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Gene Davis


Gene Davis with and without Stripes
Art Wrap, by John Blee
The Georgetowner, May 14, 2008 p 21

When you think of the stripe in art, you certainly think of Gene Davis. When you peer down Eighth Street Northwest you can see the weathered remains of Davis putting his stripe on the urbanscape.  And when you see Gene Davis in his show at Marsha Mateyka Gallery (2012 R St., NW, Wed. – Sat. 11 – 5) you will surely see stripes, but you will also see some work of the early to mid fifties that has nary a stripe.

It is interesting to see non-iconic work by modern masters, to watch them explore before they hit their stride.  Motherwell has written that modern art can be written in terms of exclusions.  Most artists of the last hundred years have had to hone in order to find a voice and Davis is no exception.

In the Mateyka Gallery the show is divided into three parts: the early black and white paperwork in pen and ink with wash, the later fifties work in ink and watercolor and some in oil, and the maker drawings of the eighties.  The earliest work from 1952 is reminiscent of Gorky, many of the abstract expressionists in the forties were experimenting in much the same style.  These Davis drawings remind me of Motherwell's early work that came out of Matta.  You feel Davis has learned well.

It is in the work of 1956-7 that Davis finds a voice that articulates a personal vision.  These works are experimental and fresh.  What is amazing is how much Davis relied on his brushwork, and scrawls, and an expressionistic use of color that is cloudy and somewhat muddy.  The oil on paper works are even stronger and remind me of the work of some of the followers of de Kooning known as the Tenth Street School.  They suggest a whole different possibility of Davis' trajectory as an artist.  It is impossible seeing the achievement of each piece not to feel that something was lost in Davis' final choice of style.

But Davis through the insistence of focus in his mature, signature work became known well beyond Washington.  In the last works in the gallery there is a kind of play that is not visible in Davis' larger mature work.  Using a marker to make them, they seem more private.  They are more alert to the possibility of moment.

Art / The Primary Figure of the Color School
by Paul Richards
Style, The Washington Post, 4/28/07, Cp1-2

Gene Davis was uneven. His best stripe paintings by far are the eight- or 15-footers, the ones fueled by different colors.  Not many, but enough, of these engulfing objects are now on exhibition in "Gene Davis: Interval" at the Kreeger Museum.  They take a special way of seeing. You don't exactly look at them.  Static though they are, you watch them like a movie—a spacey self-directed film whose action swells and flows.

What drives them is their colors, their tall, performing colors, some of which step forward as if to take a solo, while others, less assertive, appear to retreat.  These colors work in teams, joining with their neighbor stripes, or colleagues far away, to form ever-rearranging chords.

Oranges and pinks, the baby greens of spring, the heavy greens of summer, chocolate browns and midnight blues.  It's like looking through a window whose tall bars, far vistas and atmospheric middle grounds all partake of one another.

In his best works, Davis (1920-1985) opens pulsing color spaces that are entirely his own.  I can't say how he does it.  He couldn't explain it either.  It has something to do with peripheral perception.  At the edges of your vision even brilliant colors dim.  Each time you choose to focus on a single strip of color, the hues to either side of it inevitably change.  Davis was able to arrange the unexpected dance of unexpected colors.  That was his great gift—grays as soft as fog, yellows bold as brass, pink again, then green.

Still, every time that watchful, bald, thin-shouldered man steps into my memory he shows up in black and white.

He was like a guy from a noir movie.  Not the private eye, but the hard-boiled reporter, cold-eyed, in a trench coat, another lone outsider watching from the edge and drinking it all in.

The Kreeger's exhibition is part of ColorField.remix, a 30-venue, city wide, spring and summer celebration of the Washington Color School painters whose big, hard-edged abstractions put this city on the map, or so we like to think.  Throughout the 1970s---with Morris Louis dead, Kenneth Noland in Manhattan and spiritual Thomas Downing a fairly private man—Davis was that local style's premier local star.

