• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Musing on a Modern Proto-Post-Modernist

In 2018, I wrote about an interesting formal relationship between work by the Modernist painter Stuart Davis (1892–1964) and the Modernist designer Paul Rand (1914–1996). There is actually a lot more to be written about this relationship, which I merely observed in a superficial manner. But that connection is not what I'm writing about today. As far as I recall, Rand never mentioned Davis, and as far as I've read, Davis never cited Rand. Although they did share some of the same artistic influences.


Davis began in the style of the Ash Can School painters (the anti-academy, rebelliously gritty representations of the urban streets, barrooms, tenements, etc.) and later evolved his interest in quotidian culture into abstract, brightly colored visual confabulations.


Davis entered and subverted the art world of his day. He was was not content to make reresentational copies of the real world. Hr was a conscientious experimenter (and admirer of avant gardes) attempting to push the boundaries of art this accounts for his varied deconstructed "landscapes" of mundane objects, like Strike Cigarettes, a box of matches and an egg beater. The latter was an object that he returned to often (his version of Duchamp's "Fountain"). ings." It is American but is among the earliest to reflect a global view.


Davis' father had been a sign painter. "Labels, packages and lettering have always meant something very special to Davis," continued Blesh. (Davis' parents were both artists and allowed him to drop out of high school to follow his calling.) Like other Ash Can exponents, Davis was on the art staff of The Masses in 1912 and Harpers Weekly in 1913 (in fact, his father was art editor and editorial cartoonist of the Philadelphia Enquirer, where other urban-focused painters were employed as cartoonists). Cartooning was in Davis's blood.


Davis entered and subverted the art world of his day. He was was not content to make representational copies of the real world. He was a conscientious experimenter (and admirer of avant gardes) attempting to push the boundaries of art this accounts for his varied deconstructed "landscapes" of mundane objects, like Lucky Strike Cigarette packages, a box of matches and an egg beater. The latter was an object that he returned to often (his version of Duchamp's "Fountain").


He was obsessed with "unsanctioned" subject matter. Dada was derisive of art's antiquated verities; and although a follower of Duchamp, Francis Picabia and the others comprising the New York Dada movement, Davis' work that employed commercial and popular culture manifestations (and were painted as if in snippets or "collages") had a different meaning for him than his European counterparts. Indeed, he was the precursor of pop art content and, to a certain extent, Postmodern styling. But most of all his work was uniquely his own and has led scores of designers and artists from mid-century Modernism into the 21st century post-post-post-modernisms.


Stuart Davis is by no means a lost or forgotten American artist, but he is not given the credit he deserves as a modern design influencer. For me, his work and his life (and, if you have not already noticed, his passionate marriage of jazz and painting) deserve a lot more scrutiny.


Place de Voges No.2. 1928.
Something on the 8 Ball. 1953-54.
Tropes de Teens. 1956.
Ready to Wear. 1953.
F. Owh! in San Pao. 1951.
G. Semé. 1953.
D. The Mellow Pad. 1945-51.
E. Visa. 1951.
C. Ursine Park. 1942.

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