PRINT April 1967

New Paintings by Gene Davis

THE ASSIDUOUS GENE DAVIS once again confronts us, at Poindexter, with his relentless vertically striped paintings that resemble almost maniacally multi-colored blazers. It has been over six years since the late Morris Louis initiated this particular idiom in his “pillar” paintings, although then, the stripes constituted a “motif,” flanked by bare canvas on either side, rather than what Davis came to make of them, the facade of the work itself. That he tape-masks his edges to get the most exact ruling, and immaculately evens the intensity and surface of each stained integer, gives his art a more mechanistic and up to date look than his mentor’s. Uniformly opaque and sometimes enormously wide in horizontal extension, these paintings are more “flattened out,” lightless, and unfocused, even if they are also more sharp contoured than Louis’s. This time, Davis gives us his thin (about an inch and a half) as opposed to his wide stripe format. As in the past, it imposes an excruciating strain on the powers of attention.

With Davis, a given, sternly regulated pictorial structure does not lead toward easy perception; even more, it is one of the more superficial aspects of his vision. For he has always taken advantage of its capacity to offer a cataract of differing, harshly jumping, assonant hues, in such profusion, that the glance stumbles in gathering them in—and the mind falters in any tentative computation. If translated into musical terms, the effect would be that of an endlessly insistent, rapid-fire sequence of sounds, identical in duration and timbre, but not in pitch. And, to continue the analogy further, these sonic events would lack all modulation, all phrasing. This leaves the memory as the last defense, a kind of radar, by which to pick up whatever scrambled, illusory and apparently chance rhythms that may seem differentiated in the chromatic matrix. But perhaps “rhythms” is too strong a word to indicate the primitive linear chatter of these compositions, just as memory is too imprecise a term to define the visual or optical processes that attempt to comprehend them. With the absence of texture (in the sense of interweaving qualities), and harmonics (in the sense of emphatic relationships), however, these paintings seriously disappoint the expectations of richness which their coloristic complexity implies.

Not that there aren’t cues for some provisional ordering of elements. Clusters of repeated hues do exist in unmarked sections, so that one almost feels on the verge of discovering something as unlikely, in this context, as an “area.” It is as if there had been a “stuttering” in the spectrum. Yet, whether these are close value, or highly contrasted color environments, they do not seem to have any inevitability in the overall framework, not even to the extent of implying a surprising asymmetry. To be sure, Davis may “wedge” open these segments by implanting, say, a white or black bar amidst a magenta-light olive. But the trouble is, these are only more prominent break ups of a facade which consists of nothing but such “break-ups.” The effect these paintings give of perpetual interruptions of a hypothetical continuity is not modified, either, by intimacies or consonances that crop up intermittently in the coloristic downpour. It would have been a welcome relief to have such soft spots, were it likely to construe them as intentional. As it is, they, too, are lost in the promiscuity of the color choices.

Moreover, this color hovers disagreeably between acidic hues that tend toward yellow in their movement away from full saturation, and decoration, as they shift toward sweetness in the direction of blue and white. Far from providing a foil or paradox in his materials, this opposition merely thins out the possibilities of overall visual coordination. Then too, this color is neither optically aggressive in terms of instigating retinal afterimages, nor sensuously uplifting, in a lyrical or Impressionist vein. Before this conundrum, one is left with a feeling of arbitrariness or even worse, indifference. It will be argued, perhaps, that Davis leaves enough visual substance with which to construct and substitute for each other some rather problematic interchanges. Such would be the differing ratios of warm-cool, spatial apertures, or whether to read one or more color stripes as sandwiched within or bracketing its fellows. No one will deny the range of variations or even ambiguities that are calculable in these, as well as the matters I have already brought up. But for me they will not comprise an experience on any other level but the intellectual. I am left with, just as I had been approached by, a dry, analytic vision. Davis’s are heartless paintings.

Max Kozloff