Carrefour belongs to Stuart Davis’ seminal series of works painted in Paris in the late 1920s. It captures the dynamic effect the visual energy of the city and its architecture, and the vitality of its street life, had on the artist. In an interview with James Johnson Sweeney, Davis reminisced: "Having heard it rumored at one time or another that Paris was a good place to be, I lost no time in taking the hint. With one suitcase I hopped a boat and arrived in the center of art and culture in the middle of June…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…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." (as quoted in Stuart Davis, New York, 1945, pp. 18-19) With the financial support of Juliana Force, director of the Whitney Studio Club, Davis spent a year and a half from 1928 to 1929 working in Paris, living in the studio of fellow artist Jan Matulka in Montparnasse. Morris Kantor, Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder all resided nearby and collectively formed an unofficial artists' community. Although Davis only spent a relatively brief time abroad, it proved tremendously influential on the artist as it marks the beginning of his fusion of European and American strands of modernism. By incorporating images of awnings, façades and street signs in his Parisian work, Davis’ developed a visual vocabulary of rhythm, planes and lines that informed the rest of his career.
In works such as Carrefour, Davis depicts both the modern and old-fashioned aspects of the French capital through a corresponding two-layer Synthetic Cubist style, in which bright planar color blocks are overlaid with detailed line work capturing the unique façades and signage of the Parisian buildings and creating a vigorous patchwork effect. Karen Wilkin explains, “Davis’s Paris pictures seem to exist in terms of two, not-quite-integrated spatial concepts: a relatively traditional urban landscape, and a superimposed abstract layer of extraordinary color, texture, and pattern, the whole bound uneasily together by a sharply defined, painted border. The abstract superstructure is a brilliant, flat—if interrupted—surface, independent of the illusionistic street scene. Drawn patterns emphasize the flat surface, but since they are derived from the richly specific linear elements of Davis’s sketchbooks, they also reinforce naturalistic illusion.” (“‘Becoming a Modern Artist’: The 1920s,” Stuart Davis: American Painter, New York, 1991, p. 54)
Carrefour exemplifies Davis’ Paris works, condensing the liveliness of the city’s architectural landscape into a bright collage of forms and color. The worded signs upon the buildings, such as ‘Boulangerie’ and ‘Biere,’ foreshadow the bold, billboard-style letters featured in Davis’ later work. The artist also experiments here with areas of lightly-applied paint and airy hues, such as pale pink and powdery blue-green, typical of his French work; yet, he balances them with spots of thick brushwork, one extremely textural, impastoed white façade, blocks of stronger blue and yellow and even a patterned gray-and-white edge. Lewis Kachur, the curator of the Whitney Museum’s exhibition Stuart Davis: An American in Paris, wrote to the late owners of Carrefour, “I am most fascinated by its color system: primary hues or their derivatives in the border and the one black and white edge, versus only non-primary colors in the image…There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the finest Paris paintings.” (unpublished letter, July 16, 1987)
In Davis’ “Self-Interview” of 1931, which he illustrated with the present work, he wrote that the one outstanding event in his artistic life was “My trip to Europe in 1928” (Creative Art, vol. 9, September 1931, p. 211), and the works from this series certainly represent an important moment of carrefour, or crossroads, in Davis’ career. Building on his groundbreaking experimentations in the Eggbeater series of 1927, the Paris pictures apply Davis’ innovative Cubism to a cityscape for the first time, creating the foundation for his famous New York scenes of the 1930s. As epitomized by Carrefour, “Rather than being literal transcriptions of postcard views, the Paris streetscapes prove to be inventive attempts to translate the urban fabric into a highly colored and personal version of Cubism.” (K. Wilkin, “’Becoming a Modern Artist’: The 1920s,” p. 54)