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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Gene Davis

Franklin's Footpath, 1972, Philadelphia, Gene Davis
Self-portrait, 1982, Gene Davis
The next time you hear some guy say he's going out to "paint the town," don't believe him. He probably doesn't even own a paintbrush. However that's what Gene Davis did in 1972 when he created Franklin's Footpath in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For a time, his painting was the largest in the world. Actually, he didn't paint the whole town just the street leading up to the Museum. Nor did he use a brush, but a paint roller instead. And, in any case, most of the painting was done by a small army of volunteers under his direction, so the attribution likewise comes with a small army of asterisks. By the way, lest you get the idea Davis painted only massive candidates for the Guinness Book of World Records, he also did what he called "micro-paintings" as small as three-eighths of an inch square.

Black Grey Beat, 1964, Gene Davis

Black Grey Beat, Gene Davis
Gene Davis painted stripes. That's all. Moreover, he only painted vertical stripes. If you see anything else, it's probably hung wrong (sideways). The only Gene Davis art I've ever seen with other than vertical stripes are his neckties (left, $41, Corcoran Gallery Gift Shop), in which which the stripes are horizontal. This peculiarity is hard to reconcile, unless you believe he didn't actually paint them all himself. The Smithsonian Institute, owner of the original painting, Black Grey Beat (above), assures me he did actually paint theirs himself. I'll take their word for it.

This is Morris Lewis
This is Gene Davis, Banjo, 1981
Gene Davis was born in 1920. He died in 1985. He first earned his "stripes" as a Washington Journalist covering the White House during the Truman administration in the late 1940s. He was also Truman's poker partner. Actually, he didn't start painting his stripes until about 1952 when he opened his first studio on Scott Circle just six blocks due north of the White House. Later he moved a few blocks closer to a more prestigious location on Pennsylvania Avenue. Davis was undoubtedly inspired by the rise of Abstract Expressionism during that period and particularly the color field painters such as Kenneth Noland, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, and particularly Morris Lewis (above, left). Lewis lived and worked in Washington at the time. One might imagine that, in seeing Lewis' stripes, Davis said to himself, "Hey, I could do that," then went out and bought a couple cases of masking tape, a few tubes of (then new) acrylic paints, and did so. Davis didn't copy Lewis (or perhaps vice-versa, the chronology here is a bit fuzzy). In any case, Davis' stripes (left) are leaner, neater, tighter, and usually thinner than Lewis', which tend to be imposed upon by gravity. Both artists, as was the case with all color-field painters, were chiefly explorers of the complex nature of color relationships. The stripes, other geometric figures, or anthropomorphic shapes were merely a means to an end. If you're thinking, like Davis, "Hey, I could do that," don't bother. You'd be about twenty years too late. Color field painting has long since been done to death.

Gene Davis, 1978, photo by Rosalind Solomon,
on a day when he didn't feel like wearing checks.

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