Stuart Davis “New York Waterfront” 1938, Gouache on paper
Noted abstract expressionist, Stuart Davis (American, 1894-1964) described his art as stripping an object down to its core, and then painting it as he perceived it. Davis’ paintings were not factual depictions of a place but its essence. He stated, “I can work from Nature…In each case, the process consists of transposition of the forms of the subject into a coherent structure.” Like a diviner, Davis used his inner eye to see beyond the reality before him.
At first “New York Waterfront” seems to be a jumble of odd shapes, strange colors, and alien lines. However there is an interior logic to this painting. A visit to a waterfront does seem disjointed, since the activity there is both static and chaotic. Ships are being towed into wharfs, while others wait to be unloaded. Small tugs and large tankers are interspersed between warehouses, docks, offices, and factories. In New York City, the city’s skyscrapers are often seen in the distance. Looking at the painting again with their second eye, the observer senses the disordered stillness of a place covered with mundane grit and grime.
“New York Waterfront” encourages the observer to see beyond what is there. Penetrate the jumble and disorganized groups of shapes and lines with the inner eye, and a tug which is billowing smoke emerges. Focusing on the ship gliding by, the observer begins to see the buildings in the background – the lighthouse, warehouse, skyscraper, as well as the bridge.
Using the elements and principles of art, the observer can discern how Davis accomplished all this with his painting. Breaking the painting down to its basic elements, and then building it back up through the principles of art, the observer can divine the waterfront as Davis intended. Since he leaves clues as to the place in the painting, we engage in “augury by art” to find out where. Furthermore by peering more intently, we can discern more profound meanings in this simple scene.
As an artist, Davis was more interested in form and color than in realistic composition. In this painting, the vertical lines dominate the background while horizontal ones dominate the foreground. Two curved lines (guide wires on the tug) sweep down from the ship’s smokestack to its deck. These curved lines connect the foreground with the background, by directing the eye to look further back. Meanwhile the vertical and horizontal lines give backbone to the painting, and hold it together.
Emphasizing the man-made qualities of the scene are the rectangles and squares. Softening their sharp corners are the circles of the tug’s funnels. Furthermore, Davis adds a natural element to the scene with the shape of the smoke coming out of the tugboat’s smokestack. Meanwhile, the angular shapes of the tug contrast subtly with the straight ones of the buildings. Another element softening the verticality of the scene is the horizontal rectangles. The sign with the curved letters and the rounded shapes add more interest to the painting.
Negative space surrounds the scene, calming the uncontrollable shapes and colors. Also, this negative space gives a perspective to the painting by allowing the buildings to recede into the background. The ship is brought to the foreground with the black and white spaces. Also the empty space alludes to the city beyond in the haze of the off-white color.
The most striking aspect of “New York Waterfront” is Davis’ use of colors. At first glance, the colors of the painting seem bright and gay. The cheerful yellows, oranges, reds, and lavenders make the scene throb with energy, conveying the activity of the place. However, the pure black and white colors, which offset these warm colors, highlight their muted quality. Then the observer notices that the blue-greys of the tug are actually the brighter colors. These greys allow the ship to be noticed in the foreground. The more muted oranges and reds convey the grittiness and drabness of the place. Overall, the energetic palate of the reds is muted to calm the frenetic activity.