All the artists knew him, especially the younger ones.  Many had been his students at the Corcoran School of Art.  He attended all their openings, where he scrutinized their work as if looking for a trend, or dreading a competitor.  The whiteness of his head above the blackness of his turtleneck made him hard to miss.

He'd never gone to art school, or to college for that matter.  He'd come up through the press.

He knew the banter of the locker room, the smell of sweat and liniment.  He'd interviewed washed-up fighters.  Davis, as a cub reporter, had started out in sports, covering the Redskins for the old Washington Daily News.

He'd also covered cops in Florida, in the steamy heat of Jacksonville, where, he'd let you know, he sometimes packed a gat.

By the 1940's, he was reporting from the White House for the old Transradio Press Service.  When D-Day was announced, he was one of the reporters in the crowded Oval Office, with a fedora on his head and a notebook in his hand.

He never lost his edge. He always enjoyed risk.  The narrow stripes in other abstract paintings, Frank Stella's, Sol Le Witt's, looked-in-your-face intentional.  Davis' felt different.  No plan or theory governed them.  "The way to really make good art", he said, "is to do the outrageous, the unexpected—to be a renegade."  He began his pictures tediously—by stretching strips of masking tape on unsized cotton duck—but when he picked his colors, as he readily acknowledged, he "was shooting from the hip."

When he started making serious money he bought himself a white Jaguar XK-E.  Davis in a racy car was entirely in character.  He drove fast, and talked tough.

He'd say: "Color doesn't interest me" or "Asking how I choose my colors is like asking a chicken how she lays an egg."  Perhaps he really didn't know.  Sometimes he'd quote Picasso: "When I run out of red I use green."

Colors chosen so haphazardly ought to make a mess.  But his canvases aren't messy.  They don't fall into pieces.  Their intervals are melodious.  The fields that his colors build are taut from edge to edge.

In the Kreeger's exhibition, organized by two independent curators, Jean Lawlor Cohen and Andrea Pollan, the stripe painting reproduced here on page C1 is perfectly positioned. It doesn't have a name.  A 1967 picture from Davis' estate, it was lent to the museum by the Marsha Mateyka Gallery.  It's in the big room to the left.

What makes it perfectly positioned is the daylight washing over it, and the padded bench in front of it.  Let it fill your field of vision, and then watch its colors work.

Start by giving your attention to the pair of pinkish stripes at the picture's right.  The longer you watch them, the more the picture's cooler colors—it's dark blues and its light blues, celadons and violets—combine with one another to forge a single background of bluish distant sky.

When you enter through another gate—say, through the pair of scarlet stripes at the picture's left—the action shifts completely.  Now the warmer colors, the wine-reds and maroons and the pinks that are their relatives, begin to march together, striding toward your eyes.  I spent 15 minutes watching.  That's a long time with a painting, but this one kept on shifting and was never twice the same.  When Cohen turned the lights off and left the canvas in dim daylight, the action changed completely.  Suddenly the oranges, now crackling with energy, tore themselves away from all the other colors and jumped into the room.

Davis was no plodder.  Still, unrolling all that masking tape, and measuring all those stripes (he must have measured many thousands) must have seemed, eventually, a kind of mental prison, with colored stripes as bars.

In his stark, fluorescent-lit, windowless white studio in Chevy Chase, D.C., he once posted a cartoon torn from the New Yorker: Claude Monet, the impressionist, is working in his garden, painting yet another of his water lily pictures while his wife looks on complaining "Oh Claude, not another!"

Davis too felt trapped.  Every now and then, he attempted to break out.

In 1919, Marcel Duchamp brought his patron, Walter C. Arensberg, 50 cubic centimeters of pure suggestive Paris air.  In March 1970, dully aping the great Frenchman, Davis went to capture the air before the White House.  Duchamp's gas was held in a classy sphere of glass.  Davis chose instead a common paper paint pail and plastic bag.  He also produced videos of women without clothes mumbling incoherently.  He played games with different scales.

