Swing Landscape: A New York Story

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday July 28, 2022


Before the 1960s, when Doris Freedman, the city’s first Cultural Affairs Commissioner came along, public art was limited to the obligatory war memorials and a few dedicated heads like Gertrude Stein’s at the New York Public Library. Today, NYC hosts numerous temporary and permanent installments in the city parks, plazas, and esplanades, organized by a diverse roster of civic-minded groups who arrange for generous funding by government and corporate sponsors. 

As the city celebrates a seemingly endless program of public art by contemporary artists, with new installations unfolding on a regular basis, it’s worth a pause to reflect on the first program for public art here. During the Great Recession, then President Franklin D. Roosevelt spearheaded the Federal Arts Project to put artists on the payroll making art for public places, with Stuart Davis, a New York transplant, one of the main players.

Stuart Davis (1892-1964), the first great American abstractionist of the 20th century, was acclaimed for his eye-popping, jazzy murals and paintings during his lifetime. But as his career came to a close, Abstract Expressionism became the most talked about art movement since Modernism, relegating other prominent artists to the sidelines. As AbEx gained a foothold on the contemporary art scene, the observational abstraction that characterizes Davis’s work was dismissed as being reductive; the artist all but disappeared from view until the Whitney Museum of American Art presented “In Full Swing”, in 2016, curated by Barbara Haskell Info. Writing in The New York Times, Holland Cotter described the centerpiece work, Swing Landscape as “a whole new universe of jazzy patterns and blazing colors, a landscape defined not by signs but by sensations: sound, rhythm, friction.” Above: Stuart Davis, Swing Landscape, 1938. Oil on canvas, 86 3/4 × 173 1/8 in. (220.3 × 439.7 cm). Allocated by the U.S. Government, Commissioned through the New Deal Art Projects, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 42.1. Photo: Kevin Montague.

Davis is the subject of a re-interpretation of his work and process: Swing Landscape: Stuart Davis and the Modernist Mural by curator Jennifer McComas of the Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, where the exhibition of that title was recently seen. Using Swing Landscape as a springboard, she explores the ways in which his radical political views came to inform and inhabit his art making. The accompanying catalogue, beautifully produced by Yale University Press, is now available. Info

Commissioned in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration’s [WPA] Federal Art Project (FAP), Davis’s seven-by-fourteen-foot portable mural was to have been installed in the radically modern Williamsburg Houses, in Brooklyn. Through a deep and expansive study of the FAP, the art of its time, and the social housing created by the newly established New York City Housing Authority under the leadership of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, McComas makes a case for the political messages embedded in Davis’s murals and paintings. She demonstrates the ways in which Davis, who considered himself a public artist, engaged in a process aimed at the continued democratization of culture and the revitalization of public life. His murals were intended to offer its viewers ways to participate in creative discussion in an open society by experiencing his sophisticated yet approachable art. Above: Stuart Davis, Study for “Swing Landscape,” 1936. Gouache and traces of graphite on paper, 19 1/2 × 21 7/8 in. (49.5 × 55.6 cm). Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Allocation of the U.S. Government, Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, WPA-101.1943. Photo: Sheldon Museum of Art.



McComas’s study of the works created for social spaces in the Williamsburg Houses, designed by the pioneering modernist architect William Lescaze, a proponent of Le Corbusier’s Garden City, sheds light on the ways in which radical thought leading to great accomplishments in the arts accompanied the darkest days of the Great Depression. Above: Stuart Davis, Mural for Studio B, WNYC, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art; below: The mural in place at WNYC

The ideas McComas brings into play are highly relevant today and might make us question what has happened to the kind of visionary leadership that resulted in the formation of the FAP, the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Commission—which she does not mention in the book, but which provided hundreds of thousands of jobs in the design and construction of public works projects. She quotes Davis on abstraction as the new realism: “An artist who has traveled on a steam train, driven an automobile, or flown in an airplane doesn’t feel the same way about form and space as one who has not….And an artist who lives in a work of motion pictures, electricity, and synthetic chemistry doesn’t feel the same way about light and color as one who has not.” Davis clearly believed that the very fact that his art was abstract made it both modern and politically charged.


In addition to showing how Davis brought the jazzy social world of Harlem’s night life and the early influence of European Modernism (Matisse in particular), into his paintings, she also devotes a chapter to the other artists of the FAP who were commissioned for the Williamsburg Houses. She presents the studies and the finally approved murals, along with brief bios, by the commissioned artists: Ilya Bolotowsky, Harry Bowden, Byron Browne, Martin Craig, Francis Criss, Stuart Davis, Balcomb Greene, Paul Kelpe, Willem de Kooning, Jan Matulka, George McNeil, Eugene Morley, Jose Ruiz de Rivera, Albert Swinden. This chapter, together with Jody Patterson’s account, “The Broad and Open Way: American Modernisms of the Thirties” provide an keystone view of the development of modern, abstract art specifically created for a popular, American audience.
Above: Ilya Bolotowsky, Study for Mural for Williamsburg Housing Project, New York, ca. 1936. Opaque watercolor and pen and ink on board, 16 × 30 in. (40.7 × 76.2 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, 50th Anniversary Gift of the Edward R. Downe, Jr., Purchase Fund, Mr. and Mrs. William A. Marsteller and the National Endowment for the Arts, 80.4. Photo: Whitney Museum of American Art

The FAP eventually placed Swing Landscape in the public space of a new art school at Indiana University in 1942. It is now prominently displayed at the Eskenazi Art Museum, Indiana University, built in 1982 by I.M. Pei. The exhibition of works included in the book, delayed by Covid-19, was seen there from February through May 2022. 

The large-format book, Swing Landscape: Stuart Davis and the Modernist Mural by curator Jennifer McComas, with an essay by Jody Patterson (Yale University Press 2021), with its exceptional reproductions and beautiful production, is available online.


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