Critical in bridging European modernism and American art, the Philadelphia-born Davis studied with Robert Henri in New York, but his experience with the 1913 Armory Show led to his abandonment of traditional realism. Becoming influenced by the cubist work of Fernand Léger, Davis lived in Paris during the late 1920s, where he studied with Jan Matulka and befriended fellow American artists Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi, and Morris Kantor. He returned to New York and began teaching at the Art Students League in the 1930s, while painting murals for the WPA.
"Ultra-Marine" is Davis’s first work to put in practice his new concept of pictorial design called “configuration theory.” Davis’s theory combined abstract forms, an all-over pictorial scheme with no singular focus, and Gestalt Theory. His abstract forms have roots in European modernism, especially in the work of Léger, Joan Miró, and Henri Matisse, while his interest in jazz music influenced his dispersed compositional structure. He learned about Gestalt Theory, the that visual images can be abstracted and retain their affiliation with reality, from psychologists working at the New School for Social Research, where Davis was teaching by 1940. Davis carefully worked out the composition for "Ultra-Marine" through a series of studies, aspiring to give each part of the small painting equal emphasis. This interest in an allover pictorial scheme anticipates some of the concerns of the Abstract Expressionists.