In 1967, he began showing "micropaintings", boggling little canvases no bigger than a credit card. (There are a number at the Kreeger. See if you can find them.  It's like looking for an Easter egg. Hint: They're high up on the walls.)

In 1971, abandoning the micro in favor of the macro, he had 80 stripes in 15 colors, each stripe one foot wide, painted on the surface of a road in Philadelphia.  Davis liked to speculate that the picture that resulted—he called it "Franklin's Furnace"—was the largest ever done.

Rational cogitation was not what he was best at.  When Davis tried becoming an up-to-date conceptualist, one often got the feeling he was acting in a play.  If his reputation rested on his art-school gestures, he'd be forgotten now.  Fortunately, it doesn't.  His beautiful, luscious and vastly more surprising classical stripe paintings, the ones with many colors, blow silliness away.

Exhibitions at the Kreeger are not easy to see.  You can't just walk in and start looking as you can in most museums.  Instead, you have to take a docent-guided tour.  From Tuesday through Friday, tours are offered at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. and reservations are required.  Saturday at the Kreeger, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. is the only time you're free to wander on your own.

December 2004

Reviews: National
"Gene Davis", Marsha Mateyka, Washington, DC
by Rex Weil

This bright, intimate exhibition gave viewers a taste of the musicality, vigor, and ambition of the work of Gene Davis ( 1920 - 85 ).

Davis's abstraction exemplified the only important 20th-century art movement to claim roots in the nation's capital: the Washington Color School. Morris Louis ( 1912 - 62 ) and Kenneth Noland ( b. 1924 ) are better known-but not so much for their D.C. origins.

As this exhibition demonstrated, Davis's hallmark was the stripe. A spacious untitled canvas here, painted during the last year of the artist's life, recalled the virtuosity with which he wielded this simple device. At first glance, the painting, composed of two mirror-image vertical bands of narrow stripes, is as tasteful and neat as a tailor-made suit. But Davis's brand of serious play hijacks the viewer's sensibility. The electric, cobalt blue stripes start throbbing; the heavy thick blacks tumble backward into deep space; and the brilliant turquoise lines vibrate like violin strings.

Davis's roots in Abstract Expressionism were in evidence in three small, untitled 1956 watercolor-and-ink sketches. Each showed highly animated lines demarcating biomorphic shapes washed over with delicate transparent colors or filled with pitch-black India ink.

Well-chosen gallery exhibitions like this one have kept Davis's reputation from evaporating entirely, but it is time for a comprehensive treatment of the artist's work in a major museum.

"Classic Lineup" by Mark Jenkins
Washington City Paper
June 29, 2001

Originally, the Washington Color School was Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and a few other people you've never heard of (OK, OK -Tom Downing, Howard Mehring, and Paul Reed). Although the Color School tag has been affixed to many D.C. area artists subsequently, few of them actually exhibited during the brief period when Louis and Noland ruled. (Louis' breakthrough came in 1954, and he died in 1962; that same year, Noland departed for New York, and soon afterward he moved to Vermont.)

Although he didn't become a star in their era, Gene Davis was a contemporary of Louis and Noland's eight years younger than the former and four years older than the latter. Yet he outlived the original Washington Color School and even "post-painterly abstraction," the label that was applied to such work in the mid -'60's. Louis, Noland, and Davis all painted stripes at some point in their careers, but only Davis is known exclusively for stripes. And by the time Davis died, in 1985, his stripes stood alone in the local scene.

In American postwar abstract painting, everyone was required to do something different-but not so different. Louis, one of the first painters to use acrylics rather than oils, poured thin paint onto raw canvas, allowing it to seep, penetrate, and sometimes blend. (This was definitely "post-painterly.") Noland followed him, but only partway. His forms were more geometric, albeit with soft edges. Davis, however, rarely rendered a stripe without a straightedge. For him, color didn't flow. It was carefully demarcated in bands of the exact same width, organized in fuguelike variations: red, yellow, green, yellow, perhaps, or blue, gray, blue, gray, pink, blue, gray.

