Washington's Gene Davis has been painting stripes and still more stripes for more than 20 years now. His critics find that laughable, old-hat and obsessive, as if stripes, by definition, were mattress-ticking dull. The Gene Davis retrospective that goes on view today at the McIntosh/Drysdale Gallery, 406 7th St. NW, should wipe their grins away.
Davis is a painter who, like Mondrian and Albers, has found in loyalty to format not a path to prison but a highway to freedom. The best of his stripe paintings, if less profound than lovely, are elegant, lively, decorative and strong. Their variety is stunning. Some are tiny, some gigantic, some are whimsical, some somber. Davis is a pro who knows exactly what he's doing. His colors are so finely tuned, his stripe-intervals so musical, that his paintings seem to pulse, especially in daylight. As the man said, they keep on keepin' on.
Davis had his first show in the Dupont Theater lobby in 1952. Today he is this city's most successful abstract painter. He has paintings in the Met, the Whitney and the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery, the Tate; one large picture here, "Red Knight," costs $30,000; a coffee-table volume on the paintings of Gene Davis, its text a thesis written for a Harvard Ph.D., will be published in the fall.
Other color-field painters, Kenneth Noland, Agnes Martin, have wrung beauty from the stripe, but none of them has used it in so many different ways. The smallest picture here is an amusing little "micro-painting" one-quarter-inch square; the largest, pictured in a photograph, is 414 feet long. Davis is a single work sometimes uses one color -- his "Igloo" is all white -- and sometimes employs dozens. He is equally at ease with wiggly hand-drawn pin-stripes and with thick tape-edged bands, with bright colors and subtle ones; for his "Tuxedo" paintings of 1979, a series represented here, he mixed 40 shakes of gray. The format that he loves so well has not yet been exhausted. In his newest paintings here, among his handsomest, each butted stripe includes half a dozen colors, bled one into another.
He was once an abstract expressionist in thrall to De Kooning ("I used to throw paint with the best of them," he says). That may partially explain his willingness to wing it. The oldest picture, "Black Flowers," a "stalk painting" of 1952, shows how much he owes to Klee's steely whimsy. Davis has for many years served his public well. His paintings give great pleasure. His show closes June 3.
The Osuna Gallery next door is showing recent work by Frank Anthony Smith, a highly skillful painter who works in Salt Lake City. It sounds contradictory, but he is a meticulous realist who makes what seem at first glimpse free-wheeling abstract expressionist pictures. Bits of real life -- eggs, spheres, feathers, nails, lengths of string, pink rubber erasers, all rendered with great accuracy -- show up in his pictures. Here is a burning candle, there a birch branch pierced by a 3-D swirl of crimson paint. These paintings sound much trickier than they look. They have the presence and the weight of first-rate abstractions. They will be on view through May 15.
The Angus Whyte Gallery in the same building is showing the new tree paintings of William Dunlap, another artist who mixes the devices of abstraction with those of traditional representation, but with opposite results. Dunlap's pictures look like nature studies until one views them closely and discovers their surprises, their Euclidian lines and arcs, their free drips and splatterings, their small embossed letters. Dunlap is the past struggled to give equal stress to these two ways of painting. Here the naturalistic dominates; one feels the presence of the tree, of moist air and of daylight before one is distracted by the now nicely muted idiosyncrasies of the painter. His show closes May 6.
The Bader Gallery, 2001 Eye St. NW, is showing pictures by Washington's Ben Summerford who has taught since 1950 at American University and who represents, as well as anyone, the freedom-loving French-inspired style of that school. When Summerford hits -- look at how he paints a window sill in sunlight, a glass bottle stuffed with brushes, the green and stagnant water of the C&O canal -- he makes pictures of great beauty. But many pictures here include small painted passages -- the spoon in "Apples on Old Beluchi Rug," the face of "Becky Reading" -- that completely fall apart. Summerford takes risks, and he pays the price. His quickly-brushed India ink still lifes are admirable, as are the harmonious sun-bright colors of his little "Studio Interior." He paints sunlight beautifully. But his show is full of flaws. It closes May 9.