PRINT December 1968

The Micro-Paintings of Gene Davis

THE MICRO-PAINTINGS OF GENE DAVIS, exhibited in one-man shows in New York and Washington in the past two years, represent a curious and single-minded challenge to prevailing art sensibilities. In an era where giantism is common in painting, sculpture and architecture, Davis is currently pre-occupied with diminution.

That an artistic moratorium surrounds smallness is evident in the following statement by Robert Morris in 1966: “It is obvious, yet important, to take note of the fact that things smaller than ourselves are seen differently than things larger. The quality of intimacy is attached to an object in a fairly direct proportion as its size diminishes in relation to oneself . . . the intimate mode is essentially closed, spaceless, compressed and exclusive.”1 Smallness in art, often taken for granted and overlooked, is usually dismissed as “merely ornamental.”

When Davis painted his first micro-paintings in that same year of 1966, he admits, self-conscious though it may sound, to having been motivated by a “desire to reverse the trend toward overblown painting and sculpture.”2 In fact, the first of the micro-paintings (1 by 1 1/2 inches) were designed to be seen simply as tiny paintings and nothing more. They were painted in colored bands on canvas without environmental or architectural overtones. The concern with architecture came a short time later.

In recent months, Davis has been exploring his private artistic microcosm with rare inventiveness. His experiments range from the new “micro-groups ” utilizing dots, lines and stripes as compositional devices in arrangements of two or more paintings to single self-contained little paintings. He also continues to work with environmental arrangements. The micro-groups represent the most radical break with his previous style, although the groundwork for their development was laid in his “series ” panel paintings of 1962.

Commenting on the current interest in larger-than-life canvases and sculpture, Davis says: “I can see no special virtue in expanded scale. Almost anything painted or sculpted in 20-foot dimensions carries a certain built-in presence. At the moment, intimacy and smallness, especially as they relate to architectural space, interest me more.”3 Scale, of course, is much more complicated than this comment makes it seem, and Davis is fully aware of it.

While his first micro-paintings were self-contained works, Davis rapidly moved away from this concept to a concern with environment. His first micro-installation, at the Jefferson Place Gallery in early 1967 in Washington, D.C., featured inch-sized canvases of monochromatic color arranged about the walls. By using three or four of these in a composition that could be viewed through and across doorways and windows, Davis ingeniously managed to integrate two and as many as three unrelated rooms into a single visual experience. The eye was permitted to go skittering about the gallery spaces in an exhilarating exercise that seems strangely antithetical to the very idea of smallness—especially to that intimate mode which Morris proscribed as being essentially closed, spaceless, compressed and exclusive. The effect, to the contrary, was one of vastness since enormous expanses of unadorned wall surfaces were brought into play. The small, solidly-colored works made the viewer aware, sometimes painfully so, of the totality of his architectural surroundings.

Subsequent installations, first at the Fischbach Gallery and then at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art (both in 1968), differed radically, depending on the structure of the room or rooms used. In the Jefferson Place show, arrangements of the paintings were based on straight lines and rectangles. In the Fischbach show, triangles prevailed, as was the case with the exhibition at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. In each installation, the small colored slabs, despite a modesty in size, forcefully intruded into the surrounding space. This caused the viewer to consider the environment in the context of the compositional arrangements and to consider the compositional arrangements as formal responses to the environment. Color was held to a minimum due to the complexity of resulting spatial patterns.

At a recent group show at the Milwaukee Art Center, Davis left to museum personnel the arrangement of two walls of micro-paintings, thus bringing other participants into the creative act. He states that he does not believe this violates his work conceptually.

It is true that a micro-installation made up of the tiny monochromatic paintings (which were at first painted on canvas but are now executed in plastic) contrasts sharply with Davis’s better known wall-sized stripe paintings, but there is an undeniable continuity that has been missed by most critics. Both approaches make optimum use of interval, though the end sought in each case is markedly different. A micro-installation dramatizes the totality of an existing environment (linking Davis with such contemporaries as Flavin, Andre and others) whereas the stripe paintings tend to be self-contained, even though the largest of them, the 10-by-20-foot works, convey an environmental feeling all their own.

