New York, Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris, Stuart Davis: An American in Paris, 1987, illustrated in the catalogue
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of American Art & San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Stuart Davis, American Painter, 1991-92, no. 79, illustrated in color in the catalogue
Venice, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Stuart Davis, 1997, no. 26, illustrated in color in the catalogue
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art & Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Stuart Davis: In Full Swing, 2016-17
Wanda M. Corn, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935, 1999, illustrated in color p. 348
Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000, illustrated p. 75
Michael Fitzgerald, Picasso and American Art (exhibition catalogue), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2006, p. 176
Stuart Davis set sail for his first visit to Paris in June of 1928 at the age of thirty-five, embarking on a transformative period in his art. Over the course of the following year, he produced a series of seminal paintings that brilliantly synthesized aspects of his previous work with various influences to establish the visual vocabulary that he would continue to explore from for the remainder of his life. Rue Lipp is a superb example of this body of work that Clement Greenberg and Duncan Phillips considered to be the best of Davis’s career.
Davis was immediately captivated by the character and architecture of the French capital, which were dramatically different from the burgeoning and oppressive New York cityscape. In Paris he found reprieve as well as intellectual and artistic reinvigoration. He set up a studio at 50 rue Vercingétorix in the 14th arrondissement and assumed the role of flanneur, strolling the boulevards and arcades and making sketches of buildings and elements that captured his attention. “Everything about the place struck me as being just about right. I had the feeling that this was the best place in the world for an artist to live and work; and at the time it was. The prevalence of the sidewalk café was an important factor. It provided easy access to one’s friends and gave extra pleasure to long walks through various parts of the city…Paris was old fashioned, but modern as well. That was the wonderful part of it…There was so much of the past and the immediate present brought together on one plane that nothing seemed left to be desired. There was a timelessness about the place that was conducive to the kind of contemplation essential to art. And the scale of the architecture was human” (quoted in J.J. Sweeney, Stuart Davis (exhibition catalogue) The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1945, p. 19). The atmosphere of Paris as well as the artist’s elevated role in Parisian society allowed Davis to thrive in a way that he had not before, catalyzing a dramatic coalescing of various themes he had explored in his earlier work and the creation of a series of paintings that would serve as the stylistic basis and visual lexicon for his mature career.
These Paris cityscapes immediately followed Davis’s famed Egg Beater series and mark a return to figuration, though there is a clear visual continuity between the highly abstracted still lifes and these works. William C. Agee writes, “In the Paris paintings, he moved to figurative urban vistas, apparently a radical departure from the abstracting Egg Beater series. However, in fact, they continued and developed the structural foundations of the Egg Beaters, and are of a piece with the entirety of Davis’s work, forming a vital chapter in his lifelong search for an authentic, personal and American variant of Cubism” (“Paris, 1928-1929; Paris and New York, 1930-1931; And Paris Revisted, 1941 and 1959” in Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 2007, p. 72). Indeed, Davis carried two of the Egg Beater paintings to Paris and referenced them while working on his cityscapes. The strong architectural planes, shallow pictorial space, still life component and palette of Rue Lipp clearly stem from these works. However, Rue Lipp is a far more complex composition that incorporates a number of additional elements that Davis would continue to utilize throughout his career.
Davis, an avid fan of jazz, while in Paris discovered the work of the now legendary pianist Earl Hines. While listening to Hines playing piano on a Louis Armstrong record, Davis was intrigued by the pianist’s “ability to take an anecdotal or sentimental song and turn it into a series of musical intervals of enormous variety” (ibid., p. 72). In Rue Lipp and his other 1928-29 Paris pictures, Davis visually performs the same feat—transforming mundane tourist scenes into richly complex compositions that reference a variety of influences such as Robert Henri’s instruction to go out to the streets and paint what you see, the dissociative color of Matisse and Gauguin and Cubism, while also presaging Pop Art.
There is always an element of wit in Davis’ work and the title Rue Lipp references not an actual street, but rather, the view from the famed Brasserie Lipp, which the artist often frequented. Here he plays with perception and the relationship between interior and exterior. The space is compressed so as to negate the distance between café table and sidewalk, thrusting the three tabletop elements into a central role in a stage like setting. The still life in the foreground of Rue Lipp comes out of the Egg Beater pictures and also the proto-pop still lifes that Davis worked on throughout the early 1920s. “Indeed, a key Davis contribution to the development of Cubism was the fusion of still life within a wide architectural perspective, a formula unlike that of any other Cubist artist” (ibid., p. 73).
Davis’s fascination with the street signage he encountered throughout Paris manifests itself in the incorporation of text in the composition and he would continue to use words in his art in an increasingly dissociative fashion. In addition to the street signs, he utilizes text in the still life elements, “Biere Hatt” referencing the visual pun that the design of the beer stein sitting on saucer is evocative of a top hat. On the pink structure at right he both alludes to the graffiti that he saw in parts of the city as well as an advertisement for his friend Robert Carlton Brown’s poems. The squiggles in the sky reference the smoke wafting from the city’s chimneys and are demonstrative of Davis’ ability to distill a commonplace sight into a playful design element. The musical staff in the sky references the music that could be heard from street musicians or emanating from the cafés. Davis’s love of surface and the possibilities of paint are evident in the rich brushwork and a dense, variegated surface and the juxtaposition of flat planes of color with the thoroughly worked, expressive abstraction of the foreground. He paints a silver frame around the image to give the sense of looking through a window and to further underscore the two-dimensionality of the painting. The result is a stylized composition that is evocative of the surrealist street scenes of de Chirico, Delvaux and Magritte and prescient of the work of Ed Ruscha, Wayne Theibaud and Andy Warhol.
The fact that Rue Lipp is a seminal work in Davis’ oeuvre is demonstrated by the artist’s decision to revisit the composition three times over the course of his career. In 1941 in the small scale Still Life in the Street (Ebsworth Collection) and twice in the 1950s: in Study for “The Paris Bit” (1951 and 1957-60, Private Collection) and The Paris Bit (1959, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). The title of the latter two, which translate the painting through the lens of Davis’ late style, references the time that Davis spent in Paris, and the inclusion of ’28 references the year he painted Rue Lipp. Wanda Corn writes, “The Paris Bit...is one of the artist’s most profound meditations on the ‘amazing continuity’ between his youthful art of the 1920s and his mature style of the 1950s” (The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1945, Berkeley, California, 1999, p. 349). Thus Rue Lipp is both a masterwork of Davis’s early period and an important touchstone in the artist’s career.
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