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Composition Concrete

Stuart Davis (American, 1892–1964)


Medium oil on canvas Measurements H: 202 3/4 x W: 96 3/16 in. (514.99 x 244.32 cm) Credit Gift of H. J. Heinz Company Accession Number 79.42 Location Gallery 12, Scaife Galleries


From 1910 to 1912 Stuart Davis studied with John Sloan at Robert Henri's school in New York City. In 1913 Davis was one of the youngest artists to exhibit in the milestone Armory Show, the first major exhibition of European and American modern art in the United States. During the next ten years he assimilated the lessons of the European avant-garde, and in 1927-28 he painted a series of pictures called Eggbeaters that were among the first abstract paintings made in America. In the 1930s Davis was a leader in artists' political organizations and the American art world's most eloquent spokesman for combining abstract art with social conscience. In the 1940s Davis pursued a post-Cubist style, as did the young Abstract Expressionists, but during the 1950s he reacted against them, calling the existential anxiety and subjective content of work by such painters as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning a "belch from the unconscious." Davis countered with a controlled, decorative style characterized by broad, flat, vibrantly colored forms and infused with a fierce enthusiasm for urban culture. Composition Concrete was commissioned in 1957 for the lobby of the H.J. Heinz Company's research center in Pittsburgh. In the lower left corner is a scrambled "1957," a reference to the year the work was painted and to the company's "57 varieties!' The red, white, and blue colors are intentionally nationalistic. The title Composition Concrete refers in part to the musique concrete of the French-American composer Edgar Varese, who taped sounds and then edited and reorganized them, and in part to Davis's own style. He regarded his paintings as realistic but nonrepresentational—objects with a concrete existence of their own rather than depictions of other things. Davis's connections with popular culture, his use of words, numbers, and written symbols, and his flat, geometric style are harbingers of the Pop, Minimalist, and Conceptual art movements that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.

Artist Bio

Stuart Davis was born in 1892 in Philadelphia, where his father was art director of the Philadelphia Press, the newspaper that employed John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens, and Everett Shinn, the artists who, along with Robert Henri, would make up the nucleus of The Eight. In 1909, because of his father's connections with this group of artists, Davis went to study at the Henri School in New York, where John Sloan was his principal teacher. After participating as one of the youngest artists in the Armory Show in 1913 and experimenting with a variety of Post-Impressionist influences in the 1910s, Davis achieved a remarkably sophisticated grasp of Cubism during the 1920s. He spent a year and a half in Paris in 1928-29, but his art seems to have taken decisive direction only after his return to New York, a place about which he said, "I was appalled and depressed by its giantism," and yet felt that "as an American I had need for the impersonal dynamics of New York City." His artist friends at this critical moment in his career were Arshile Gorky, Jan Matulka, John Graham, David Smith, and Willem de Kooning, all of whom shared an enthusiastic interest in Picasso's Cubist works of the late 1920s. Davis was a decade older than most of the members of this loosely knit group, and he reached his full artistic stride before any of the other important American modernists of the 1930s. He achieved his mature style during the early years of the decade, when he became the only major painter to deal with the subject matter of the American Scene movement then extraordinarily popular—while still maintaining his modernist ambitions.