An intensely colorful, geometric reinterpretation of a scene he originally captured in the late 1920s, Composition from 1940 provides important insight into Stuart Davis’ process of creating one of his greatest works, Report from Rockport (1940, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Although abstracted to the point that the scene is almost unrecognizable as a landscape, Composition is derived from a circa 1929 sketch of a garage and gas station in Rockport, Massachusetts. This scene was originally more realistically transcribed in the watercolor and gouache painting Town Square (circa 1929, The Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey), where, in the style of his cityscapes from earlier in the year in Paris, Davis transforms the plaza-like expanse of the station into flat planes of muted color with an overlay of linear surface detail and lettered signage. The elements of the scene, while stylized, are recognizable as a kiosk pole at left, a gas pump at right, tire tracks and a tree on the driveway at center, and buildings framing the composition at each side.
When revisiting this landscape in 1940 in his 24 x 30 in. oil Report from Rockport, these key elements are still largely recognizable, especially as the scene is once again emblazoned with lettering, such as ‘Garage’ and ‘Gas,’ although in a bolder, more billboard-type format than in Town Square. However, by 1940, Davis had largely developed his signature style of a patchwork composition of overlapping, bold shapes and patterns, and this new approach transforms the feeling of the Rockport landscape. Lowery Stokes Sims explains, “The rather surrealist ambience of the original composition—its muted colors; ghostly edifices, the details of which are inscribed on the diagonal ‘walls’ that flank the composition; flat, seemingly cutout trees; mysteriously anthropomorphic gas pump; and garage from the 1917 Garage—is now rendered in black, white, bright blues, reds, oranges, greens, purples, and yellows. The paint texture is much more assertive, and Davis has overlaid the original forms with a panoply of linear characters that populate the scene like invading creatures from a mad artist’s imagination…In 1940, when Davis painted this picture, he noted in a dialogue on modern art that the experience of modern life, with its telephones, telegraphs, airplanes, electricity, automobile, and motion pictures, irrevocably transforms one’s artistic vision…This painting is literally a report of that change in attitude and vision, which had occurred over a period of fifteen years.” (Stuart Davis: American Painter, New York, 1991, p. 249)
The present work, executed as a study for Report from Rockport, is striking in that it is even more abstracted and geometric than the final composition. Whereas in the large-scale work a sense of three-dimensionality is implied by the rounded shapes of the pole and gas tank, here the latter is reduced to a red-and-yellow-striped cone with a line of dark green snaking down from its side, and the kiosk pole is simply a green rectangle with a line of black and dab of red. On the other hand, the curved-line tire tracks seen in Town Square are amplified in Composition into thick zigzags of bright white against the dark black street. These tracks appear as similar forms in the final work, although in black against a yellow ground. Composition also includes colorful, patterned planes of color at each side, which are further elaborated in the building walls of the ultimate version. Therefore, Composition is an important record of Davis’ reinterpretation of his earlier inspirations into his new style, choosing which elements to simplify and which to emphasize for the modernized configuration.
Sims summarizes, “Composition…lives up to its pseudonymous designation, June Jitterbug Jive, in the jaunty, deflected forms that transverse the canvas and bounce off each other like symbols in search of definition. Although the traces of the composition from which the painting is derived (Town Square) are scant, Composition shows how Davis increasingly relied on color shapes divorced from familiar references as the 1940s progressed.” (Stuart Davis: American Painter, p. 255)