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Details & Cataloguing

American Art

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New York

Stuart Davis 1892 - 1964
LITTLE GIANT STILL LIFE (BLACK AND WHITE VERSION)
casein and traces of pencil on canvas
33 by 43 inches
(83.8 by 109.2 cm)
Painted in 1953.
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This work has been requested for inclusion in the 2016-2017 exhibition Stuart Davis: In Full Swing, co-organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the National Gallery of Art.

Provenance

Estate of the artist
Earl Davis (the artist's son)
Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 2005

Exhibited

New York, Lawrence Rubin, Stuart Davis: Major Drawings on Canvas and Paper from 1928 to 1964, January-March 1971, no. 13 (as Study for Little Giant Still Life)
New York, Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, Stuart Davis (1892-1964): Black and White, November-December 1985, no. 1, illustrated; illustrated on the cover
New York, Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, Stuart Davis (1892-1964): Motifs and Versions, November-December 1988, no. 27, illustrated pl. 34
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; San Francisco, California, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Stuart Davis: American Painter, November 1991-February 1992, no. 143, pp. 269-274, illustrated p. 271
Chicago, Illinois, Terra Museum of American Art; Middlebury, Vermont, Middlebury College Museum of Art; San Antonio, Texas, Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum; Miami, Florida, Center for the Fine Arts; Andover, Massachusetts, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy; Omaha, Nebraska, Joslyn Art Museum; Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection (organized by the American Federation of Arts, New York) The Drawings of Stuart Davis: The Amazing Continuity, December 1992-July 1994, no. 75, p. 28, illustrated p. 111 (as Little Giant Still Life (Black and White))
Koriyama, Japan, Koriyama City Museum of Art; Shiga, Japan, The Museum of Modern Art; Tokyo, Japan, Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum (organized by the Japan Association of Art Museums, Tokyo), Stuart Davis: Retrospective, 1995, July-November 1995, no. 71, p. 113, illustrated in color
Venice, Italy, Peggy Guggenheim Collection; Rome, Italy, Palazzo delle Esposizioni; Amsterdam, Netherlands, Stedelijk Museum; Washington, D.C., National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Stuart Davis, June 1997-September 1998, no. 42, illustrated p. 157
New York, Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, Stuart Davis: Black and White Paintings & Drawings, February 1999
Santa Fe, New Mexico, Gerald Peters Gallery, The Black and Whites of Stuart Davis, June-July 2002, illustrated
New York, Babcock Galleries, GIANTS: American Modernist Masters, October-December 2010, no. 19

Literature

Karen Wilkin, Stuart Davis, New York, 1987, illustrated pl. 26, p. 26
Ani Boyajian and Mark Rutkoski, eds., Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, Connecticut, 2007, vol. III, no. 1671, p. 337, illustrated

Catalogue Note

Little Giant Still Life (Black and White Version) belongs to a pivotal moment in Stuart Davis’s career, during which he produced some of his most ambitious and important works. Today, the paintings the artist created during the early 1950s are considered among the best expressions of his distinctive iconography and most complete realizations of the complex theories of art and aesthetics that he developed over many decades. Painted in 1953, Little Giant Still Life (Black and White Version) is the third of four paintings belonging to Davis’s Little Giant series, which he executed between 1950 and 1961. The only painting from the series that remains in private hands, Little Giant Still Life (Black and White Version) is evocative not only of Davis’s entirely unique interpretation of modern life, but also helps to position the artist as a vital precursor to such emerging styles as Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, which would come to dominate American aesthetics in the Post-War era.

By 1950 Davis had already enjoyed a long and fruitful career, yet the decade instigated a new period of remarkable creativity and stylistic change for him. As a young student of Robert Henri, Davis was deeply influenced by the work of the artists associated with the Ashcan School. His earliest paintings are characterized by the gritty urban scenes preferred by Henri’s circle–painters who sought to represent the raw vitality of the modern world. In the years following the 1913 Armory Show, however, Davis diverged from Henri’s teachings and began to embrace influences of the European avant-garde. By the 1920s he had adopted his own visual vocabulary, a deeply personal style rooted in the expression of modern American life and culture, which he continued to develop through the 1940s. After experiencing a period of unproductivity at the end of this decade, by 1951 Davis began to paint with ambition once again. He continued to revisit many of the same themes and motifs with which he had engaged for many years, but formally pushed his aesthetic away from the crowded and compact paintings he executed previously towards a new emphasis on scale and clarity of composition.

