Stuart Davis made this canvas for his entry in a competition to design a mural for the United Nations building in New York City. Construction on the building had been completed in 1950, but campaigns to decorate the interior spaces with murals, tapestries, and other art continued through the...
Stuart Davis made this canvas for his entry in a competition to design a mural for the United Nations building in New York City. Construction on the building had been completed in 1950, but campaigns to decorate the interior spaces with murals, tapestries, and other art continued through the decade, with contributions solicited from member nations. To select works for spaces set aside for the United States by the building's architect, Wallace K. Harrison, and U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld In the United States, the National Council for United States Art was formed. A jury of artists acting for the Council selected two finalists-Davis and Jacob Lawrence-from ten invited competitors. But designs were never implemented, apparently due to the National Council's inability to raise the $60,000 necessary to complete the work. As Davis described it, "the thing never materialized….that's a mural that didn't get muralized." In his design, Davis limited himself to red, white, blue, and black, setting up a pulsating rhythm among these colors. A critic at the time described it as a "calligraphic-like winding line incorporating the letters 'U.N.'… somewhat suggestive of sky writing," an interpretation that Davis rejected (and in fact, this element appears in other Davis works produced prior to the U.N. mural competition, including the MFA's "Medium Still Life," [1990.396] which features both a similar snaking line and crossed 'x'). Some critics worried that the design, when enlarged to full size, "might well look very like a highway billboard." Their fears were not baseless, for Davis used advertising, along with other experience of urban life, including the bold graphics and typography of consumer packaging and the sound of jazz music, as inspiration for his abstractions. The finished mural would have been fourteen feet high and thirty-five feet long, as confirmed by the scale of 2" to 1' inscribed on the back of canvas. A Davis abstraction would have seemed like an appropriate choice for the new building and a precedent existed. Murals designed by French artist Fernand Léger-an artist influential on Davis's early development-were installed in the General Assembly building in 1952, where they can still be seen. A board of art advisors, chaired by the building's architect, Wallace K. Harrison, indicated the suitability of abstract designs for expressing the ideals of the United Nations. "The very forms and relationships of abstract patterns are, in purely visual terms, communicative of human perceptions and human knowledge," capable of addressing the "collective efforts of men better than a contrived and deliberate attempt to portray 'the spirit of the United Nations'." Despite the fact that the mural was never realized, Davis exhibited this painting frequently in the years after its completion. Cody Hartley
Upper right: Stuart Davis; Reverse: MURAL for U.N. CONFERENCE ROOM 3 SCALE 2" to 1' STUART DAVIS 1955/15 W. 67 ST./NYC 23
The artist; with Downtown Gallery, New York; to William H. Lane Foundation, 1956; to MFA, 1983, gift of the William H. Lane Foundation.
Gift of the William H. Lane Foundation
@ The Estate of Stuart Davis / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY