The Marsha Mateyka Gallery has represented the Estate of Gene Davis since 1997. In its seventh solo exhibition for the artist, the gallery presents an overview of important stripe paintings from all four decades of the artist's career. Also included are stripe drawings from the 80's as well as ink wash and watercolors from the 50's.
In the late 1950's, Gene Davis was looking for ways to move away from abstract expressionist imagery. In an interview, he spoke about looking "for a way out of the loose biomorphic form characteristic of most of the work executed around 1957-58"*. In this current exhibition, ink wash drawings and watercolors by the artist from the early to mid 1950's represent his own experimentation with this gestural kind of abstraction in a search for ways to move beyond it.
The painting "Yellow Stripe", 1959, is one of a group of very early, break through, stripe paintings. Hard edge, evenly painted, completely nonobjective, it is a radical departure from action painting and the surrealistic underpinnings of abstract expressionism. Its symmetry is broken by the off center, single yellow stripe in a field of alternating gray blue/raw canvas stripes. With the stripe paintings series begun in 1959, Gene Davis is arguably the first artist, not only in Washington, DC but in New York and internationally, to focus solely on the all over, repeated, vertical stripe pattern, a style so prevalent today that its origins should be even more celebrated.
This early group of stripe paintings attracted the attention of the preeminent New York art critic and king maker of the time, Clement Greenberg, who put Washington, DC on the map by including Gene Davis, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland in the new international "Color Field" movement.
Gene Davis' mature work evolved quickly after he focused on the all over vertical stripe. He is best known for the "classic stripes" of the 1960's which are characterized by their very large scale and visual movement from color to color across the plane of the canvas.
Untitled (P280), c. 1967, in this exhibition, is an extraordinary example of the "classic stripe". When this painting was on view in the Kreeger Museum's solo exhibition for the artist in 2007, retired Washington Post art critic, Paul Richard, a contemporary of Gene Davis, singled out this painting as a prime example of Gene Davis' best work.
Paul Richard called the best paintings "engulfing…They take a special way of seeing. You don't exactly look at them. Static, though they are, you watch them like a movie…"** Gene Davis, himself, recommended "Instead of glancing at the work, select a specific color…and take the time to see how it operates across the painting. Approached this way, something happens…one must enter the painting through the door of a single color…if the viewer selects individual colors and looks at them across the surface of the work, he's almost reliving the painting process,…the spectator is, in a sense, entering into kind of a time experience in the same way that I did when I painted it".***
A long narrow painting, Untitled (P311) begins the decade of the 1970's in this exhibition, and represents one of the many divergent paths Gene Davis explored in the vertical stripe motif. Unlike the "classic stripe" it is monochromatic, and the stripes are thinly painted, freehand lines over a dark blue background. There is no hardedge, seemingly mechanical effect and its narrowness is in direct opposition to the peripheral play of the wide fields of the classic stripe.
Closing the decade of the 1970's, "Homage to Newman", 1979 is one of a series of paintings with this title, completed after the death of Barnett Newman, all characterized with split compositions of two subtly contrasting flat gray panels, a white stripe dividing the two and sharply contrasting thin stripes finishing the edges on each side. Gene Davis first saw the work of Barnett Newman in 1951 at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. Of the Newman influence, Gene Davis remarked on the "quality of clarity that seemed absent in abstract expressionism" and "his (Newman's)use of the free standing stripe".****
Another large painting in the exhibition, "Concord" (P324), 1982 offers still another version of the bisected composition which so often fascinated Gene Davis. While there is strong contrast between the black and white stripes on the right with the red and white stripes on the left, "Concord" is mostly about contrasts of intervals—the repetition and variations of the widths of stripes from extremely thin to very broad—like reading a barcode. In an interview in 1975, Gene Davis spoke about his ideas of interval, "Actually my primary interest is in interval. And one can define interval through space or through color or through both. For some time, I did it almost exclusively with color because I limited myself to equal width stripes. In recent work, I have been concerned with spatial intervals".*****
Gene Davis passed away suddenly in 1985. In this exhibition, Untitled (P7), 1985, was completed just months before his death. This large imposing painting represents yet another series and variation of the vertical stripe format. Originating in similar works from 1959, this series involved a central block of stripes floating in a much larger rectangle—a painting inside a painting, a window, a border painting around another painting. In this painting, (P7), even blue and black stripes are surrounded by purple variegated stripes and an even larger border of unprimed canvas.
Also from the 1980's, a group of felt-tipped pen drawings on paper illustrate how the stripe was not only about interval and color for Gene Davis but was also simply a colored line. These drawings are also wonderful examples of the artist's unconventional compositions and they are independent works in themselves—not studies for larger paintings. Those familiar only with Gene Davis' famous "classic stripes" assume his approach to have been methodical and preconceived, his style hard edged and ruled. On the contrary, these whimsical blocks of freehand, uneven lines, not quite vertical and floating in space, are the epitome of the artist's experimental, above all intuitive approach which was evident throughout his career.
Gene Davis was self-taught as an artist, leaving a career as a writer and Washington political correspondent. Widely influential as a teacher, first at American University and then the Corcoran School of Art, his paintings are in major museum collections including Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Gallery of Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, The Phillips Collection, Walker Art Center, Whitney Museum, Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago and the Tate Gallery, London.
The Marsha Mateyka Gallery has been the continuous market representative of the Estate of Gene Davis since 1997.
*Gene Davis, Interviews by Walter Hopps, Barbara Rose, Donald Wall, edited by Donald Wall, 1975, Praeger Publishers, New York, p. 27
** Paul Richard, "The Primary Figure of the Color School", The Washington Post, Style, April 28, 2007,pp.C1-2
*** Gene Davis, Interviews…, p.32
****Gene Davis, Inverviews…p.27
*****Gene Davis, Interviews…p. 30
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