Stuart Davis, Art Gallery

Swing Era: Painting the Jazz Product

Stuart Davis, Hot Still Scape for Six Colors--Seventh Avenue Style, 1940. Oil on canvas, 36 x 45 in. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

As his earlier painting Swing Landscape reveals, Stuart Davis viewed technological developments such as radio as forces which changed the fundamental experience of American life. He believed visual art needed to change in style in order to reflect the fragmentation brought by modern twentieth century media.

Davis likened the painter's role in creating such representations to that of the jazz artist. In describing this work, Hot Still Scape for Six Colors--Seventh Avenue Style, Davis makes this comparison explicit:

[It] is called Hot [a jazz term referring to improvisational force] because of its dynamic mood, as opposed to a serene or pastoral mood. [The six colors] are used as the instruments in a musical composition might be, where the tone-color variety results from the simultaneous juxtaposition of different instrument groups.
Such theories and comparisons elevate jazz in importance by characterizing it as a cultural barometer which has become so pervasive it must be examined in considerations of modern American life. They celebrate jazz by characterizing a new, jazz-inspired visual language as the method of examining and communicating modern American life.

However, it is significant that in these abstract works of the 1930s and 1940s, the true act of interpretation lies in the work of the visual artist who translates the pervasiveness of the commercialized swing sensibility into socially relevant artwork. This is a marked shift from the work of the New York Realists, including Davis himself, earlier in the century. These earlier depictions of the earliest urban African-American jazz artists had translated reality faithfully, in order to capture the jazz artist as astute interpreter of American life. Once the popularity of swing had made jazz mainstream, however, the jazz artist himself was no longer the performer of cultural analysis. This role was allotted to the visual artist, la Davis, who analyzed the significance and role of commercial jazz in American culture.

Resources: Donna M. Cassidy, Painting the Musical City: Jazz and Cultural Identity in American Art, 1910-1940, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1997.
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