Gene Davis achieved his principal renown as a painter of vertical stripes, a colorist of remarkable range, and a leader of the Washington Color School, perhaps one of the most famous schools of American painting to develop outside New York in the mid-twentieth century.
Davis came to art relatively late in life, after a successful career as a writer and journalist, including a stint as a correspondent at the White House during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. The paintings that influenced him the most at the beginning of his career were those of Paul Klee at the Phillips Collection, the primary showcase for modern art in the nation’s capital at the time; Arshile Gorky in the collection of Washingtonian Alfred Auerbach; and Barnett Newman, which he saw on regular trips to New York to look at vanguard American painting.
Although Davis’ first painting was a biomorphic hard-edge abstraction, based loosely on the work on Jean Arp, he was soon encouraged by his conversations with a local artist named Jacob Kainen and a meeting with Willem de Kooning to turn his talents to Abstract Expressionism. “My Abstract Expressionist works were my leaping-in place,” he said later. “I learned art by immersing myself in the prevailing tastes.” Over the next three years (1958-61), he produced a series of relatively small canvases demonstrating both a sophisticated color sense and what the artist called a “boldness of attack and rawness of spirit.”1
In 1958, in a conscious effort to bring new creative energy to his work by denying the conventions of Abstract Expressionism, Davis painted Peach Glow (estate of the artist), a small work of pale vertical edge-to-edge pink stripes. Drawing his inspiration from Barnett Newman’s “zips,” Jasper John’s flags and targets, and Paul Klee’s geometric patterns, Davis soon fixed on the stripe as his signature image and developed it with remarkable fervor and inventiveness. He began to vary radically the color of his stripes and to arrange stripes and clusters of stripes in complicated orchestrations of color and interval. One canvas might be dense with bands of edge¬-to-edge stripes while another might open up with passages of empty canvas; one might be constructed from wide bands, another from narrow pinstripes; one canvas might be characterized by dark moody colors, another by brilliant colors, even Dayglo paints. Almost all of the variants on stripe painting were developed over a short time. “During the period between 1958 and 1960,” Davis later said, “I staked out almost all the different types of stripe paintings. . . . Then, ten years later, I came back and picked up on loose threads.2
From 1962 to 1968, however, Davis concentrated on one type of painting in particular— complex, hard-edge, uniform-width stripes—and he did so with such consistency and to such memorable effect that these seven years became known as his classic stripe period. After “Popsicle”, a painting in the current exhibition at the Trezza Gallery, is a particularly fine example, demonstrating the artist’s Matisse-like ability to juxtapose colors that should clash – lime green and olive green, purple and electric pink – with such extraordinary command that the results are both jarring yet also somehow entirely harmonious.
In 1959, Davis had begun to experiment with magna paints stained into raw canvas. The technique had been introduced into the community of artists in Washington by Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, who had seen it used by Helen Frankenthaler during their famous visit to her studio in 1952. In the early 1960s, all three men seemed to be forsaking Abstract Expressionism at the same time; all three began to favor bold, flat images in bright colors over complicated compositions and exaggerated brushwork, as well as acrylics stained into canvas over oils brushed across primed canvas. This set of shared formal preferences eventually brought these artists, and several others, together into a group that became known as the Washington Color School.
Because Davis had learned the stain technique from Louis and Noland, some observers mistakenly assumed that he derived his subject matter from the two men as well. In fact, when Davis finally settled on the stripe as the primary vehicle for his art in 1958, he anticipated Louis’ 1961 pillar paintings by three years and Noland’s horizontal-band series by eight years.
Almost from the beginning, Davis, a fiercely independent man, began to distinguish his work from that of his fellow Washington artists in other ways. The lucidity of his first fully-realized stripe paintings, such as Peach Glow, yielded to stripe paintings of remarkable complexity. Having tried to “avoid any complex adventures for the eye,”3 he began to offer the viewer a “feast for the eyes.”4 Instead of developing the stripe as a format for color, he began to use color “as a means of defining interval.”5 The shift is fully evident in Lincoln Park from1972, with its extraordinary array of delicate sky blue stripes in narrow lines and broad bands, framed, on the right, by harmonies of pale blue and pale green. The shift is evident as well in an exquisite drawing, also from 1972 and also in the current exhibition, in which dozens and dozens of fine lines in pale hues combine to form a gossamer image of excruciating tenderness.
Davis considered the stripe, quite simply, as the most efficient way to arrange colors across a surface. Through a remarkable visual imagination and a constantly evolving color sense, he turned what could have been a limiting compositional device into an endless source of inspiration. “Far from being narrow and confining,” Davis told Gene Baro in 1967, the stripe “has an astonishing potential for breadth and complexity.” 6 “If I worked for 50 more years,” he told Jo Ann Lewis ten years later, “I wouldn’t exhaust the possibilities.” 7
The important suite of eleven drawings from 1983 in the current exhibition demonstrates Davis’s extraordinary inventiveness with the stripe. In one drawing, he uses symmetry to impose a general order on alternating bands of light and dark grey, anchored on both ends with bands of pink and red. In another, he pits colors against each other, in cacophonous bursts of ochre and red and brown and violet. In one drawing, he works quietly, with clusters of green and blue in closely related values; in another, he dares one mistake after another in a bravura arrangement of purples and blues and blacks and greens, sometimes with clusters of up to four stripes, sometimes with a single stripe to break the rhythm and provide a strong accent. There is symmetry and order in Davis’s work, but also idiosyncrasy and surprise; calm, but also energy.
The English artist Bridget Riley, who turned to vertical stripes in the 1970s and early 1980s, prepared her color combinations painstakingly in advance of painting each work. Davis never did this. Like his favorite jazz musicians, he improvised each work, starting with at most a basic concept and adding one stripe at a time, never certain what problems and what possibilities each new element would pose. And it was this willingness to experiment, even at the risk of failure, that infused the geometry of his best-known image with unflagging vigor and freshness.
1. Gene Davis, quoted in Steven W. Naifeh, Gene Davis (New York: Arts Publisher, 1982), pp. 37, 27.
2. Naifeh, Gene Davis, p. 55.
3. Leslie Judd Ahlander, “An Artist Speaks: Gene Davis,” Washington Post, August 26, 1962, sec. G, p. 7.
4. Mary Swift, “An Interview with Gene Davis,” Washington Review, 4, no. 4, December 1978-January 1979, p. 7.
5. Marcia Tucker, The Structure of Color (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1971), p. 16.
6. Gene Baro, “Preoccupation with Colour,” Studio International, 174, no. 864, November 1967, p. 204.
7. Jo Ann Lewis, “Stripes of an Artist’s Life,” Washington Post, January 30, 1977, p. E3.