Cubism, American Style

Go to an Ella Fitzgerald concert, and you don't have to sit through a lecture before she sings some tunes. When a philharmonic plays Beethoven, a few brief program notes are the only barrier to esthetic pleasure. So why is modern art in a museum so subject to deadening didactics? Granted, lengthy wall labels and a definitive (as in thick) catalog are welcome in the case of a 17th-century Dutchman or ritual art from Oceania. But Stuart Davis (1892-1964) was a straightforward, doggedly inspired modernist whose best paintings have a bright, crackling proto-pop style. New York's august Metropolitan Museum of Art is giving him his first retrospective in 25 years (through Feb. 16, before traveling to San Francisco), and it should be an exhilarating exhibition. But it isn't. The show (175 works in 10 galleries and a catalog with seven separately authored you-take-a-wing, I'll-have-a-drumstick essays) is a tug of war between the artist's snappy workmanship and the museum's sapping scholarship.

The son of arty parents (Helen Davis was a sculptor and Edward Davis was the Newark Evening News's art editor), young Stuart left high school in 1909 to study for three years with the country's most progressive art teacher, Robert Henri. Later, he drew for the politically leftist magazine The Masses. But at the 1913 Armory Show Davis collided head-on with a truck called cubism. Slowly, as he emerged from a kind of esthetic traction, he began to paint common consumer items (an eggbeater, Odol brand disinfectant, cigarette packs). For Davis, such subject matter flattened and brightened cubism into something less European and hermetic, and more congenial to his pragmatic Yankee temperament. In a 1920s notebook, he complained that the American modern art scene "worship[s] a foreign god." Always a contradictory cuss, Davis would do an about-face in the 1950s: "I am strictly a European (French, that is) man myself, although forced ... to live in the American Art Desert as exile."

In the late 1920s, Davis was still floundering a bit. During the obligatory French sojourn he painted a series of Paris cityscapes that are unbearably sweet and cute: black outlines over pastel architectural silhouettes. You almost expect an animated bunny to come gaboingy gaboingy down the street. Then, in the 1930s, he got into a Leger-inspired phase of socially relevant semiabstraction. It's solid, but more dutiful than inventive. Davis possessed neither the decorative panache of a Matisse, nor was he swayed at all by the anti-artness of the dadaists. He desperately needed a foundation, a program on which to hang his snap-brim hat.

So he went out and in effect made one: the 1940 "ColorField Space Cube," a diagram that tried to plot the relative 3-D thrust of warm and cool colors. Whatever the device's scientific accuracy, it eventually enabled Davis to integrate his trademark fragments of American advertising and sign painting into breakthrough paintings like "For Internal Use Only" (1944-45). The 1950s were Davis's best decade; while the rest of the art world was going nuts over the gigantic paint skeins of Jackson Pollock and the other abstract expressionists, Davis quietly created such compact masterpieces as "Visa" (1951). Everything in it-full-blast color, jigsaw composition, jaunty lettering, even Davis's own logoized signature and spelled-out motto, "The Amazing Continuity'!-is just right on its own, and dazzling in the mix.

Davis's later work-with a reduced palette (four or five hues at most) and even more matter-of-fact paint handling stayed superb right up to his death in 1964. Any Davis painting from the mid-1940s on can still do far more for the eye (and, upon reflection, the mind) than the work of such contemporary impact players as Barbara Kruger and Peter Halley. And in about one twentieth the surface area. A show about a third the size of the Met's would have made this gloriously clear. Although less academic thoroughness wouldn't amount to as much in the record, it would certainly look like more on the wall.