Lines broad and narrow, rectangles, trapezoids, triangles, parallelograms, columns, circles, planes, and words; shapes named and eccentric, lines as shapes, words as shapes, words as lines; simple, unmodulated reds, yellows, blues, greens, oranges, and pinks; black. Cool, unemotional, and concerned with the objectivity—the universal appeal—of these most basic elements of pictorial space, the painter Stuart Davis (1892–1964) reminds me less of other painters than of T. S. Eliot. Both were intellectually formalist and temperamentally possessed of a reticence animated in their work by bursts of a sort of vaudevillian mania. Along with other modern contemporaries, both men reveled in the poetry of signage, jazz dissonance, the fecund appositions of sedate, old-world craft and the speedy, electrified innovations of the mechanical age. Both were cosmopolitans, at home with European ideas and art. And, in contrast to so many visual...


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