The above link will open to the Painting.
However, there is order amid the chaos. Balance is achieved with the horizontal sign dividing the painting into thirds. The vertical red-orange main-mast and yellow-orange mast keep the thirds intact. The left side has the yellow-orange smoke and the right side has the lavender bridge. The eye is first attracted to the sign, then to the smoke bellowing out, and then finally slides down the guide wire. Afterwards, the eye circles around to the bridge back to the sign again. Balance is this circle, which is both constantly dynamic and in perfect harmony.
Repetition in the painting is the squares and rectangles that puncture this circle. The squares keep rhythm, syncopating with the vertical and horizontal hash marks, that gives depth to the buildings and tug. These same shapes are repeated to allow the observer to enjoy the scene without being overwhelmed.
Davis’ signature style is to infuse a painting with a jazz rhythm and variety. The artist himself said that he often painted while listening to jazz music, and that his paintings reflect this in their rhythms. However, an actual waterfront does lends itself to a staccato beat, with ships are being towed in and out; cargo is being loaded and unloaded. The rhythm of “New York Waterfront” is supported by the bass beat of the blacks and greys. The mellow tones of the alto saxophone are the muted reds and oranges. The trumpet riffs are the bright yellows and whites. Each element of the painting moves together in the improvisations and broken rhythms of jazz. The bass beat keeps the painting moving, while the muted colors keep the melody easy and smooth.
In an interview with John Wingate for “Night Beat” in 1956, Davis said, “Well, my attitude toward life is realistic, but realism doesn’t include merely what one immediately sees with the eye at a given moment – one also relates it to past experience…One relates it to feelings, ideas. And what is real about the experience is the totality of the awareness of it.” What Davis offers us is not a painting of a waterfront but our encounter with one. We experience the essence of the waterfront, which ties us to everyone else who have experienced it as well. The New York waterfront ceases to be a real place, and becomes a part of our being.
In his painting, Davis gives us hints as to the reality that is the New York waterfront. First, he paints the tug with the traditional dull red of the New York tugs. Besides the color, the tug has a tall, narrow house, which reaches to the sign. Since New York tugs used a version of a steam engine, the steam smoke coming out of the smokestack was a common site. (Other waterfronts used coal, at the time Davis painted his picture.) Adding to the scene is the Little Red Lighthouse and the George Washington Bridge both which are at the Hudson River. (The lavender square represents the suspension bridge, while the square red pentagon is the lighthouse.) With this special knowledge of New York City, we can apply what we know to a scene of jumbled shapes and wild colors to see beyond to what is actually there. This is augury in art – looking with the inner eye, applying our special knowledge, and divining what is before us.
Like Davis, we can see with our second eye, and relate the painting to the past, present, and future. Descending into the bones of the painting, we see the tug which is captured in the moment. What will come next? Where is the ship going? Does it matter? We stick our toe in the stream of time at the nexus of this moment, before things shift and become revealed. The future for us like the waterfront is fluid, constantly changing.
We go deeper into the core of why a painting of a tug, a lighthouse, a bridge and several buildings. The tug speaks to the commonality of our daily experiences. As the workhorses of the harbor, the small tugs take the large tankers safely to the docks and back out. The lighthouse next to the bridge offers more safety to all who venture forth. Beyond the lighthouse and bridge are the beckoning windows of warmth and security. We have arrived to where we need to be – the future. Like the tug captain, we read the waters, watch for signs of trouble, and practice our art. We venture forth from the past of the lighthouse into the future of the distant buildings, while being safely guided by our bridge of the present.