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 Gene B. Davis  (1920 - 1985)

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Lived/Active: District Of Columbia      Known for: neo-dada-pop, geometric-optical and mural painting

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Gene B Davis
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Gene Davis, a painter associated with the Washington Color School Painters*, was a self-taught artist whose early work represented several phases of experimentation, including Abstract Expressionism*, Neo-Dada*, and Proto-Pop.

Davis was born in Washington, D.C. in 1920.  Spending most of his life there, he started painting at a very young age, as the artist himself explains to Buck Pennington in an interview:

"I believe -- when I was eight, nine years old, somewhere in that vicinity, I used to do little childlike drawings and I sent them in to the Washington Post 's"Children's Page" -- they had a regular "Children's Page" -- and they thought enough of them to publish several of them, one of which won a $1 prize, which was the thrill of a lifetime, of course, in those days.  So my interest in visual art goes back to early childhood.  And then I took -- I guess it was about a two- or three-hour-a-day drawing course, three times a week, in high school. . . . But then there was a long hiatus there, where I was in the writing "

At the age of 19 his first writing job was as a sports writer for the Washington Daily News, a paper that no longer exists.  Between 1945 and 1950, Davis wrote for Transradio Press, covering the end of WWII as well as the Truman administration. He earned a living as a writer for close to 35 years before he felt successful enough as an artist to quit his job and to paint full-time in 1968.

Davis' interest in art was revitalized in the 1950s when he visited the Washington Workshop and worked with Jacob Kainen, whom he regards as his guide and mentor.

During his experiments of the 1950s, Davis produced irregularly shaped masonite panels and panels embedded with rocks and gravel.  One work featured a Peanuts comic strip covered with blue and white stripes.  Davis is perhaps best known for his edge-to-edge paintings of vertical stripes, which he first began to produce in 1958.  That first stripe painting, considered at the time a maverick work, was approximately 12 by 8 inches, with straight yellow, pink and violet stripes, of uneven width, but alternating with regularity.

From this prototype, Davis has continued to paint variations of different sizes.  His micro-paintings of the mid-1960s were no more than two inches square, and were commonly grouped together on one wall.  More often, Davis chooses a large canvas or mural, such as South Mall Project for the New York State Capitol, executed in 1969.

In the larger paintings, Davis uses interval and color to create complex rhythms and sequences of stripes.  The stripes themselves vary in width from one-half inch to eight inches.

Davis considers the vertical stripe as a vehicle for color that follows no preexisting chromatic scale.  By varying the hue and intensity of the stripes, Davis creates a sense of a figure on a ground, as in Red Screamer (1968, Des Moines Art Center).

Of the stripes, he has written, "There is no simpler way to divide a canvas than with straight lines at equal intervals.  This enables the viewer to forget the structure and see the color itself."

Davis has taught at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., and at various other institutions.

As a member of the Washington School of Color Field Painters, he was among peers who became famous such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, all of whom created variations of striped images, frequently in large scale.

Gene Davis stated, "I've been an abstractionist from the beginning -- which is unusual.  I've never been a realist artist.  So I have -- I've had no formal training.  I haven't studied from the model.  I haven't gone through the usual classical training at all.  I just bypassed that entire issue.  And I'm not sorry.  My art doesn't really require it.  I'm a little unusual in that regard, because most artists who are as well known as I am have got all the credentials, not to speak of an M.F.A. or some thing like that. Or at least they've got formal training. I don't have any formal training."


Interview with Gene Davis, Conducted by Buck Pennington, April 23, 1981

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Biography from Spanierman Gallery (retired):
GENE DAVIS (1920-1985)

Best known for his edge-to-edge paintings of vertical stripes in carefully demarcated bands, Gene Davis was a leading figure during the mid-twentieth century group known as the Washington Color Painters, a group that included Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.

Davis was associated with his hometown of Washington, D.C. throughout his career.  After studying at the University of Maryland, he began his professional life as a journalist.  He served for many years as a correspondent for the White House as well as a sportswriter.

Davis had no formal art training, and his initial foray into the field occurred in the 1950s when he worked at the Washington Workshop with Jacob Kainen, a noted painter of abstract works who inspired many of the Washington colorists.   In 1958 Davis created his first "vertical stripe" painting, which was twelve-by-eight inches and featured yellow, pink, and violet stripes of uneven width that alternated with regularity.  For Davis, the vertical stripe was a vehicle for exploring color relations that did not follow preexisting chromatic scale patterns.  He pursued this idea by modifying the hues and intensities of stripes to explore relationships between figure and ground.   He stated: "There is no simpler way to divide a canvas than with straight lines at equal intervals. This enables the viewer to forget the structure and see the color itself." Davis was also interested in the effect of a viewer's sustained observation of an image and suggested that a viewer should "select a specific color . . . and take the time to see how it operates across the painting."

Davis continued to explore these ideas in stripe images that varied in size and proportion.  In one version, he created irregularly shaped masonite panels that were embedded with rocks and gravel.   He also covered a Peanuts comic strip with blue and white stripes.  In the late 1960s, he created a number of large-scale works in which the placement and pattern of stripes produce complicated rhythms and sequences.  Among his largest works was a mural, South Mall Project, that he executed in 1969 for the New York State Capitol. Davis also rendered micro-paintings that were no more than two inches square. These were often grouped together on one wall.

Davis taught at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. and at various other institutions including American University, Washington, D.C. and Skidmore College, Saratoga, New York.   His work may be found in many important private and public collections, including the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Minneapolis Institute of Art; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the San Diego Museum of Art; the Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York; the Tate Gallery, London; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.


©The essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery, LLC and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery, LLC. It may not be reproduced without written permission from Spanierman Gallery, LLC nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery, LLC.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at

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