A thousand dancing colors twinkled in his paintings, but his house was starkly white. There, if you got lucky, Washington's Gene Davis -- who died suddenly on Saturday following a heart attack -- would lead you to his art. You would follow his bald head down the steep stairs to his studio. Its high white walls were windowless, its fluorescent lights were merciless. There in that bare cell this city's best-known artist and its strongest link to the first heroic days of Washington Color Painting choreographed his stripes.
A cartoon from The New Yorker was fastened for a while to the whitewashed wall. It showed the painter Claude Monet at his easel in his garden completing one of his beloved water lily pictures while his wife looked on, complaining, "Oh Claude, not another!" Davis loved the joke.
Those who pitied Davis as a one-trick pony, who shuddered at the thought of a million color stripes -- "Oh Gene, not another!" -- who considered him an art monk, jailed behind colored bars, locked into one format -- misunderstood him totally.
Davis played in his striped prison. He drenched his art in liberties. He made stripe paintings so small he had to use a microscope. He made stripe paintings so big that they covered up whole parking lots. He made skinny stripes and thick ones, hard-edge stripes and wiggly ones. And he produced many works of art that contained no stripes at all.
Davis, 64, died suddenly, in his prime. But those who mourn his passing ought to pause a moment to smile in his memory. Davis would have wished it. No painter in this city ever had more fun.
His death leaves a great void here. Morris Louis is dead. So is Howard Mehring. Kenneth Noland left town for New York as soon as he got famous. Paul Reed, Davis' childhood pal, has not shown in years, and Tom Downing, who survives, is something of a recluse.
But Davis showed up everywhere. He taught at the Corcoran School of Art, where his students loved him. He organized shows of local art for the Washington Project for the Arts, and was one of that artist-run museum's most adamant supporters. He worked with kids as enthusiastically as he worked with grownups. He appeared at openings, at parties and at young artists' studios. Nothing made him happier than seeing something new.
"About 1952," he wrote, "I became convinced that the way to really make good art was to do the outrageous, the unexpected -- to be a renegade." Though a master of the elegant -- his melodious abstractions decorate the boardrooms of many corporations -- he was delighted by the goofy. He tried his hand at everything -- conceptual art a la Marcel Duchamp, collage, video, photography. Fresh and freshly shocking you've-got-to-be-kidding art, whether his or others, made him twinkle with delight.
His speech was tart, articulate, well informed, hard-boiled. Davis, who was born here in 1920, had worked as a reporter before he turned to painting. He'd played poker with President Truman. He'd interviewed washed-up fighters. He had grown up in the days when reporters drank a bit too much, wore their press cards in their hat brims, and talked Humphrey Bogart-tough. You sensed that in his presence. In his speech, and in his studio, he liked "shooting from the hip." His pictures imply planning, but he improvised his art.
There is no way to tell how Davis picked his colors. Throughout his life he claimed that he painted without a system. And when one watched him work -- deciding where to place that stripe of shocking orange, or figuring the interval between two stripes of black -- he seemed to be proceeding on intuition only. Some of his stripe paintings are mournful, others coy or joyous. The best of them are masterworks, orchestral in their grandeur. Davis could not tell you how they came to be.
He often used Picasso's line, "When I run out of red, I use green."
Looking at his best works requires improvisation, too. Seeing them displayed under artificial light on the walls of a museum does them an injustice. They are pictures one should live with. Reading them takes time. His stripes will not stay still. Some approach and some recede. With the slightest change of light they seem to choose new partners. His stripe paintings in theory may be slightly boring -- "Oh Gene, not another!" -- but they aren't boring on the wall.
A refusal of the static, a reliance on surprise, was from the beginning central to his art.
He started as an Abstract Expressionist, and its freedoms never left him. But he always was more playful than those unsmiling New Yorkers who sat around the Cedar Bar pondering anxiety and Existential dread. In 1943, with a girl's corpse in his arms, he appeared as the villain in the photograph that illustrated "Brutal Billy and the Kid Glove Killer," a story published in the February issue of "Spotlight Detective" magazine. Wholly serious people did not do that sort of thing. Nor do wholly serious painters produce -- as Davis did in 1971 -- a work of art called:
"The artist's fingerprints
Except for one
Which belongs to someone else"
Once he captured a jar of "dirty air" from the sidewalk in front of the White House and carried it to the country. In 1969, to mark the "death of formalism," Davis participated in a "Giveaway" in which nearly 50 large stripe paintings, made according to his directions, were given away -- by lot -- to members of the public. In 1983, he showed his sophisticated drawings next to those by 8-year-olds. The same year he exhibited half-imposing, half-preposterous pictures that displayed his own bald head in open-mouthed silhouette.
When asked by irritated fans why he deigned to do such things, Davis liked to quote from memory a line from Emerson, who'd said that on the lintel of his doorway he would inscribe the one word "Whim."
If his listeners gasped with disbelief, Davis did not mind. Throughout his art career he flirted with the naughty. Already in the '50s, he was filling his collages with little shocks and gags -- a bit of Snoopy from the comics, or breasts and buttocks snipped from pornographic magazines. Later he would videotape young women without clothes strolling through his studio. In his "Video Puzzle" (1971) a nude lies on her back pronouncing slowly, letter by letter, a quotation from Clement Greenberg:
W-o-r-k-s o-f a-r-t t-h-a-t g-e-n-u-i-n-e-l-y p-u-z-z-l-e u-s a-r-e a-l-m-o-s-t a-l-w-a-y-s o-f u-l-t-i-m-a-t-e c-o-n-s-e-q-u-e-n-c-e.
Once, he admired Greenberg greatly, but later spoke about that vastly influential critic with something like disgust. It had been Greenberg, more than anyone else, who had rather arbitrarily decided that of the Washington Color painters, Noland and Lewis were the two who mattered. Though Davis showed annually in New York, and though his pictures regularly fetched high five-figure prices, he never quite forgave -- and as far as the New York market was concerned -- never quite surmounted Greenberg's dismissal of his art.
Instead of striving for Manhattan's heights, Davis turned around. He cared about this city, he loved its great collections (that of the Phillips in particular), and he plunged into the art scene here with all of his heart.
"I'll admit to being somewhat chauvinistic about Washington," he wrote in 1981. "I was born here and wild horses could not drag me away."
He was a master of scale. Often his work relied on the tiniest adjustments, though his "Franklin's Footpath" (1972) covered 31,464 square feet of a Philadelphia parking lot. He was a master of color. His colors, whether dark or bright, look like no one else's. He left an astonishing, and astonishingly varied, body of work. His paintings, though recognizable at once, endlessly astound.
True, he painted millions of stripes; true, he used up miles of masking tape. But his art will be remembered less for its rigors than for its liberties.
He was much loved here, with reason. He did not put on airs, he taught, he served, he endlessly encouraged. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday in the Corcoran's auditorium. The crowd ought to overflow that room. He died so suddenly that we never had a chance to thank him. He gave back to his city more than it gave him.