“Gene Davis: Works

From the Estate of the Artist”

At Marsha Mateyka to May 31

A roomful of striped canvases without names might at this date seem unremarkable, except that the paintings are by Gene Davis, who was not only one of modernism’s greatest stripers but also one of its brashest namers. Not for him was the stony untitled, or as some would prefer, untitled (after all, it’s not really a name). When Davis let them go from his studio, he called his works such things as Wheelbarrow, Satan’s Flag II, Blue Broadjump, Peeping Wall, Hot Susan, Royal Balloon, Firebox, and (did Guided by Voices steal this one?) Pink Gun.

In formalism’s heyday, namelessness was supposed to push the emphasis back onto the work, reinforcing painting’s hermetic self-referentiality. But Davis was happy for his paintings to entertain references to what lay beyond their stretchers. He knew they could handle it. Mateyka’s Davises all go unchristened only because they didn’t leave the studio while the painter was alive.

Davis’ paintings don’t work the way other color field works do. Check out Raspberry Icicle (1967) at the National Museum of American Art (NMAA). As soon as it sets down on the surface, the eye flits from stripe to stripe, searching for like colors or like widths. Teased then rebuffed by sly chromatic juxtapositions, it seeks out partners and patterns—rhymes and harmonies—taking them up, trying them out, finding the beat, carrying the melody on the verses then cycling back to the chorus.

Modernist painting has self-consciously aspired to the condition of music since, but rarely has the analogy seemed so unforced. While they are often hung in the company of “lyrical” abstraction, Davis’ paintings truly jump and jive—though they never provoke the merely retinal conniptions of op art—cutting sight free from its moorings to explore fluxes more common to the perception of sound.

The two large 1985 canvases on display at Mateyka are more restrained than Davis’ ’60s work, their funereal black panels provoking a mental saraband rather than a jitterbug, but the painter’s visual musicality still rings true. It remains a marvel that Davis’ coloristic improvisations within the confines of profoundly restrictive formats could lead to viscerally thrilling work. But Davis didn’t feel hemmed in by his structures. Rarely planning more than a few stripes in advance, he was liberated to give free rein to his intuition.

The result is a peculiar inversion of the roles of painter and viewer in processing a work: Davis was done with a piece when his stripes had filled the allotted space, but the viewer rarely knows when to stop looking at it. Ceasing to look at a Davis stripe painting—breaking the cycles it traps you in—usually ends up being a function of factors external to viewing. You don’t exhaust it, and it doesn’t exhaust you; you just run out of time.

The bulk of the pieces at Mateyka are small works on paper, however, including gestural ink sketches from 1952 and watercolors from 1956, and informal felt-tip and crayon stripe pieces from the early ’80s. The golden halo of the Hirshhorn’s drippy 1958 Yellow Rectangle is prefigured in a number of the watercolors (free of theoretical justifications and traditional notions of artistic development, Davis would return throughout his career to ideas that simply continued to feel right to him), while the quavering freehand stripe études are small flags to the nation of human fallibility.

If it were, say, 1987, and NMAA hadn’t planted the massive headstone of that year’s “Gene Davis: A Memorial Exhibition,” it might be a kick to regard Mateyka’s show as the work of a scrappy postmodernist named Davis Estate, and then to crow that, after applying all the proper conceptual filters, Estate was still the most vital painter in town.

But there’s no joy in it. Davis has been dead a dozen years. Among his cohort he mattered last—well after his “Washington Color Painters” comrades had been either sent to the bench or consigned to the survey texts. And he mattered most—Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis look increasingly provincial the further we get from Greenbergia. When local art-sceners pine for the good old days, their nostalgia isn’t ill-founded. The Color School days marked the last time Washington really mattered to anyone who doesn’t live here. (Contrary sorts might protest that Chicago doesn’t actually have a better claim to Martin Puryear than D.C. does, or they might claim that Rockne Krebs’ laser diddles were more than fleeting, but they’re kidding themselves.)

Back then, to anyone foolhardy enough to be seduced into one of his paintings by a ribbon of bold color, Davis held out an unpretentious, expansive, welcoming vision. When you look around at the current scene—everywhere sententious, incestuous, and petty—you start thinking that perhaps he never belonged here at all.CP