Works such as Little Giant Still Life (Black and White Version) exemplify the new direction Davis’s style took in the 1950s. The artist derived the imagery for his Little Giant series from a matchbook cover advertisement for Champion spark plugs. The spark plugs were popularly known as “little giants”—a pun that likely appealed to Davis—thus giving the series its name. While he had incorporated words, letters and logos into his compositions since first becoming aware of Synthetic Cubism in the wake of the Armory Show, Davis increasingly integrated text in his works from 1949 on. The works in this series, however, are among the few Davis created after 1940 that do not reference a motif or composition utilized in an earlier painting, and here the artist privileges a single word as his subject for the first time. Manipulating the scale of the source image to larger-than-life proportions, Davis obscures the conventions of a traditional still life and characteristically plays on the linguistic associations of the word “champion.” Explains Karen Wilkin: “The isolated words [in his works] are not merely formal devices. Like Davis’s punning and rhyming titles, the words within his paintings are both discrete visual elements, chosen for their shapes the way titles were for their sounds, and wry comments on what the artist was up to. Words and letters are, at one level, abstracted fragments of Davis’s environment. Any urbanite is familiar with the way commercial signs flash discontinuous exhortations at us…and Davis, as the quintessential celebrant of modern urban life, delighted in the accidental meanings that could be extracted from randomly associated signs, labels, and posters” (Stuart Davis, New York, 1987, p. 202).

The flattened pictorial space and strikingly graphic execution of Little Giant Still Life (Black and White Version) undoubtedly conjures the look and feel of a printed advertisement, demonstrating why Davis’s work is often considered to prefigure the ideas of 1960s Pop Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, who similarly used commercial sources and consumer products as the foundation for their art. At its core, Little Giant Still Life (Black and White Version) not only complicates the divide between text and image, representation and abstraction but also between high and low culture. “The Cunning of the Commercial Designer,” Davis wrote in 1951, “of Match Box Covers, Cigar Box labels…must be loved” (as cited in Lewis Kachur, Stuart Davis: American Painter, New York, 1991, p. 103). By elevating an everyday object into the realm of high art, Davis asserts his opposition against the grand and weighty subjects traditionally acceptable in American painting while also compelling his viewer to consider something familiar in an entirely new way.

Davis’s fascination with the imagery of modern packaging and the role that brand names played in the daily lives of the American public figured prominently in his oeuvre since the early 1920s, and he was not alone among his contemporaries in this preoccupation. But the purely black and white palette he adopts in Little Giant Still Life (Black and White Version) is certainly among the painting’s most striking attributes and distinguishes it from his earlier works on these themes. It is likely one of nine monochromatic works Davis executed on canvas from 1953 until the year of his death in 1964. Most of these “drawing/paintings,” as Davis referred to them, utilize compositions the artist also explored in color as their basis. While here he abandons the vibrant hues that characterize the other paintings in this series, Davis nonetheless compels the viewer to consider how all color combinations, including monochromatic ones, could be used to create and organize space on the picture plane. As he explained, “every time you use a color you create a spatial relationship. It is impossible to put two colors together, even at random, without setting up a number of other events…. So the notion that thinking of color as a thing by itself seemed inadequate” (as cited in John R. Lane, Stuart Davis: American Painter, New York, 1991, p. 71).

Davis’s use of only black and white pigment in Little Giant Still Life (Black and White Version) imbues the painting with an elegant, minimalist quality that also speaks to the reverence for drawing and draftsmanship Davis maintained throughout his career. The palette also finds parallels with Abstract Expressionist painters such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, who began to paint gesturally in black and white on monumental canvases in this period. Indeed, despite the flattened sense of plasticity that Little Giant Still Life (Black and White Version) achieves, Davis does not strive to remove his hand entirely from the composition, an idea central to work of artists like Warhol. Davis is undeniably present here, evidenced by the numerous pencil marks visible throughout the canvas and through the bold overlapping series of diagonal, horizontal and vertical lines he uses to imbue the work with the dynamic quality that perfectly captures the chaos and clamor that was central to his everyday experience of the modern world.

American Art

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New York