Davis began his experiments with architectural ideas in 1962. From that year through 1964, he explored several styles which made use of the uncovered wall as part of the composition. In 1962 he experimented with horizontal arrangements of long (9 feet) solid-color panels. (There is a good reason to believe that these paintings, first shown in 1963 at the Poindexter Gallery, influenced a number of the “series” painters and sculptors, including Donald Judd who reviewed and praised the show.) It was these horizontal arrangements of six or more colored planks, simply titled “Wall Stripes” (one of which is now in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C.) that ultimately led to the micro-paintings of 1966.

Equally innovative was Davis’s conception, in 1963, of the obliquely-striped wall panel. The stripes were angularly executed on a single long, narrow panel in such a manner that when the panel was placed on the wall with the stripes appearing either vertical or horizontal in accordance with basic architectural conditions, the panel assumed a diagonal position. Spatial ambiguity resulted.

The micro-paintings of 1967 continue Davis’s earlier involvement with the spatial displacement and patterning of wall surfaces through color interval. He is the first artist (to my knowledge) to combine diminution with architecture as format. Davis intends the “micro-paintings” to be more than just an incidental or happenstance encounter with the architecture. They lend a presence to the architect’s handiwork seldom achieved by contemporary art, since, rather than destroy or merely embellish space, they underscore its basic configural identity.

The environmental approach today is as varied as it is multifarious. Happenings, light shows and some primary structures subscribe to its tenets. Most of these styles tend, however, to overwhelm or obliterate the architecture rather than to serve it. In Davis’s work there is a modesty of scale that stays out of the way of the architecture at the same time that it becomes deeply involved with it. It seeks only to canonize relationships. Saarinen has been quoted as saying, “From an ashtray to a city place, everything is architectural; in working out a design you always think of the next largest thing: the ashtray in its relation to the tabletop; the chair in its relation to the room; the building in its relation to the city.”4

The most elemental of environmental relationships is that of scale and its resulting spatial impressions. If anything, a micro-installation is a blunt and very much needed reminder of the necessity of small scale in experiencing large scale. Yet Davis’s contribution to the understanding of how scale relates to paintings goes much deeper than this. It is an aspect of his achievements that is virtually unrecognized. This is understandable since most art critics view art works as self-contained objects having no essential connection with the realities of the surrounding space.

Generally overlooked is the fact that any environmental situation exhibits a scalar system all its own. It is the extent and cohesiveness of this system that dictates how one initially responds to any work of art. Everything must somehow relate. Michael Fried’s insistence upon the necessity of a positive connection between literal shape and depicted shape assumes unexpected relevance in this context. The point where scalar and spatial relationships first occur is at the edge of things. If the “insides” of an art work exhibit a system which is not the direct extension of the edge, then some form of illusionism results. Unconsciously, perhaps, the best artists of the ’60s have struggled with the edge problem (though not in the restrictive manner Fried conceived the issue to be) in order to avoid environmental rupture.

In an installation of micro-paintings, the essential ratio between actual size and apparent size is recreated by the diminutive slabs of color. Because the micros function at an appreciably smaller dimension than do normal architectural elements—doorknobs, window moldings, light switches, etc.—the eye rediscovers the dynamics of scale itself. There is an immediate awareness of self and things as being larger than, equal to, or smaller than, human measure. The entire room and all its appointments take on new significance through the introduction of infinite smallness. Especially startling is the activation of the architecture into revealing its true dimensional character, unaccompanied by illusion. Gallery spaces appear vast because they are vast. Whatever is experienced is experienced in strict accordance with its corporeality.

Davis’s monochromatic micros may be viewed in two distinct ways. In the first, the micro-painting is seen as an independent color slab of primary shape that simply reposes on the wall in singular loneliness. There is a beauty involved here, an enigmatic presence which produces the stark effects of emptiness and nothingness of contained space. The micros also function as extensions of the architecture. In this case, they are seen as color agitators that stimulate the architecture into revealing its configural character and its personality of place.

With this second effect in mind, Davis conceives micro-placement as compositional arrangements indissolubly bound to the existing character of the gallery space. Of the three installations to date, it is the one at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art that presented this aspect of the micro-paintings in its most developed form.

