On a spring day in 1969, Gene Davis — arguably the most successful painter ever to come from Washington, D.C. — examined a colorful, striped canvas rendered in his signature style and delivered his verdict: “I’m not signing that” trash.
Davis continued: “This is horrible. If you can’t do any better than that, call the whole thing off.”
Sculptor Ed McGowin chuckled at the memory. Ed was there with Davis that day, in a studio on Columbia Road NW. I called him in New York recently to learn about what may rank as the greatest — certainly the most loopily creative — art event ever to take place in the District: the Gene Davis Giveaway.
Gene Davis (1920-1985) was a local boy — a McKinley Tech graduate — who nursed artistic ambitions. He became a journalist, writing for the Washington Daily News and editing AAA’s magazine, but he put away his press badge when he found an audience for his art: canvases covered with thin vertical stripes of intense color.
Critics would place Davis in what was called the Washington Color School, a group of artists that included Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Paul Reed, Tom Downing, Howard Mehring and, later, Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas. I can’t think of another fine arts movement that came from Washington or made the city so visible on an international level.
Those days are remembered in “Gene Davis: Hot Beat,” through April 2 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The 15 ebullient canvases on display are a welcome antidote to our dour winter weather — and sour political mood.
“In many respects, color field painting was the evolution of modernism,” Ed said. “It had reduced painting conceptually about as far as one could reduce it: to simply color and shape, with no expressionism, no literal images or anything else. So that sort of deductive progression in painting had come to its logical conclusion.”
But where do you go after you’ve reduced painting to a stripe of color? And how do you prepare for the next big thing? At the tail end of a party at the tail end of the 1960s, local art critic Douglas Davis (no relation to the artist) opined that a nail should be symbolically hammered into the coffin of the city’s Color School movement. He suggested a bonfire: set fire to a pile of Gene Davis paintings.
Ed McGowin disagreed. “I said, ‘No. I think a better way would be to commemorate the art by giving . . . pictures away.”
They would flood the market with simulacra of Gene Davis’s instantly recognizable paintings.
Gene Davis — always adept at self-promotion — readily agreed. “He understood the Dada of the idea,” Ed said. “He appreciated it conceptually and was willing to sign the pictures, which made the whole thing interesting.”
Davis created an original — a 6-by-6-foot painting called “Popsicle” — and a crew of volunteers attempted to duplicate it. The first results were abysmal.
“That’s because those of us who were working on it at the time weren’t really color field painters,” Ed said. “We didn’t know the technique and the medium.”
They enlisted an artist named Michael Clark to teach them how to prepare the canvas, how to stripe it with tape, how to lay the acrylic colors. An assembly line was set up in Ed’s Adams Morgan studio and the team got to work, making 50 paintings in all.
“They were identical to his original,” Ed said. “If you put them in a line you couldn’t tell one from another.”
Screen-printed or signed on the backs were the names of those involved, not just Gene Davis, McGowin, Douglas Davis and Clark, but an artist named Larry LePore and two Corcoran students who had worked on the project: Vanessa Guerin and Karen Gulmon.
On May 22, 1969, Washington’s art community gathered in the ballroom of the swanky Mayflower Hotel. The names of everyone who attended were on slips of paper in a punch bowl. When the names had been drawn, 50 guests left with a free “Gene Davis.” (The drawing was rigged so a handful of paintings went to individuals who had paid for the supplies.)
Most of the paintings were rolled up, but 10 of the canvases had been stretched on frames for display.
“It was hilarious, because the evening, as I recall, was sort of windy and rainy,” Ed said. “People were staggering out of the hotel with these six-foot-square paintings. They were like very pretty sails.”
Today, “Popsicle” paintings fetch up to $18,000 at auction.
“I ought to make some more,” Ed joked.
The Washington art scene of the 1960s is the subject of a panel discussion scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the American Art Museum. Taking part are Jean Lawlor Cohen, arts writer and consulting curator for “Hot Beat,” Jack Rasmussen, director of the Katzen Arts Center, and former Washington Post critics Benjamin Forgey and Paul Richard. The event is free.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.