Stapled to the tall white walls of Gene Davis's windowless Chevy Chase studio were two 20-foot-long stripe paintings in process. In a corner, over the hi-fi, a New Yorker cartoon showed an artist painting water lilies - presumably Claude Monet, who painted a lot of water lilies in his day. A woman stands beside him expressing obvious dismay.
The meaning of the caption fills the room: "Oh Claude," she implores, "not another one!"
"See?" said Davis, "I'm not the only one who repeats subject matter over and over." His voice stiffened, for he and his visitor had just come through an exchange not unlike that of the caption. "Why didn't they ask Monet why he kept painting water lilies and cathedrals? Or Albers why he kept rectangles? Why pick on me because I make stripes. . . .?"
There were other cartoons making fun of stripe paintings, and since Gene Davis has preempted the stripe, despite border raids by other artists who came both before and after him, the cartoons are really about him. "There are lots more," he said, both pleased that his mark on 20th-century art had been so indelible, and dismayed that some people still look upon his work as a joke. When it comes to his art, or his image, Gene Davis isn't much on laughter.
That may explain why Washington's most famous and successful living artist, a man with paintings in museums throughout the world, one of whose works recently sold for $50,000, was unrolling canvas after canvas in his studio for a critic who had suggested in print, parenthetically, that Davis's 21-year preoccupation with the stripe implied a certain lack of inventiveness, an unwillingness to stray from a sure thing. "If you knew my work," he had said by way of invitation, "you'd know that I don't just make stripes. And when I do, they show tremendous inventiveness."
So now his visitor listened. "What people don't realize," Davis said, stapling a lush striped canvas to the wall, "is that it is the rule, no the exception, for an artist to find a mature style and spend years exploring it. His explorations had surely paid off in this particularly beautiful work. "It is given to very few artists to have more than and Pollock said basically only one thing. Artists like Picasso and Duchamp are rare exceptions.
"And more often than not," he continued, "when mature artists try to change for the sake of change, they fall on their faces." As if to illustrate his point, though unwittingly, he stapled to the wall a muddy looking recent nonstripe canvas, a composition of dots and dashes, and stood back to admire. "Now isn't that a tough painting?"
His visitor, not knowing quite what to say, mumbled something about how he must spend a lot of money buying staples. "I do," he said, "and I need a new staple gun too. This damn thing keeps jamming." His willingness to change the subject seemed to suggest that the artist took that painting no more seriously than his visitor had. It also suggested why he paints stripes: He simply does them best. One Touch of Dada
"What I can't stand about Genethe is the way he promotes himself," complained one Washington art world veteran who knew him in the old days, and clearly begrudges him his success. She was referring specifically to the "Gene Davis Giveaway" staged by Ed McGowin and Doug Davis in 1969 to mark the end of the Washington Color School. Fifty exact copies of one Gene Davis painting were given away by lottery in the Mayflower Ballroom. And to the micro-paintings in the minimal days, which some took more seriously than others, and the silly but attention-getting conceptual show at Protetch in 1973, when he wrote tiny words in the walls. "We all know that whenever there's a bandwagon, Gene will be on it."
Though Davis clearly knows his way around the art world, and has an encyclopedic knowledge about the current art press, there is a lot more to him than the self-promotion that many surrealists and conceptualists saw as part of their art. But Davis does have in him a broad Duchampian stripe, a touch of Dada, that makes one wary of a sudden surprise or an occasional put-on - not in his stripes, he's dead serious about those - but in other aspects of his life and art.
For example, Davis lives in a spacious, Chevy Chase house with a studio attached, all recently moderized inside and stripped to a soft whiteness, a la mode. But the outside of the house is painted bright blue. A blue colonial?
And though, like many members of the middle class, he drives a Volkswagen and wears turtlenecks, he also shaves his head absolutely bare, and has since the 1950s. Why? "It just seemed like a good thing to do." Non-Stripe Shows
Davis' image clearly concerns him deeply, and the fact that he has felt some need to reply to the issue of the stripes is evidenced by two current non-stripe shows, his first painting shows in Washington since 1970.
The Corcoran is exhibiting four surprisingly strong but clearly experimental canvases made just before Davis got into the stripe format in 1958. I invited a well-known museum official in for an opinion. He is no big fan of Davis, but when he entered the gallery his face straightened, and he sat down and looked for a long time before he spoke. He even took his hat off. We disagreed only in that I left my hat on.
Concurrently, the Max Protetch Gallery is showing a large number of smaller pre-stripe works that reveal the assorted influences of Klee, Dubuffet, Jasper Johns and others. "I wanted to show that I had tried a lot of different things before I got on to stripes," said Davis, "and also to show that I've always made non-stripe works, and still do, especially drawings, which have been shown in New York, but never here."
