On Art: Davis and Krasner Together

Stuart Davis, (Study for "Men Without Women"), 1932, ink and pencil on paper, 11 1/2 x 17 1/2 in. © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery.

Apart from resting peacefully near each other in Green River Cemetery in Springs, what do the painters Stuart Davis and Lee Krasner have in common? Judging by their best known works — his geometric, hers gestural — not much. Yet there was a time when they were both aiming toward similar artistic goals. Their point of confluence was during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when they were employed by the WPA Federal Art Project and designed murals for WNYC, New York’s municipal radio station, and other public buildings. Both were then strong adherents of Cubism, Davis having absorbed it first-hand in Paris and Krasner having come to it as transplanted to New York by her teacher, Hans Hofmann. But while Davis stuck with it, adapting it to his own, singularly American, point of view, Krasner veered off in a more subjective direction, becoming one of the foremost abstract expressionist painters of her generation.

Their brief period of agreement is illustrated in a pair of complementary shows at Kasmin Gallery’s two showcases in Chelsea, which represents both artists’ estates — a coincidental commonality that allows the gallery to present them in tandem. “Lee Krasner Mural Studies” is at the 297 Tenth Avenue space, while across 27thStreet is “Lines Thicken: Stuart Davis in Black and White,” at 293 Tenth Avenue. The Davis show is on through December 22. The Krasner show closes on October 27, the 110thanniversary of her birth.

Last year, Kasmin’s show of Krasner’s so-called Umber series concentrated on the late 1950s and early 1960s, when she delved into deep emotional territory in large canvases that fairly boiled with painterly energy. They were highly personal statements, whereas 20 years earlier, her ambition, which she shared with Davis, had been to paint wall-filling works for a mass audience, and to do it in a flat, neo-Cubist style. As a WPA muralist, she was assigned to decorate buildings, first as an assistant to more experienced artists and finally, in 1940, on her own. Kasmin is showing eight gouache studies she made that year for a specific, though unknown, location — probably a school, library or hospital — identified only by blank areas indicating the architectural elements she had to work around.

Krasner’s approach to this assignment ranges from exuberant to restrained. The influence of predecessors like Matisse, Arp and Miróis evident, but, like Davis, she has internalized and adapted their lessons. In some examples, brightly colored biomorphic shapes cavort across the wall, jostling one another playfully, as if inviting spectators to join in the dance. In one, however, the mood is cool and formal. Carefully balanced rectangles structure the space, but a kidney-shaped loop relieves the design’s geometric purity. Sadly, none of these concepts made it to the wall for which they were intended. Nor did her 1941 proposal for the WNYC Studio A mural, though many sketches and studies survive.

Davis, on the other hand, did complete various mural projects in the 1930s, including two for the WPA: “Swing Landscape,” intended for a housing project but later acquired by the Indiana University Art Museum; and one for WNYC’s Studio B, which was removed and donated to the Met. A study for his first mural is a highlight of the Kasmin show. “Men Without Women,” a pre-WPA commission, was painted in 1932 for the Radio City Music Hall’s men’s lounge. The linear ink and pencil version lacks several of the male attributes in the finished work, which now lives at MoMA, but three dominant motifs — a tobacco pipe, sailboats and a horse — are present in skeletal form. The drawing shows how meticulously Davis planned his compositions, shifting and adjusting elements until he achieved the ideal balance. He was a brilliant colorist, and when that chromatic richness is stripped away his mastery of structure becomes all the more evident.

From the show’s largest works on canvas to the smallest drawings, Davis was endlessly inventive, even as he played variations on themes and reprised many of his subjects. Nautical scenes and maritime paraphernalia, observed in New York harbor or in the seaside port of Gloucester where he summered, gave him plenty of raw material, as seen in several of the works on view. And a charming drawing that pays homage to the jazz drummer George Wettling represents another of his long-term inspirations. That’s another thing Davis and Krasner had in common — they both loved jazz.