Stuart Davis, Swing Landscape (1938)
Stuart Davis (1892–1964) was raised in New York by parents who were accomplished artists. Most of the family's closest friends and associates were artists as well, such as Robert Henri who served as a powerful influence on the young Davis. In 1901, the Davis family relocated to New Jersey, and over the following few years Henri and his colleagues moved to New York and formed an alliance known as the Ashcan School, or simply The Eight.
Davis entered the New York art world during a revolutionary time in modern American painting. Artists like The Eight were championing an art that reflected the experiences of the everyday world. Henri taught Davis to challenge the rules of academic painting and express his unique vision and experiences. The varied textures of New York culture drew the young artist to music halls where he first encountered an uniquely American form of music: jazz.
This music, with its improvisational character, exciting energy, and American roots, transformed Davis' artistic style, filling his depictions of everyday America with vibrant color, dynamic composition, and abstracted forms. Davis' style, which Karen Wilkin identifies as "a homegrown, personal brand of American Cubism" was rooted in his belief in that an American artist's primary responsibility was to serve American society through their craft. Indeed, Davis worked throughout his life to create an art that reflected the culture and experiences of the American people.
The Federal Arts Project (FAP), under the aegis of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA), provided artists, musicians, and actors with much-needed employment during the devastating years of the Great Depression. Many of the public artworks commissioned by the FAP are still enjoyed today in libraries, post offices, and other civic buildings across the U.S. They are especially valued for their reflections of the values, themes, and subjects of the American people and their history.
The FAP originally commissioned Swing Landscape for display at the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn, New York. However, the mural was instead sold through the Federal Art Gallery in New York, ultimately finding its new home at the Indiana University Art Museum. Hailed as "the most important painting by an American artist in the 1930s," Swing Landscape is particularly important in American art history because it challenged the stylistic sensibilities of this public art initiative. Perhaps due to the painting's experimental characteristics—the jarring juxtaposition of contrasting colors, the fracturing of space and form into a carefully controlled chaos—the painting was rejected by the FAP. Today, Swing Landscape epitomizes the dynamic, disorienting, and even aggressive excitement of urban life, inspired and growing from Davis' love of large-scale advertising, especially billboards.
Here, Stuart Davis transforms the quaint seaport of Gloucester, Massachusetts, into a dense, bold, and vibrant landscape mural where swing music and billboard advertising inspire the visual language of art. Davis combines the flat, interlocking color shapes of Cubism with the textures, syncopations, and rhythms of jazz. Swing Landscape challenges and disorients the viewer, shattering and reassembling the world from multiple perspectives, confusing the viewer's sense of depth and almost completely abstracting recognizable forms and images.