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“Gene Davis: Works From the Estate of the Artist”

Originally, the Washington Color School was Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and a few other people you’ve never heard of (OK, OK—Tom Downing, Howard Mehring, and Paul Reed). Although the Color School tag has been affixed to many D.C. artists subsequently, few of them actually exhibited during the brief period when Louis and Noland ruled. (Louis’ breakthrough came in 1954, and he died in 1962; that same year, Noland departed for New York, and soon afterward he moved to Vermont.)

Although he didn’t become a star in their era, Gene Davis was a contemporary of Louis and Noland’s, eight years younger than the former and four years older than the latter. Yet he outlived the original Washington Color School and even “post-painterly abstraction,” the label that was applied to such work in the mid-’60s. Louis, Noland, and Davis all painted stripes at some point in their careers, but only Davis is known exclusively for stripes. And by the time Davis died, in 1985, his stripes stood alone in the local scene.

In American postwar abstract painting, everyone was required to do something different—but not too different. Louis, one of the first painters to use acrylics rather than oils, poured thin paint onto raw canvas, allowing it to seep, penetrate, and sometimes blend. (This was definitely “post-painterly.”) Noland followed him, but only partway. His forms were more geometric, albeit with soft edges. Davis, however, rarely rendered a stripe without a straightedge. For him, color didn’t flow. It was carefully demarcated in bands of the exact same width, organized in fuguelike variations: red, yellow, green, yellow, perhaps, or blue, gray, blue, gray, pink, blue, gray.

Davis painted many large canvases that are as enveloping as—if less free-form than—the paintings of his abstract-expressionist almost-peers, but he also worked in smaller sizes. Whereas Louis and Noland’s stain-painting technique could hardly be translated to printmaking, Davis’ stripes made the transition easily and successfully. Davis admirers with sufficient wall space might covet one of his larger paintings, but any of the prints currently on display at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery would be a fine consolation.

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The gallery is offering two series of prints, each made in 1969. Both sets are available in portfolios, but only Series 2 has been hung. Aside from one 1978 acrylic, the rest of the space is devoted to pencil and marker drawings (with bits of collage) executed between 1978 and 1984.

The prints on the walls demonstrate just how much Davis was able to do with one formal idea. With its pastel hues, Ianthe is muted and calming. Sweet Carburetor has thicker stripes and bolder colors, with grays and cool blues contrasting the reds, pinks, and deep yellow. Zebra is weighted toward greens but with some hot pinks, and YoYo arrays primarily yellows, reds, and oranges, with one stripe of deep green off to the left. Because the prints were made on paper with a high fabric content, they resemble paintings, with rich hues and a shimmery finish. (This is even more evident in the Series 1 portfolio, whose prints feature more deep colors, as well as lots of black and gray.)

The knockout is Black Popcorn, whose colors are a series of internal rhymes: They’re mostly red, pink, and orange on the left and chiefly gold and green on the right. But there’s also a bolt of green on the left, balanced by a red one on the right. And smack in the middle is a bar of red, bracketed by two of yellow. The composition suggests musical structures of rhythm and improvisation, which is to say jazz. Which is to say Mondrian.

The Washington Color School by and large did as was expected at the time, officially banishing any notions of representation, yet it’s still possible to see nature in its abstractions. The diluted acrylic pigments resemble watercolor, long favored for landscapes and plant studies, and the soft, flowing shapes suggest natural forms. Louis even titled one of his series “Florals.” Noland studied with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College but preferred circles to squares because the former seemed organic whereas the latter was architectural. Davis’ stripes, however, are solid, bright, and organized—urban, in other words, although in an idealized sense that’s more akin to the sleek stylization of the Bauhaus (Albers’ old German home) or De Stijl (Mondrian’s Dutch crew) than New York’s pop artists, who liked junk and jumble.

Davis did sometimes try to cut loose, but he clearly wasn’t Mr. Natural. The one painting in this show, Saturn, was done without a straightedge; its cool colors—gray, blue, and green, opposed by a few stripes of pink and deep red—are appealing, but the painting’s shakiness undermines their crisp, musical counterpoint. Even less successful are the drawings, which were made with rulers but whose lines are not perfectly ordered. Atop the pencil lines, Davis added elementary-school-ish doodles that are frequently abstract (dots, mostly) but occasionally venture into little-boy images of violence (a gun spewing bullets). He also collaged a few bits of paper cut from magazines, incorporating the logo of the then-new Pavilion at the Old Post Office and the most banal of buzzwords: “free,” “money,” “people,” and even “words” itself. Clearly, Davis was better at melodies than lyrics.

Now that painting’s ceaseless and seemingly inevitable striving toward pure abstraction has hit a wall, Davis’ stripes may seem a self-constructed cage. Why didn’t he do other things? The answer is that he did, both at the beginning and at the end of his career, and that those things don’t rival the work for which he’s best known. If stripes were a prison for Davis, they were the confine in which he found the most freedom. CP