What immediately captivated the viewer was the manner in which the micros incorporated the accidental characteristics of the room. Exposed steam lines, knotholes, plasterboard seams, etc., revealed unexpected dignity as Davis isolated nondescript elements to make of them artistic events. No condition better illustrates this than the steam line in the W.G.M.A. installation. By placing two differently colored blocks on either side of the vertical pipe, Davis established a formal equilibrium between the vertical and the horizontal, rescuing it from what was, by anyone’s account, a dull and prosaic visual experience.

Due to placement positions, imagined regulating lines were established between things belonging to the environment and the tiny blocks of color, and between the blocks themselves. This created a barely perceptible pattern structure throughout the room—a pattern structure in which the spectator was caught up, as if in a spatial maze. For example, Davis skillfully involved a leftover pipe end jutting out from one wall into an imagined series of interlocking triangles that extended onto the room’s various wall surfaces in an implied series of expanding relationships. This spatial patterning was made even more complex since, through color choice, several of the micros optically advanced wall surfaces out of their normal positions. The result was an actual felt quality of spatial creation—the play of taut forces held in equilibrium.

There is more than a modicum of ambiguity here. In fact, it is the visually ambiguous which makes a micro installation a complex experience. The configural patterns produced by the tiny paintings function both dependently and independently of the existing environment. This dictates total success or failure. Where successful, Davis fuses the imagined to the real, thereby producing powerful transformative pressures upon the spectator’s three-dimensional space consciousness. When this does not occur, the micros look dead. Interestingly enough, there seems to be no middle ground.

The fact that Davis directly incorporates the unplanned accidents of the environment differentiates his work from the minimalists. Minimal art is grounded in the primacy of perceptual concepts (i.e. form at its elemental generic level). Incorporation of the accidental is chiefly limited to the contrasting effects of surface reflection or light refraction. Environment as place plays no part in formal resolution. For example, Sol Le Witt’s space-frame modulators and Judd’s regulated boxes are conceived as serial primary forms independent of the installation space. Flavin summarizes the situation when he observes that, “For a few years, I have deployed a system of diagramming designs for fluorescent light in situations . . . Now, the system does not proceed; it is simply applied.”5

Installation of primary objects generally results in little more than an awareness of the gallery environment where none existed before. This is noted in the works of certain environmentalists (Tony Smith being an exception since his architectural training has given him a decided sensitivity to existing architectural conditions). C. Blok, in a recent article entitled “Minimal Art at the Hague,” repeatedly attests to this type of response; for example, he writes (concerning Grosvenor’s work): “It conveys a sense of energy and force, at the same time rendering more perceptible the structure of the surrounding space” and “Donald Judd’s pieces mark out the length and height of walls and call attention to floor surfaces. With Morris, spatial relationships are less easy to define. That his work is apt to disclose the deficiencies of gallery spaces could be seen at the Hague . . .”6 The term “environmental” generally has come to signify a simple calling to attention of the character of a room, either by confronting or by penetrating the environment “as a whole” or by some basic method of mimicking the right-angular character of most rooms. At best, certain environmentalists, especially Grosvenor and Bladen, subscribe to universal architectural conditions, such as floorness, wallness, ceilingness, gravity, etc., as integral points of departure. (Due to this abstractness of what certainly are elemental architectural qualities, these works bear an affinity to the minimalist doctrines.) However, such universality has nothing to do with actual place character.

It should be obvious that the simple displacement of negative space by positive mass (this could be accomplished by a giant urinal—on these grounds Oldenburg is as “environmental” as any) does not qualify as environmental. It is indeed curious that most critics have failed to recognize this, especially in the light of Morris’s observation, “That the space of the room becomes of such importance does not mean that an environmental situation is being established. The total space is hopefully altered in certain desired ways by the presence of the object. It is not controlled in the sense of being ordered by an aggregate of objects or by some shaping of the space surrounding the viewer.”7

How closely Davis approaches true environmental conditions, short of actual construction of architecture, is debatable. In the sense that he utilizes pre-existing spatial conditions, he is involved with spatial reactions rather than in spatial continuums; yet, his purposeful use of the specifics of the architecture as the point of departure creates complex transformations throughout the entire spatial structure, achieving a true environmental modulation.