Davis painted many large canvases that are as enveloping as-if less free-form than-the paintings of his abstract-expressionist almost-peers, but he also worked in smaller sizes. Whereas Louis and Noland's stain-painting technique could hardly be translated to printmaking. Davis' stripes made the transition easily and successfully. Davis admirers with sufficient wall space might covet one of his larger paintings, but any of the prints currently on display at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery would be a fine consolation.

The gallery is offering two series of prints, each made in 1969. Both sets are available in portfolios, but only Series 2 has been hung. Aside from one 1978 acrylic, the rest of the space is devoted to pencil and marker drawings (with bits of collage) executed between 1978 and 1984. The prints on the walls demonstrate just how much Davis was able to do with one formal idea. With its pastel hues, Ianthe is muted and calming. Sweet Carburetor has thicker stripes and bolder colors, with grays and cool blues contrasting the reds, pinks, and deep yellow. Zebra is weighted toward greens but with some hot pinks, and YoYo arrays primarily yellows, reds and oranges, with one stripe of deep green off to the left. Because the prints were made on paper with a high fabric content, they resemble paintings, with rich hues and a shimmery finish. (this is even more evident in the Series 1 portfolio, whose prints feature more deep colors, as well as lots of black and gray.)

The knockout is Black Popcorn, whose colors are a series of internal rhymes: They're mostly red, pink, and orange on the left and chiefly gold and green on the right. But there's also a bolt of green on the left, balanced by a red one on the right. Ane smack in the middle is a bar of red, bracketed by two of yellow. The composition suggests musical structures of rhythm and improvisation, which is to say jazz. Which is to may Mondrian.

The Washington Color School by and large did as was expected at the time, officially banishing any notions of representation, yet it's still possible to see nature in its abstractions. The diluted acrylic pigments resemble watercolor, long favored for landscapes and plant studies, and the soft, flowing shapes suggest natural forms. Louis even titled on of his series "Florals." Noland studied with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College but preferred circles to squares because the former seemed organic whereas the latter was architectural. Davis' stripes, however, are solid, bright, and organized-urban, in other words, although in an idealized sense that's more akin to the sleek stylization of the Bauhaus (Albers' old German home) or De Stijl (Mondrian's Dutch crew) than New York's pop artists who liked junk and jumble.

Davis did sometimes try to cut loose, but he clearly wasn't Mr. Natural. The one painting in the show, Saturn, was done without a straightedge; its cool colors-gray, blue, and green, opposed by a few stripes of pink and deep red-are appealing, but the paintings's shakiness undermines their crisp, musical counterpoint. Even less successful are the drawings, which were made with rulers but whose lines are not perfectly ordered. Atop the pencil lines, Davis added elementary-school-ish doodles that are frequently abstract (dots, mostly) but occasionally venture into little-boy images of violence ( a gun spewing bullets). He also collaged a few bits of paper cut from magazines, incorporating the logo of the then-new Pavilion at the Old Post Office and the most banal of buzzwords: "free," "money," "people," and even "words" itself. Clearly, Davis was better at melodies than lyrics.

Not that painting's ceaseless and seemingly inevitable striving toward pure abstraction has hit a wall, Davis' striped may seem a self-constructed cage. Why didn't he do other things? The answer is that he did, both at the beginning and at the end of his career, and that those things don't rival the work for which he's best known. If stipes were a prison for Davis, they were the confine in which he found the most freedom.

"Color School Report Card"
by Ferdinand Protzman
The Washington Post, Sat. May 10, 1997 Galleries Section

Although the Washington Color School's heyday was in the 1960's, it continues to exert considerable influence on this city's art scene, mostly for the wrong reasons. As the years pass, the accomplishments of painters such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland have acquired a mythical stature here that is used in public and private forums not to inspire action or meaningful comparison but simply to browbeat the present for its supposed deficiencies.

