melody. Likewise, Davis struggled with it. He called the upper left-hand corner of his canvas “Hell’s Corner” because he reworked it so many times.

Despite poverty and the yawning indifference of contemporary critics, Davis succeeded in creating a style that is modern and alive. In the 1950s, he began to earn a decent living as an artist. Today he is considered one of the most innovative American modernists of his generation.

Still, can a painter take the same passionate risks as a jazz musician?

Or is that hard to bring off? Conversely, can jazz musicians truly transform the colors, lines, and layers of a painting into live music? Here’s a rare opportunity to find out. Click on the link below to hear Wynton Marsalis and The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform “The Mellow Pad” —

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra playing "The Mellow Pad" (2019)
“Stuart Davis for the Masses: The Mellow Pad”
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (2019)

2 responses to “Stuart Davis is hip to the jive”

  1. Diane,

    You are really in your groove here (no pun intended). Terrific piece. Fun, educational––musical, too!

    I sent it to my husband (Bill O). He will subscribe if he hasn’t already. Keep ‘em coming!



    • Thanks, Jane (and welcome, Bill O). The band really cooks, doesn’t it? I think they did a nice job of capturing the swing of Davis’s painting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s