Gene Davis, Black Balloon, Magna on canvas, 1964

Gene Davis: Interval
To July 31 at the Kreeger Museum

Gene Davis fiercely defended his status as auteur of the stripe painting. Like seemingly every artist in the late ’50s, Davis dabbled and dripped paint onto canvas, yielding ever-diminishing returns. It wasn’t until 1960, two years after he put down his first vertical stripes, that Davis turned away from abstract expressionism forever and pursued the post-painterly strategy that would bring him into the color-field orbit. There’s always an opportunity in the District to see what he wrought: work by the city’s favorite son is usually on display at museums, galleries (such as Marsha Mateyka, who represents his estate), and private collections. Interval, a retrospective organized by the Kreeger Museum, is as fresh a take as anyone could expect on a well-known, beloved body of work that exhaustively examines just a single idea. All of Davis’ modes are represented here. There is the edge-to-edge stripe work, such as Black Balloon, whose strict intervals of bold, dense color lock the viewer’s eye. The pacific white stripe in Icebox is meditative, calling to mind Agnes Martin—but it’s nevertheless rhythmic and insistent. Paintings as disparate as the Morris Louisnesque stained Foxgate and the hard-edged Sherwood Forest (hung on opposing walls to punctuate the gallery) emphasize Davis’ compositional innovation. This is less apparent in what Davis tried to squeeze out of the stripe near the end of his career, such as Red Pope, a bar-code painting whose rhythm reads in an obvious, if exaggerated, left-to-right manner, like sheet music. Davis didn’t care for the pressure to continually innovate at the level he’d already achieved. Once was enough—he tweaked American abstraction, nudging composition away from the single, all-over, iconic field.