The litany is simple: Washington was hot back then, sizzling with creativity and energy, filled with meaningful exhibitions by heavy-hitting artists; there was a real scene, not like now when everything is so diffuse, so atomized; if only things could be like that again; those were the days.

Or were they? Like most myths, the notion of the Color School as Mount Olympus, populated by artist-deities, is grounded more in fiction than fact. Fortunately, Marsha Mateyka Gallery's exhibition of works from the estate of the late Gene Davis, a Color School stalwart best known for his color-stripe paintings, provides some much-needed perspective about what was and what is.

Davis was a significant artist, whose works are in a number of major museums, including the National Museum of American Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Phillips Collection and the Whitney Museum of American Art. But, to borrow baseball player Chili Davis's comment about an opposing pitcher "He ain't God."

The works on display at Mateyka are not uniformly strong. Some of the 18 paintings and drawings in the show are remarkable compositions, full of tension, vitality and the expressive power of pure, unadulterated color. Others are less impressive.

The best piece is an untitled acrylic-on-canvas painting from 1959, in which vertical blue stripes, about an inch wide and spaced approximately and inch apart, are painted over a background stained in the soft hues of a spring sunset over the Potomac. It is one of his early stripe paintings, presaging the hard-edged works that followed, and there is a real boldness about it, as if Davis had painted over one of Helen Frankenthaler's stain paintings. Metaphorically, the stripes can be seen as bars, separating the viewer and the artist from the ethereal background, separating abstraction from more painterly tendencies.

Davis's drawings from the early 1950's are also compelling. They are unfettered, witty, almost childlike in their abandon, the freehand work of an artists who never had any formal training but possessed a large measure of innate talent.

But there are also some pedestrian works, particularly the stripe drawings done with felt-tipped markers in the early 1980's. They seem tepid, dated and dull, lacking the potent color and rhythmic power of the paintings or early drawings.

But what shines through in all Davis's work is the sense that he was fearless in following his gut instincts. From catalogue essays and interviews, it is clear that Davis, a native Washingtonian who died of a heart attack at age 65 in April 1985, lived in the present, not the past, and understood that contemporary art is a reflection of and reaction to its times.

That context is important. Davis and the other Color School artists made their reputations by reacting to the painterly trends of abstract expression in the late 1950's. Instead of emulating artists like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, they took a different direction, pouring thinned acrylic paint directly onto unprimed canvas, staining the material, making the canvas part and parcel of the color rather than just burying it under pigment.

The result was abstract paintings in which there was no evidence of the artists's hand. no drawing or brush strokes or traditional notions of composition Color was free to work by itself. And what color. Influenced by the fabulous hues of the impressionist paintings in the Phillips Collection and the abundance of natural colors found in Washington, the Color School painters developed a vibrant wide-ranging palette that their New York counterparts simply did not have.

And there was more than just Washington's color in the works of Davis and the others. They took what this city had to offer, the edgy energy emanating from its political class, the elegant geometry of its streets and spacious public areas, and incorporated those things into their art.

The Washington Color School artists caught the eye of New York critics such as Clement Greenberg. His support helped make Louis and Noland internationally renowned and brought recognition to Davis and others. For a while, Washington was a hot and happening art town.

So what happened? Time passed. Some of the artists died, others grew old and art changed. The strict, reductionist tendencies that dominated the art world in the 1960's are gone. In our era, anything goes. New York is no longer the mecca it once was. There is no center, no standout trend, no great movement.

Davis probably would not have been uncomfortable with such diversity. In an interview published in a 1975 catalogue of his work he explained what he looks for in contemporary art. "I like to be mystified," he said. "Somebody or other once said, 'All clear ideas tend to be wrong.' When I see a new work of art, I like my reaction to be: 'What is the hell is this guy up to? What kind of a mind could possibly come up with something like this?' In other works, I want to be appalled by the effrontery of an artist."

The art scene in this city could use a lot more of that attitude and a lot less looking in the rearview mirror in the hope that the past will return.