Anyone familiar with the paintings of Stuart Davis (1892–1964) knows that he had a sense of humor. It’s there to see in his rambunctious rhythms, eye-popping palette and cartoon-like distillations of form; it is perhaps most readily apparent in his terse and slangy appropriations of popular culture. Just in case one needs a reminder of this great artist’s wit there is Greek Backwards (1921), a watercolor drawing included in Stuart Davis: Art and Theory, 1920–1931, a tiny yet beautifully considered exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library. The humor in the piece is evident in its form, in the lighter-than-air ballet his cobbled shapes engage in. Yet in writing the word “Greek” backwards on the page, Davis also takes a more literal dig at Cubism, the wellspring of his art, and the contemporaneous response to it. At the time, Modern painting was largely considered to be unintelligible by a...


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