This modest canvas is an impressive work in its own right as well as an important document of one of Stuart Davis’s greatest paintings, Swing Landscape (Indiana University Art Museum), a mural he painted for the Williamsburg Houses in Brooklyn, New York, in 1938. He submitted this one-quarter-scale study for the mural to the Works Progress Administration, which employed Davis and many other artists to decorate public buildings during the Depression. After the study was approved in June 1937, Davis spent about a year painting the mural itself, but for unknown reasons it was never installed. Another mystery concerns the study, which at some point was cut down by about a third on the right. Nonetheless, it retains a satisfying wholeness: the friezelike composition, based on Davis’s theory of “serial centers,” has not been thrown off balance by the reduction in size.
Compared to the finished mural, the study has much less detail, making it simpler and more abstract, and yet a clear subject can still be discerned. Angled masts and rigging punctuate the composition while a buoy at lower left firmly establishes the harbor scene. Davis composed the work by drawing on numerous sketches he had made in the early 1930s of the docks, piers, and fishing schooners in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he summered for many years. The nautical theme explains the rocking, swaying character of the entire composition, which has almost no verticals, and so may help explain the title, too. But “swing” equally refers to Davis’s musical passion, the jazz music that he played in his youth as an amateur pianist and always followed closely as a fan. While it is difficult to draw parallels between the painting and any particular jazz recordings, it is easy to imagine bright, brassy timbres and twisting, syncopated rhythms as one explores the endless complexities of this essay in color and movement.
The factual information presented here comes primarily from two sources: Ani Byajian and Mark Rutkowski, eds., Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné, 3 vols. (New Haven, 2007), 3:289–294; and Stuart Davis: In Full Swing (New York and Washington, DC, 2016), 181–183. The speculations and judgments are my own.
In the fall of 1936,
Davis’s flip-style desktop calendars, in which he jotted notes and thoughts as well as appointments, are in the archives of the artist's estate.
According to the authors of Davis’s catalogue raisonné, the present work must be the one-quarter-scale oil study that Davis finished in the spring of 1937 to serve as his proposal to the WPA in Washington. It was approved in June, and for the next 11 months Davis, with two assistants, transferred the design to a large canvas in the FAP studio on 42nd Street in New York. A black-and-white photograph of the oil sketch has been found in the FAP records. Comparison with the study reveals that Davis made changes to the study (most notably adding the yellow and white rigging to the mast at upper left) after it was returned to him, suggesting that he continued to use it as a working model. The finished mural closely follows the outlines of the study but is brighter and more complex; for Davis, a preliminary study was never more than an armature for the improvisational act of painting.
Davis at this time was in his mid-forties, an established figure in the New York art world with a long career behind him, and yet like so many artists during the Depression he lived in dire poverty. The small degree of commerical and critical success he had started to enjoy in the 1920s had evaporated, and, rather than continue to paint much after the stock market crash, he threw himself into political organizing on behalf of rights for his fellow artists, holding a series of increasingly responsible positions from 1933 to 1940 in the John Reed Club, the Artists Union, the Artists’ Committee of Action, their magazine Art Front, and finally the American Artists’ Congress. He was elected president of that body in December 1937 but resigned in protest in April 1940 along with several others when it endorsed the Soviet invasion of Finland that had taken place the previous winter.
This record of activity might suggest that Davis was a political artist. In fact, he kept his art and politics separate, consistently refusing to make propaganda on behalf of the pro-labor, antifascist causes that he embraced. It is true that his two murals preceding Swing Landscape—New York Mural and Mural (Radio City Men’s Lounge: Men without Women), both from 1932—were full of legible references to urban life and issues. In Swing Landscape, Davis stepped back from the immediate spectacle of the contemporary world, and toward abstraction. Using one of his favorite subjects, the harbor of Gloucester, Massachusetts (where he had summered since 1915) with its largely bygone wind-powered fishing schooners, Davis jammed together fragments of many existing sketches and paintings to create a work that is filled from end to end with jagged, jangling forms. Bricks, buoys, rigging, piers, ropes, smoke, water, and perhaps even a sunrise can be detected, and the whole is bracketed by two pale gray strips, one for the sky at the top and one representing the dock along the bottom. But between and across these bands Davis unleashes a great improvisation of color and rhythm—the large, bold, abstract, muscular forms that would increasingly characterize his work until his death in 1964.
For all his interest in jazz and the practice of improvisation, Davis was traditional in his reliance on sketches, studies, and previous work, both in general and especially as he approached this major commission. The catalogue raisonné lists almost 20 related works from 1931 to 1937, including five paintings, six gouaches, and seven sketchbook drawings. The painting Landscape with Drying Sails (1931–1932, Columbus Museum of Art) provided the basic composition and motifs for the left half of the mural, and another painting, American Waterfront, Analogical Emblem (1934, private collection, San Francisco), served the same function for the right half. The works on paper include one line drawing and three gouaches of the entire composition;
Ani Byajian and Mark Rutkowski, eds., Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné, 3 vols. (New Haven, 2007), nos. 622 and 1222–1224, respectively.
