‘Gene Davis: Interval’
Through July 31 at the Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Rd.NW, Washington, DC. (202) 337-3050, or see www.kreegermuseum.org.
Museum Hours: Tuesday through Friday reservations required for the 10:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. docent lead tours, Saturday is wander at will day, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, students/seniors $5.
Certainly one of the most famous Washington artist of all time would be Gene Davis. The Kreeger Museum current hosts a small but important overview of Davis’s stripe works.
Davis began working with stripes in 1958. The New York abstract expressionist such as Pollock, Kline, Rothko, etc. ruled the 1950’s art scene. Free form biomorphic subject matter was everywhere, the boomerang and kidney bean shapes are to this day iconic hallmarks of the 50’s.
Just as Republican parents raise Democratic children, nearly all art movements are both evolutionary, and reactionary. Towards the late 50’s the avant guard thinking had moved away from the free form style, and began to embrace the rectilinear. Pierre Koenig had his moment of fame with the California Case Study houses. Furniture designers pulled out their straightedges and seemed to forget that people sitting in all that furniture were made of curves. No matter, the next big thing was rectilinear.
Gene Davis noticed galleries were glutted with de Kooning imitators, and went 180 degrees. Turned out he caught the tip of a wave he was able to ride all the way into shore. Some who knew him say he was a smart, funny guy, who was one of the first to figure out the art game. The notion of painting only vertical stripes was indeed radical at the time. Fortunately it was a highly adaptive motif that seemed to stay current no matter what the 60’s art scene came up with. The stripe works were slightly POP, certainly Op, a little conceptual, and a fairly minimalist, all at the same time. Some say he wanted to move away from stripes later in his career, but was type cast in the role of stripe painter. It’s a common trap. You work like crazy to get traction on something, anything, and then once you get noticed you can’t move too far off the mark without slipping off the stage. So much for artistic freedom.
The ‘colorist’ label carries connotations of sloppy hack work, with paint slathered on via pallet knife. Not surprisingly, ‘colorist’ is a tag almost no artist wears willingly, and Davis was no different. Yet a colorist he was. Highly controlled, and certainly not sloppy, Davis was the master of color in his generation. He picked stripes as an isolating vehicle to express the purest form of color, and facilitate it’s comparison to other colors. It’s a cold mechanical device that all but forces the viewer to deal with color as color only. There is nary a hit of metaphoric notion in Davis’ work. Like all abstract work, you can inject it if you’re so inclined, but you’ll have to work pretty hard at it. The color effects Davis presented are nearly, and at times totally over powering.
To understand Davis’s work, one must grasp the notion that just like people, colors have personalities. We ascribe all sorts of notions onto them. Black is bad. White is virginal, pure, and good. Pink is feminine. Dark blue is masculine. Light blue is atmospheric. Green is alive. Beige is boring. Davis’s stripes drive us to such an rigid abstract place that these notions are taken away from us. We must deal with the color’s true personality as pure color, and in relationship to other colors. Forming a sort of society of colors.
Like people, colors have a natural tendency to advance or recede. The context they’re placed in determines how they react. Think of an out-going person at a funeral, and a shy person at a frat party. Context matters. People and colors like to be around their own kind (whatever your yardstick). It’s natural for the blues to hang out with the blues, and the reds to hang out with the reds. It’s safe, and predicable. When things get too predicable and boring, we find romance in the opposite. Red and green. Blue and orange. Off of these two notions things get unpredictable and interesting. If they get too interesting we call them chaotic, or riotous.
Davis’ early works were made of taped hard edged same width stripes. The pallet used was fairly controlled and predicable. Later he opened up and varied stripe width, color choices, and hand painted lines. Throughout Davis’ career he had a way of juxtaposing receding and advancing colors, and color sets, that made the work pulse.
In Davis’ strongest work the viewers eye hunts for a focal range to fix on amid all this visual back and forth. With the room, and viewing field, dominated by the large scale paintings, a sort of vertiginous state ensues. With much effort one can focus on one stripe and deal with the rest of the painting from that base. Davis’ work looks minimalist simple, it is anything but. The most challenging works can be visually abrasive, and highly stimulating, to a fault perhaps.
Davis was quite playful in making micro-paintings, which are comically small juxtaposed to the mammoth canvases. Found throughout the show, and usually high up on the walls, its almost a game of hide-and-seek finding them. While I love the playfulness of all that, my favorite here is a small unusual work from 1983. Untitled, as many are, it’s found to the right of the TV playing a 1974 interview. The 12 x 16" canvas features a wide open field of white in the center, and on the left side is a truncated red stripe that stops just short of the top edge. It’s a point of such graphic tension that your eye can’t help exploring that void above the stripe. Executed two years before his death, it bears testament to his desire to move beyond the simple stripe. Given another ten years, Davis may have taken his work in a whole new direction.
Visitors to the Kreeger should make a special effort to check out one of Piet Mondrian’s exquisite and rare flower series, this one a water color titled Dying Sunflower, circa 1907-8. Sounds dreadful, it isn’t. Also note a nice 1874 pastel snow-scape by Sisley, a wonderful 1901 bar scene by Picasso, and an 1897 pond scene by Monet that feels about half a century ahead of it’s time as it walks the razor’s edge between abstraction and representational. Those four works are worth the price of admission all by themselves. You can never discount these small museums, they all seem to have some eye popping treat in there somewhere.
Sitting in the parking lot of the Huntington Library I almost blew off going in after discovering it wasn’t really a library as we think of it. Curelessly I found myself face to face with Gainsborough’s 1770 ‘Blue Boy’ about 15 minutes later.. d’uh! Surely one of the ten most famous paintings of all time. You can’t write off small museums…..
8th St NW Gene Davis painting.
It’s back…. Twenty years ago 8th St NW was painted ala Gene Davis to coincide with Davis’ Memorial show at the American Art museum. Saturday, May 12 from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Eighth St (between D and E Streets) will be painted once again to celebrate the ColorField Remix festival going on this Spring. Dedication ceremony at 12:30 p.m. Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro stop. Rain date June 9th. For more information call (202)724-5617, or see www.dcarts.dc.gov.
‘Peter Fox: The Cut Has a Finger’
Through May 17 at KNEW Gallery, 1639 Wisconsin Ave. NW , Washington DC. Gallery hours: Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (202) 338-4588, or see knewgallery.com
Peter Fox has about the most gene Davis-esque work in the ColorField Remix shows currently up around town. Made of dripped stripes they look fairly reminiscent of striped candy laid flat. Fox also has a wonderful jigsaw like painting titled JFC3. The text buried within the shapes isn’t the sort of thing many people would want hanging in their homes, but the painting is quite nice. Maybe a different saying next time Peter?