Several of these new drawings, along with other non-stripe work, will go on view at Protetch next week, and apart from being beautiful they will reveal much about the informal side of this artist, which is not easy to find behind the hard-edge stripes. "But I'm not giving up stripes," he warned. "If I worked for 50 more years, I wouldn't exhaust the possibilities.
On this point there is no further argument. Davis can make stripe paintings that whistle and others that are symphonic in their complexity. Some are joyful, others ominous, and the range of moods evoked by his work is extraordinary.
It is sometimes said that Davis is overrated; but in fact, because of the apparent simplicity of his format, he is probably underrated. He is generally lumped together with the Washington Color School - Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and others - "But to say that I'm a Washington Color Painter is too simple," says Davis. "I have no interest in color theory whatever, and my approach is intuitive. What I'm really about is intervals. I come from Klee and Kline and Barnett Newman, not from Frankenthaler and Pollock." The point is embodied in one of his two Basset hounds, who is named Barnett Newman. Hum and Ho-Hum
What Davis calls intervals can also be perceived as tempo. He sets up a basic tempo with one color across the surface and then syncopates and modulates, eliciting a visual effect that dances and hums. Sometimes it ho-hums, and that is an important fact about his work. Some of his paintings fall flat, and really do look like the wallpaper his detractors suggest. The Wall Painting at the last Corcoran Biennial was a classic example. The Corcoran's latest Davis acquisition is another.
The most successful Davis paintings on view in Washington museums are the cool and beautiful "Bartleby" at the Hirshhorn, and "Raspberry Icicle," a harsher, earlier work at the NCFA, which visiting children love and seem to understand with no trouble at all. Davis's humorous side is clearer to them, probably because they are not searching for deeper, darker meanings and high seriousness. The feeling is mutual. "I worship kids' art," says Davis.
Davis had reached the fairly advanced age of 29 before he set out seriously to be a painter, though he won $2 from the Washington Post when he was 8 for drawings he sent in to the children's page. At McKinley High here he made an impressive drawing of Paderewski, his mother's hero, after "being dragged" to see him perform; and it was Mrs. Davis who encouraged him in a 10-year losing struggle with classical trumpet instruction.
After two years at the University of Maryland, Davis went to work as a sportswriter for The Washington Daily News, and subsequently supported himself as a journalist for a decade. He later worked as an editor and publicist for the AAA until 1968, when, his reputation secured, he took up art full time. Demon Worker
"He was a demon worker," says Jacob Kainen, who helped and encouraged Davis in the early days. "He wanted desperately to be an artist and had a great need to be recognized, as most artists do. There was a reckless daring about him, a great determination. My God, he got up every morning at 4 a.m. to paint and worked like a maniac until 8 a.m. and then went to work!" At 57, he still gets up at 4 a.m. goes to bed by 9 p.m. and runs a mile a day.
Davis's first show of stripe paintings was at Jefferson Place Gallery in 1961, and two years later he attracted critical notice in New York. His subsequent inclusion in several landmark shows of the '60s, including Clement Greenberg's "Post-Painterly Abstraction," secured his future reputation.
Since then his fame has taken on international dimensions. In 1972 he hit the centerfold of Life magazine with "Franklin's Footpath," a 414-foot-long stripe work painted down the middle of the road in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was a smash. Even chic Neiman-Marcus commissioned a mural for their classy Bal Harbour, Fla., store, and the state of New York commissioned a gigantic $50,000 painting for Rockefeller's South Mall Project in Albany.
Davis has not shown his paintings in Washington since 1970, and obviously has no need to. He has had successful one-man shows in New York, where the market is, every year since 1963, and, it is said, makes more money than he knows what to do with. "I do well," he concedes. "I never thought I'd do as well as I'm doing." His paintings sell for between $6,000 and $20,000, roughly $1,000 per lineal foot.
Why did he stay here, instead of going to New York as so many young Washington artists have done? "Lethargy, I suppose. But I always tell my students to go to New York. When I came up, the scene was dominated by color painting. If I were coming along right now I wouldn't be painting at all. Paintings are beginning to look a bit quaint. I'd be working in videotape or film."
A few years ago Davis designed a monumental painted grass work for the Kennedy Center, but it never was built. As a result, Washington has no Gene Davis outside of a museum, nothing to compare with the Philadelphia Museum street piece, which has now all but washed away. "I'd love to redo that piece if they asked me." said Davis. But how about doing a piece for Washington? Perhaps the street between the National Gallery and its new building?
"How about the Washington Monument," offered Davis, "I could do that."
"Well it won't be with polka dots, and you can be sure of that."