Davis has recently set aside his concern with larger architectural implications in favor of experimenting again, as in 1966, with extremely small paintings (composed with stripes, lines and especially dots) intended to be viewed as separate entities as well as “series.” The paintings are actually tiny stretched canvases. The idea of a painting measuring 1 by 1 1/2 inches seems so outrageous that some fellow artists believe that Davis is staging a kind of artistic put-on. This is not only naive but demonstrates an ignorance of Davis’s intentions. In addressing his attentions to diminution, per se, Davis seems to be obsessed with intimacy as a visual experience. He states, “Miniatures are certainly not new, but in the context of 1968 the approach seems extremely relevant. Smallness is so inimical to prevailing trends that I am fascinated by the possibilities. Persian miniatures, medieval manuscripts and Paul Klee afford a similar experience to some extent, but my aims are more extreme.”8

Exactly what these “aims” are, Davis is disinclined to articulate, but he has said, "It (smallness) mystifies, confuses and puzzles me. Sometimes I do not even like it, but it makes me look in a new way. I can’t set down for you 1-2-3 the significance or the ‘whys’ of it, only that I want to see what happens in small scale rather than large scale. The outcome is still problematical.’’9

Davis’s current investigations into diminutions seem involved simultaneously with aspects of detail and of scale. Both areas are in an embryonic stage of development.

As one approaches closer and closer to objects, details separate out from the total viewing field to command attention. Davis sees here an opportunity to establish both distinct whole as well as distinct sectional levels in the visual experience, each treated as having an independence and completeness all its own. For example, at a distance a striped micro-painting may exhibit an initial identity as a rectangle bisected by one single dark band but at close quarters it reveals an unexpected second identity when the dark band separates into a lively interaction of four or more stripes. Furthermore, what at first appears to be principally a configural experience becomes one of corporeality as well. In intimacy, the material nature of things cannot be avoided as a positive factor in the visual experience (the physical quality of paint, the scale of the canvas texture, light reflectance and absorption, etc.). However, Davis is aware that detail, if allowed to dominate, could destroy the integrity of the work as a perceptual whole, that is, as a painting.

In his newest micro-groups (exhibited at the Henri Gallery in Washington this August) Davis continues his interest in scale. These works utilize small colored dots (one to a canvas, to date) placed either centrally or asymmetrically on small raw canvases. Designed for grouping, these paintings explore the space and scale impressions generated when smallness combined with the nondirectional character of circles are seen against varying sizes, shapes and placements of canvases situated in close (and sometimes not-so-close) proximity.

The dots are keynotes to this system. They provide a repetitive format in which extensive variations can occur. A central location of the dot at the implied diagonals of the rectilinear format restates the shape of the canvas; an asymmetrical placement of the dot restates its own configural identity. Both static and dynamic conditions can be easily established. In any circumstance, the dot acts as a fulcrum around which rectilinear conditions are developed. Since the dot continually exerts an identity as an independent visual form, the eye establishes connecting lines between the fulcrum points. Depending upon arrangement, these lines can reinforce by duplication or modulate by an overlapping process the rectilinear patterns created by the canvases. The dots may also vary in hue, thus adding subtle or strong color intervals to the already complex pattern and spatial possibilities.

The micro-groups incorporate and extend the visual qualities that Davis established in his series of micro-painting installations. In the latest paintings, however, it is the dots and the rectilinear canvases, no so much the architecture, which provide the primary co-ordinates and structuring of the visual experience. Nonetheless, since the rectilinear format echoes that of the architecture, it is expected that Davis will unite these newer paintings into the architectural fabric of gallery spaces, thus promising even greater visual enrichment.

Donald Wall is Assistant Professor of Architecture at Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.



1. Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture,” Artforum, October 1966.

2. Studio Conversation, July 1968.

3. Ibid.

4. Eero Saarinen, 1910–1961. Interiors, Nov. 1961, p. 131.

5. Dan Flavin, “Some other comments,” Artforum, December 1967.

6. Carl Blok, “Minimal Art at the Hague,” Art International, Vol. XII/3, May 1968 pp. 18–24.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.