Artforum's Critic's Picks: Stuart Davis
November 3, 2018
Blue jeans, jazz, 1930s America; sailors and signage in New York’s Times Square, the stench of fish rolling off the river, and the plaintive sound of a trumpet snaking through the air. Stuart Davis, of course, was at the center of it all. But the artist’s pictures here aren’t the exuberant, hot canvases of his retrospective that took place at the Whitney Museum in 2016. This exhibition of spare, mostly black-and-white drawings and paintings, hung against smoky blue walls, features almost no color at all. Bebop drummer Art Blakey comes to mind—he said that “jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.” I think of legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, too, who once said, “I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once.”
Maybe that thin, high trumpet is coming from Eddie Condon’s jazz club, which used to be located on West Third Street in Greenwich Village. Its address can also be found in Rhythm—George Wettling, 1947, Davis’s tribute to the titular Dixieland drummer. The show’s title, “Lines Thicken,” refers to a kind of sonic texture found in jazz, where a melody is shadowed in close harmony. Formally, this exhibition is full of such moments. Davis’s lines come together and branch out like urban streets, taking swooping, angular detours. Images such as musical staves, clefs, and notes mingle with cityscapes, boats, buildings, chimneys, fish, flowers, and even an armchair in a sort of interior-exterior cartography. His strokes are so rewardingly bold and sure, but on occasion we can see the faintest of hesitant, whispery pencil traces—they feel like a benediction.
— Rahel Aima