"I see my paintings," says Gene Davis, "as a feast for the eyeballs."
His metaphor is apt. Davis is a color chef, an Escoffier of stripes, whose pictures, like grand meals, give a rich-but partial-pleasure. In "Gene Davis: Recent Paintings (1970-1978)," which opens here tomorrow, we see him at his best.
The exhibition is Davis' fifth one-man show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. No artist dead or living has been shown there so often. He deserves the honor. Davis, whose sales earn him yearly a sum in six figures, is, at 58, this city's most successful and most persevering painter.
He brushed in his first color stripe in 1958. Though the thought of painting parallel stripes for one year, much less 20, would drive most artists batty, Davis does so gladly. Hundreds of hard-edge painters dabbled with his format in the 1960s, but while most of them grew bored, Davis kept right at it. There is no need to pity Davis in his windowless white studio, crawling on his canvas, painting one stripe, then another, ad infinitum . He has become a kind of master.
See DAVID, E13, Col. 1
DAVIS, From E1
His pictures are not monotonous. Some are somber, shadowed, some are soft and airy; there are no two the same. They should be seen, as they are here, in large rooms in daylight. Visit them if possible on a sunny day with clouds. They do not look in morning light as they do at sunset. The always changing light, altering their subtle harmonies of color, makes them seem alive.
But luscious as it is, his show is also limited. His delicious pictures do not repay study. They should be tasted, but not pondered. They do not feed the mind.
They seem to have an order, an intellectual component, that is not really there.
Davis paints by whim, by guess, by intuition. He says, "I make no prliminary studies or sketches. I improvise my structure as I go along. When I begin work on, say, a 10-by-20-foot canvas, I have only the vaguest idea of where I am going. I just leap in and let the painting take me along for the ride."
Those who go to paintings for visual pleasure only may enjoy the journey. Those who search for substance, who try to figure out why that yellow stripe is there, or who attempt to place these pictures in the context of art history, may well find their efforts are a waste of time.
When Davis tries to tie his art to that of the pop painters ("we both paint cliches"), or to Barnett Newman's zips," or to the stars and bars of jasper Johns, his claims do not ring true. Davis, as an artist, is less a serious scholar than he is a joker. When he paints, he plays.
There is something pure, something quasi-classical about his grand stripe paintings. Their repeated lines protect him. But when he leaves that oormat -and he is smart enough to do so only rarely-he displays, to our embarrassment, the almost-heedless whimsy with which he fuels his art.
His so-called "micro paintings" were boring dots of color. His "plank paintings" weren't much better. The childish scribbled drawings that he is showing now at Protetch-McIntosh, 2151 P St. NW, seem to me the silliest works he has yet done.
One shows four small spirals-they look like little pigs' tails-emitting thought ballons. Except for four pink scribbled drawings of Gene Davis cost empty. Davis says these drawings, with their dashes, dots and doodles, were influenced by children's art. But children draw with innocence. The scribbled drawings of Gene David cost $1,000 each. They seem, at first, a puton, a thumbing of the nose at the exasperated viewer.
But they may be useful failures. Davis-a finer painter now than he has ever been-seems to know what's best for him. He has strong survival instincts. If you had painted stripes for 20 years, would you not, at last, need to let off steam? The viewer who sees Davis take such odd excursions suspects the artist does it in order to remind himself to go back to the stripe format-where he knows he belongs.
He is not a painter comfortable with complete freedom. But a little freedom helps him. When he gave up masking tape in the early '70s and, instead, began to paint all of his stripes free-hand, his art seemed to advance. When he loads his brush unevenly-for instance in the Cocoran's grand black and dark blue canvas-he comes up with a kind of dense and shadowed space that we have not seen before.
The real joy his finest pictures give us is, at least in large part, a joy we give ourselves. When we feast our eye on his countless colored stripes, we do so at a pace that he does not control.
His art, when we first saw it, seemed daring, avant garde."Flatness" seemed important then, so, too, did hard edges and "uninflected color," but those exclusionary dogmans, through which we judged color painting, have lost much of their force. That hasn't hurt Davis. His work does not need words. Though Davis does not like the term, his painting is, in the best sense of the word, decorative art. His Corcoran show closes Feb. 4. CAPTION: Picture, Artist Gene Davis, exhibiting at the Corcoran, by Larry Morris-The Washington Post