Gene Davis, 64, one of the District's foremost painters and a leading figure in the genesis of the Washington Color School in the late 1950s, died yesterday at Sibley Memorial Hospital after a heart attack. He lived in Washington.
Mr. Davis, a self-taught artist who achieved worldwide recognition, was known primarily for his large abstract canvases filled edge-to-edge with vertical stripes.
Within this seemingly limited format, he created a universe -- his stripes could be fat or skinny, soft or hard, playful or somber. But most of all they sang with color. Referring to his obsessive interest in stripes, Mr. Davis once told an interviewer, "If I worked for 50 more years, I wouldn't exhaust the possibilities."
He painted his stripes on canvas, on a city street in Philadelphia and on the walls of the rotunda in the Corcoran Gallery of Art. He made stripe paintings as large as 36 feet long and as small as matchbooks.
But for all of that, he was an inventive experimenter with other styles, subjects and images. Stripe paintings alternated with more whimsical, gestural works throughout his career. In the late 1950s, for instance, he made small paintings with cut-out images from popular magazines pasted on them, and recently he exhibited his sophisticated free-hand drawings in the company of works by children.
Though he exhibited regularly in New York and his paintings were acquired by major museums there and elsewhere in the United States and Europe, Mr. Davis, a Washington native, maintained close connections to the local art scene. With his shaved head he was a familiar figure at gatherings of the Washington art world and he continued to teach at the Corcoran School of Art even after he achieved fame and financial security.
Mr. Davis was born on Aug. 22, 1920. He graduated from McKinley High School in 1938 and studied at the University of Maryland and the old Wilson Teachers College. The drawing classes he took at McKinley were the only formal art instruction he received. When asked how he learned about art, he once replied, "Frankly, I picked the brains of more experienced artists . . . and I went to museums and looked at the masters and tried to take from them what I needed."
In the late 1940s, even before he decided to become a professional artist, Mr. Davis haunted the local museums, particularly the Phillips Collection. The richly colored School of Paris paintings favored by Duncan Phillips were to have a lasting impact on Mr. Davis' work, as they did upon Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and other progenitors of the Washington Color School.
Mr. Davis' first career was as a journalist. He earned his living as a writer from 1939 to 1968, when he finally was able to devote full time to painting in the spartan, all-white. windowless studio connected to the rear of his Northwest Washington home.
His first job was as a sports writer for the old Washington Daily News, a position he acquired at age 19, according to Steven Naifeh in a recent book on Mr. Davis and his art, "by falsifying his age and level of experience." After a brief period covering high school events, boxing matches and Redskin games, Mr. Davis traveled first to Florida to work as a reporter and then to New York, where he was a copyboy and apprentice reporter with the New York Times, a writer for the United Press and an assistant editor for Popular Publications.
Mr. Davis returned to Washington in 1945 to work as White House correspondent for Transradio Press. One of his most vivid memories from the time he spent covering the late Roosevelt and early Truman administrations, Naifeh reported, was "playing poker with President Truman on long cross-country trips." From the 1950s until 1968, he was an editor with the American Automobile Association.
Mr. Davis painted his first work -- an abstraction -- in 1949 after a newspaper article about Vincent Van Gogh inspired him to purchase an amateur set of paints at Muth's Paint Store, then the premier artists' supply shop in Washington. It would be several years, however, before he considered himself a fully committed professional. Talks with Jacob Kainen, an experienced artist who had moved to Washington during World War II, were important in this development, as were contacts with Noland and Leon Berkowitz at the Washington Workshop Center of the Arts, around which gathered the most progressive artists in the city during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Mr. Davis' first one-man show was at the Dupont Theater Gallery in 1952.
Although Mr. Davis painted a picture containing reed-like vertical stripes as early as 1952 -- a painting that fittingly is now in the permanent collection at the Phillips -- his first truly abstract stripe painting came in 1958, and from then until his death he continued to search for fresh variations on the theme.
Mr. Davis was an extraordinarily articulate artist. One always got the feeling that what he liked to do best in life, besides paint, was to talk about art. And his talent as a writer was apparent in the inventive, apt titles he often gave his paintings -- "Raspberry Icicle," "Red Devil," "Night Rider," "Happy Window."
Survivors include his wife, the former Florence Coulson of Washington, and a brother, Norman, of Silver Spring.