Stuart Davis before he turned modernist painter. Roaming city streets, recording everyday life

MOST art lovers know that Stuart Davis (1892-1964) was one of America's earliest and most important modernists, and one of the first to put a peculiarly American stamp on abstract painting. Few, however, are aware of his beginnings as a traditional figurative painter, his training with Robert Henri that led him to roam the streets of New York in search of scenes of everyday life to draw or paint, and his short stint as an illustrator for Harper's Magazine and the radical magazine The Masses.

For those interested in finding out more about this period of his career, the Mary Ryan Gallery here has assembled an important exhibition of 40 watercolors and drawings Davis produced between 1910 and 1918. These range from scenes of Gloucester, Mass., and the Bowery to works made specifically for The Masses, and include both rapidly executed sketches and carefully finished watercolor renderings.

Many of the latter are illustrational in style and resemble the work being produced at the time by several of his American contemporaries, including Edward Hopper and William Glackens. In these, the emphasis is on line, tightly controlled compositions, somewhat sentimental subject matter, and a muted approach to color. Only here and there can one see any indication of the bold and original abstractionist Davis was to become. These glimpses reveal themselves, however, more through his remarkable organizational skills than through the presence of anything even remotely abstract.

Of particular interest are several post cards sent to artist friends as part of a ``painting correspondence'' he maintained with them. Each is decorated with a tiny painting - two or three of which are extraordinarily effective - and are filled with comments pertaining to his activities and to such events as the famous Armory Show of 1913, in which five of his watercolors were included. These post cards, by themselves, would make a visit to this exhibition worthwhile.

There is, however, considerably more, including a lively story of marching ``Suffragettes,'' a mysterious ``Lobby Interior,'' and a sheet of vignettes entitled ``Forty Inns on the Lincoln Highway.''

At the Mary Ryan Gallery, 452 Columbus Avenue, through Aug. 22.

`The Social Graces: 1905-1944'

One of the charms of an etching or lithograph is that it can pinpoint society's foibles in either a lighthearted or biting manner. We need only recall the prints of Bruegel, Hogarth, Daumier, and Lautrec to conjure up images of mankind at its most ridiculous or pompous. Closer to our own day, such dedicated modernists as Picasso, Klee, and Mir'o weren't above zeroing in occasionally on some of humanity's sillier moments by means of quickly dashed-off graphic works.

To point up America's contribution to this art form, the Whitney Museum's branch at 42nd Street and Park Avenue here is showing a small but superior exhibition of satiric prints and drawings from the Whitney's permanent collection. ``The Social Graces: 1905-1944'' highlights social and political commentary on all levels of society and in a manner that ranges from the mildly teasing to the scathing. The world of Henry James and Edith Wharton is portrayed here in its decline, with its denizens invading New York's galleries, theaters, and opera houses, slumming in Bohemian clubs, or parading down Fifth Avenue.

Some are harshly caricatured, others are depicted sympathetically and humorously, but all end up as a few lines, smudges, dots, or washes of color in compositions that are as modest in size as they are effective.

John Sloan, Peggy Bacon, Adolf Dehn, Boardman Robinson, Rube Goldberg, and Philip Evergood dominate the show with works that indicate just how perceptive and clever American artists of the period could be. Sloan's ``The Picture Buyer'' and ``Fifth Avenue'' pack an incredible amount of humanity into images only a few inches in size, and Bacon's ``Aesthetic Pleasure'' and ``The Patroness'' prove conclusively that she should be better known than she is.

At the Whitney Museum branch at 120 Park Avenue, through Sept. 24.

A new book on Turner

Offhand, another book on Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) might seem unnecessary. As arguably England's greatest painter (John Constable being his only serious rival), it would appear that his life and work have already been adequately documented and discussed.

That, at least, is what I thought until I picked up ``Turner in His Time'' (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 256 pp., $49.50), Andrew Wilton's new biographical study of the artist. It is, quite simply, a gem of a book, both because of its excellent illustrations (there are 308 of them, 65 in color) and the comprehensive and fascinating nature of its text. With this volume in hand, the general reader need look no further for information on who Turner was, why he evolved as he did, and what he produced.

Mr. Wilton, who is the first curator of the newly expanded Turner Collection at the Tate Gallery in London, has drawn not only on traditional sources, but on Turner's own writings, including letters, notes, and verse; impressions recorded by his contemporaries; and reviews of his exhibited work. And, as if that weren't enough, he has included views of places with which Turner was familiar, works by other artists who influenced him, and portraits of friends and patrons.

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