Comparison of our study to the finished mural reveals a great number of changes, not in the basic composition but in color choices and level of detail. For example, the buoy at lower left, which is simply a brown silhouette in the study, gains considerable detail and color (orange, brick red, yellow, blue, and black); the yellow house above it, a simple shape in the study, gains a black window with a purple lintel below it; and the chunky red puff of smoke emerging from the roof of the house gets defined in two different colors, suggesting depth and movement. Other added elements not present in the study include bricks, ripples, additional rigging, and pieces of rope (although to describe these representationally misses the fact that they are equally important as lively abstract elements). Interestingly, not all the additions to the study are bright and jazzy: the yellow and white rigging on the mast at left has become turquoise and ochre in the finished mural.
Why the finished work was never installed at its intended home remains a mystery. No relevant documentation has been found, but it is tempting to speculate. The works that were chosen for installation are quite different in character from Swing Landscape, whose packed forms, bright colors, and all-over composition bear little relation to their more delicate shapes, rendered in muted colors and floating in shallow space. The four artists whose works were chosen—
For more information on the rediscovery and restoration of these four murals, see the website maintained by the Brooklyn Museum: https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/williamsburg_murals. Together with a pamphlet, this website documents the museum’s 1990 exhibition of the restored murals.
A second mystery concerns the study, which appears to be missing about a third of the design on the right side. Indeed, inspection reveals that it was cut down, though when, by whom, and for what reason we do not know.
Examination report, August 10, 2015, National Gallery of Art conservation files.
September 29, 2016
The artist [1892-1964], New York; his estate, until 1977-1978; (Borgenicht Gallery, New York). private collection, New York. Mr. and Mrs. N. Richard Miller, New York, by 1979. (Barbara Mathes Gallery, New York); purchased 16 December 1981 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Marsden Hartley-Stuart Davis, Modern Art Society, Cincinnati, October-November 1941.
- Stuart Davis: Murals: An Exhibition of Related Studies, 1932-1957, Zabriskie Gallery, New York, 27 January - 14 February 1976, no. 7, as Study for a Mural.
- New Deal for Art: The Government Art Projects of the 1930s with Examples from New York City & State, Tyler Art Gallery, State University of New York College of Arts and Sciences, Oswego; Picker Gallery, Colgate University; Albany Institute of History and Art, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington; Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica; Fosdick-Nelson Gallery, New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University; Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, New York University; Huntington Galleries, West Virginia, 25 January 1977 - 3 February 1978, no. 86.
- La Biennale di Venezia 1978: dalla natura all'arte, dall'arte alla natura, June - October 1978, no. 60, as Studio per murale con paesaggio ondulato.
- The Modern Art Society: The Center's Early Years, 1939-1954, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, 13 October - 25 November 1979, unnumbered catalogue.
- Loan to display with permanent collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1981.
- Acquisitions Since 1975, Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 5 November 1982 - 16 January 1983, no catalogue.
- Henri's Circle, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 20 April - 16 June 1985, unnumbered checklist.
- Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no.92 (shown only in Washington).
- The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
- American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June - 18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013 - 28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- Gilbert, Morris. "Portrait of the Artist: Eggbeater Artist Defends Credit to France for Help Given American Painters." New York World-Telegram (21 February 1940): 2:13, repro.
- Pearson, Ralph M. The New Art Education. New York and London, 1941: 104, 117, repro., as Preliminary study for color-space arrangements.
- Bourdon, David. "Stuart Davis: Mural." Arts 50, no. 6 (February 1976): 61.
- Richard, Paul. "The Stuart Davis Switch." The Washington Post (19 August 1982): D7, repro.
- Simon, Robert B. "Letters to the Editor: USIA's Art." The Washington Post (16 December 1982): A22.
- Robinson, Malcolm. The American Vision: Landscape Paintings of the United States. London and New York, 1988: 122-124, repro.
- Rylands, Philip, ed. Stuart Davis. Exh. cat. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; Palazzo delle esposizione, Rome; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C. Milan, 1997: 50 n. 15, as Study for Mural with Undulating Landscape.
- Wilkin, Karen. Stuart Davis in Gloucester. Exh. cat. Cape Ann Historical Museum, Gloucester, Massachusetts; Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington; National Academy Museum, New York. West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 1999: 74, pl. 43.
- Cash, Sarah, with Terrie Sultan. American Treasures of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. New York, 2000: 162-163, repro.
- Heartney, Eleanor, ed. A Capital Collection: Masterworks from the Corcoran Gallery of Art. London, 2002: 222-223, 225, repro.
- Duplaix, Sophie and Marcella Lista, eds. Sons & Lumières: Une histoire du son dans l'art du XXe siècle Exh. cat. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2004: 47, 49, repro.
- Boyajian, Ani and Mark Rutkoski. Stuart Davis, A Catalogue Raisonné. 3 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007: no. 1612, repro.
- Dietsch, Deborah K. "Corcoran Redux: Exhibit Reconfigures American Collection [exh. review]." Washington Times (15 March 2008): B:4.
- Miller, Angela et al. American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2008: 531, color fig. 16.12.
- Cash, Sarah, ed. Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Washington, 2011: 293, repro.
- National Gallery of Art. Highlights from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Washington, 2016: 304, repro.