Gene Davis was a major figure in 20th Century American painting, who contributed in establishing Washington, D.C. as a center of Contemporary Art. Davis also played a large role in the Color Abstraction movement, prominent in the 1960s.
Born in Washington, D.C., Davis attended local schools, and later worked as a sportswriter and White House correspondent before pursuing a career in art. Although never formally trained, Davis educated himself through visits to New York’s museums and galleries, as well as to Washington’s art institutions, especially the Phillips Collection. He also benefited from the guidance of his friend Jacob Kainen, an artist and art curator.
Davis considered his nonacademic background a blessing that freed him from the limitations of a traditional art school orientation. His early paintings and drawings display a distinct improvisational quality. This same preference for spontaneity characterizes his selection of color in his later stripe paintings. Despite their calculated appearance, Davis’ stripe works were not based on conscious use of theories or formulas. The artist often compared himself to a jazz musician who plays by ear, describing his approach to painting as “playing by eye.”
In the 1960s, Davis was a leader of the Washington Color School, a group of painters who created abstract compositions in acrylic colors on unprimed canvas. Critic Barbara Rose defined their work as the “primacy of color” in abstract painting.
Although Davis’ work from the 1960s is generally viewed in the context of the Washington Color School, his goal differed significantly from the other practitioners. Artists like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland generally preferred what Noland called “oneshot” compositions, mostly symmetrical images that could be comprehended at a glance. In contrast, Davis experimented with complex schemes that lend themselves to sustained periods of viewing. He suggested that “instead of simply glancing at the work, select a specific color, and take the time to see how it operates across the painting. Enter the painting through the door of a single color, and then you can understand what my painting is all about.” In discussing his stripe work, Davis spoke not simply about the importance of color, but about “color interval”, the rhythmic, almost musical, effects caused by the irregular appearance of colors or shades within a composition.
Davis is known primarily for his stripe works that span twenty-seven years, but he was a versatile artist who worked in a variety of formats and media: modular compositions consisting of discrete, but related, pieces that together form one composition, collages combining cutout fragments of images and text with painted and drawn elements, Klee-inspired images that resemble musical scores, and silhouette self-portraits. His works range in scale from miniscule micro-paintings to mammoth outdoor street paintings. Works in other media include printed conceptual pieces, video tapes, and abstract compositions in neon.
In keeping with his unorthodox attitudes, Davis’ works do not follow in an orderly sequence. He described his method as “a tendency to raid my past without guilt [by] going back and picking up on some idea that I flirted with briefly, say fifteen or twenty years ago. I will then take this idea and explore it more in depth, almost as if no time had elapsed between the present and the time of its original conception.” As a result, similar works may be separated by years or even decades. Davis’ works, which resonate with his romantic, free-wheeling approach to art-making, reveal a seriousness balanced by whimsy and an unpredictability that is always a source of joy.
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
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