44th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, 15 May 2016, "The Mellow Pad in layers, colors, and time: investigating the materials and technique of Stuart Davis," by Jessica Ford

For the last talk of the first PSG session, Jessica Ford (Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in paintings conservation, Brooklyn Museum) presented an in-depth look at the technique and legacy of Stuart Davis (1892-1964). This talk is timely considering the renewed interest in Davis – the retrospective Stuart Davis: In Full Swing is currently on view at the Whitney Museum of Art through September 25. A loan request prompted Jessica’s study of The Mellow Pad (1945-51), and a subsequent grant from the Bank of America Conservation Fund supported not only the pre-exhibition treatment, but also a technical study of the painting and some envy-inducing technology upgrades for the BKM conservation department.

Stuart Davis (American, 1892-1964). The Mellow Pad, 1945-1951. Oil on canvas, 26 1/4 x 42 1/8 in. (66.7 x 107 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Edith and Milton Lowenthal, 1992.11.6
Stuart Davis (American, 1892-1964). The Mellow Pad, 1945-1951. Oil on canvas, 26 1/4 x 42 1/8 in. (66.7 x 107 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Edith and Milton Lowenthal, 1992.11.6

Davis’s art centers on his interaction with color and space, and was heavily influenced by American jazz. He approached his compositions in the same way jazz musicians of the time approached theirs, often riffing on a past theme to arrive at a new result. The Mellow Pad is a riff on a work he began more than a decade before – 1931’s House and Street. In her talk, Jessica illustrated the work’s origin and evolution, even finding old studio photos that showed previous iterations of the work, manipulating and overlaying them to understand how the layers were built up over the long period that Davis worked on this painting.
Jessica took the non-destructive technical study to new heights with the help of the BoA grant, acquiring for the museum a multi-spectral imaging (MSI) setup, reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) equipment, and a fiber optic reflectance spectroscopy (FORS) system. She also collaborated with Nottingham Trent University to bring optical coherence tomography (OCT) to the museum to elucidate questions of layering in the paint without removing a sample. The graphics showing a moving optical cross-section and the feature where you can essentially fall into the paint layer were especially enthralling to this OCT newbie.
The wax-lined painting in its pre-treatment state had significant interlayer cleavage with resulting lifting, due to interlayer chalk from the artist’s technique, zinc-containing pigments, interlayer dirt from the long period of creation, or unstable binding media – or, more likely, some fearsome combination thereof. Jessica performed an admirable feat of BEVA consolidation, captured in this time-lapse video, which I highly recommend you watch because it’s weirdly satisfying to see an immense consolidation job vanquished in 43 seconds. Another condition concern was the discoloration that seemed to only affect paints that were layered in a certain way – a magenta stripe fading only where layered over a certain type of black. This problem is still under study and Jessica included a call-for-commiseration to anyone who might have seen this phenomenon on another Davis painting.
Davis’s work has gone through cycles of interest, and it’s nice to see it’s on the uptick, though there is still significantly less known about his working method than many other American artists of his era. Jessica’s presentation contributed to the aim of increasing our knowledge of Davis’s technique while simultaneously serving as a reminder that there is a lot left to be learned from this artist. I hope this fascinating study spurs more interesting collaborations among the author, the BKM, and other conservators and art historians studying his work.