Remembering Howard McP. Davis

Howard Davis

Howard McP. Davis (1918-1994)

In early March, as New York was beginning to descend into its long, grim Covid-19 lockdown, I was unexpectedly cheered by a remarkable bit of art-related news. Columbia University announced the creation of the Howard McP. Davis Professorship of Art History.

What made this news especially remarkable was that Davis had died more than a quarter century ago, and had retired from teaching in 1988. Yet the impression he had made on a former student was so indelible that these many years later that student was moved to honor him by an anonymous gift to the university to establish an endowed professorship in his name.

The news was also remarkable for me personally, because I too am one of Professor Davis’s former students. As noted in the Preface to What Art Is, his “introduction to the humanistic values of the art of the Italian Renaissance was a transforming experience” for me. He was also one of the mentors I had in mind when I dedicated Bucking the Artworld Tide “In grateful memory of the teachers who believed in me.” I should have added “and whom I learned from.”

What I Learned from Him

As a teacher, Professor Davis was vastly different in style from Vincent Scully, an architectural historian who became legendary at Yale for his charismatically flashy teaching of an introductory course on Western art to generations of undergraduates.1 Unlike Scully, Davis was no showman. Tall, thin, and ascetic-looking, he had a deliberate, soft-spoken manner in keeping with his physical mien. What he communicated above all was a deep seriousness—a sense that the art he talked about mattered profoundly because of the human values it powerfully embodied.

My first contact with Professor Davis was as a student in his course on Italian Renaissance Painting in the 1960 summer session at Columbia. I had returned the year before from a post-collegiate year in Paris (having majored in Geology at Barnard, I had gone to Paris as a Fulbright scholar, to study vertebrate paleontology, not art), and was just beginning to indulge an interest in the fine arts that had germinated abroad. I still have my complete set of notes from that course. As they testify, Davis’s discussion of Giotto’s great cycle of frescoes for the Arena Chapel in Padua was especially memorable for its clarity and insight. Through in-depth formal analysis of the paintings, he demonstrated the brilliance of mind and depth of feeling involved in the creation of this early Renaissance work. And as he helped us to see, Giotto was concerned less with miracles and dogma per se than with the nature of the human relationships in each event. Giotto’s purpose, Davis made clear, was to show “the human significance of the sacred legend.” In that, we learned, Giotto was a precursor of all that was to come in the Italian Renaissance.

“I’m anxious to make the students feel the quality of these things,” Davis told the New York Times in an interview before his retirement. “I’d like to feel that I’ve . . . contributed something to the way they feel about works of art, something lasting that has come out of the courses.” In that, he surely succeeded with me, as with countless others.

In the fall of 1960, I moved from New York to Boston with my first husband, who was joining a research group at Massachusetts General Hospital. Taking a day job doing editorial work at Houghton Mifflin Publishing, I began attending art history classes at night, and on returning to New York four years later, resolved to pursue an M.A. in art history. Because I was employed full time as an editor at Columbia University Press, I enrolled at Hunter College, which (unlike Columbia) offered a full complement of evening and weekend courses.

As I would soon discover, Hunter was a hotbed of modernism,2 for which I felt no affinity. But my good fortune was that Professor Davis was an adjunct there. I was therefore lucky enough not only to take his course on Northern Renaissance Painting but to have him as my thesis adviser for a study on Piero della Francesca’s great diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and his wife, Battista Sforza. As I wrote in the Preface of that thesis, his lectures on Renaissance painting had been my first introduction to the discipline of art history and his “discernment and sensibility have ever since served as an example.”

Confronting the Dystopian Artworld

On earning my M.A. in 1970, I faced with dismay an artworld that struck me as a mockery of all Professor Davis had stood for and that had inspired me to enter the field of art history. In place of emotionally meaningful imagery, the contemporary art scene was awash in Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop art—work ranging from the incomprehensible to the utterly banal. Unable to reconcile it with the art I loved, and unwilling to pretend that I could, I shelved my art history diploma and turned to other, very different work.3

Not until nearly fifteen years later—when I met my second husband, Louis Torres—was I introduced to a theory of art that made sense of my rejection of what had come to pass as art in contemporary culture. Only then did I return to serious study of the arts. And soon after, I began writing for Aristos, the little journal Lou had founded in 1982.

A visit to an exhibition at the Morgan Library together not long after we had met resulted in a chance encounter with Professor Davis, whom I had not seen since completing my M.A. work. To my great astonishment and delight, he not only remembered me but commented to Lou on the subject and quality of my thesis. He then alluded to the fact that I hadn’t pursued a Ph.D., by adding “the good ones never go on,” or words to that effect. I was bowled over, as I had had no idea that he regarded me as in any way exceptional. It also suggested a kinship between us, because he had never obtained a Ph.D. (although, unlike me, he had pursued doctoral studies). His words have buoyed me through a difficult path as a contrarian.

When Professor Davis died a decade later, I attended the memorial service for him in St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia. A nobody among the notable art historians he had nurtured, I sat in mute awe at the service, feeling I had not yet lived up to the promise his words of praise had implied.

One of the eminent art historians who studied with Professor Davis was Laurie Schneider Adams [more]. Extraordinarily prolific, she made impressive contributions to the field of Italian Renaissance studies, among other wide-ranging accomplishments—in addition to teaching art history at John Jay College for more than four decades. My modest achievements pale in comparison.

As I only recently discovered, Adams dedicated her widely used survey Art across Time to the memory of both Professor Davis and Rudolf Wittkower—another outstanding art historian who taught at Columbia, where she had obtained her Ph.D. In view of that connection, her account of twentieth-century art in that volume, as in her History of Western Art, is to my mind truly astonishing.

Like other leading art historians, Adams in those volumes uncritically embraces every anti-traditional invention since the early twentieth century, however baffling, bizarre, or banal—along with every cockeyed idea spouted by the inventors to justify their unprecedented work. In so doing, she either ignored or was untroubled by the radical respects in which such work had deliberately flouted the humanistic and aesthetic values emphasized by Professors Davis and Wittkower—the very values that had presumably inspired her to engage in art history. What an egregious irony!

For my very different account of the modern artworld, see “Art History Gone Amuck,” and “The Lamentable Politicization of Art.”

Were Howard Davis alive today, I can’t help but wonder whose account he would regard as truest to the values he held dear.

Notes

  1. See Heather Mac Donald’s account of Scully in “Yale against Western Art,” Quillette, February 13, 2020.
  2. Hunter College’s history of promoting modernism is well documented in Howard Singerman et al., Robert Motherwell and the New York School at Hunter, published in connection with an exhibition with the same title at the college in 2015.
  3. See “Sampling of Previous Work” appended here.