PRINT March 1971

A Conversation with Gene Davis

When did you join the Jefferson Place Gallery in Washington?

ALICE DENNY SAW MY WORK in Corcoran area shows or in a local group show. She may have seen my one-man show at Catholic University in 1953. I also had a show at the Franz Bader Gallery in 1956, so I wasn’t totally unknown. The Jefferson Place was a co-op gallery founded jointly by Alice Denny and a young wealthy collector around town whose name escapes me. It was made up mostly of the American University group who were oriented toward de Kooning and the figure. They included Robert Gates, Joe Summerford, Helene McKenzie Herzbrun and Bob Calfee.

Alice came around to look at my work, liked it and said she was going to propose me for membership in the gallery. It seems that you had to have the votes of three of the member artists in order to be accepted. To make a long story short, I didn’t get enough votes to get into the gallery. Alice had to exert considerable pressure to get me in, which she did, and I had a show there in ’59.

What did you show?

At that time I had done quite a number of stripe paintings without really recognizing their importance or their significance. Like many other artists at that point, a lot of us in Washington were trying to find our way out of Abstract Expressionism. I was experimenting with different things at the time, but the show was mainly action paintings. I had other work I kept in my closet you might say until a young collector by the name of Mark Moyens dropped into my studio one day. He looked at the Abstract Expressionist work, yawned a bit, and looked over in the corner and said, “Who did that?” It was a stripe painting. I said, “I did,” and he got so enthusiastic it sent me off on a little excursion of painting stripe paintings. His was the first real enthusiasm I had experienced for my stripe paintings.

What led you to paint stripes?

I had always admired Barnett Newman’s work. I saw his first show at the Parsons Gallery in New York in 1951. It impressed me very much. Throughout the mid-fifties—a period dominated mostly by de Kooning—I thought about Newman, even though I was still going to school under de Kooning, in contrast to the other Washington painters who went to school with Frankenthaler and Pollock. All through the de Kooningesque period of painterly paintings I was slashing away, but stripes found their way into a number of works. I don’t know why. I just had a sort of vagrant idea of dropping a stripe down. I have one of these Abstract Expressionist stripe paintings down at the Corcoran Gallery now. Of course Newman must have been in the back of my mind. In fact in the fifties I thought so much of Newman, I tried to buy a Newman painting. I wrote to him, telling him how moved I was by his work and asking if he would sell me a painting. He wrote back saying how touched he was because he wasn’t getting any recognition and was not being critically well received. He said, “This is what makes it all worthwhile. I’ll look around and see if I can find a painting for you.” It just fizzled out and I didn’t hear from him again; he probably forgot about it.

My admiration for Newman during a period of predominantly biomorphic painterly work led me to stripes. Often one looks to the most diametrically opposed ideas as a way out. It was heresy in 1958 to do a stripe. I like the fact that it was an outrageous idea to do stripes. Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg were also very much in the air then. They seemed to point a way out of de Kooning and Pollock in that, for the first time, they were emphasizing literature; that is, they were unabashedly embracing subject matter. I must confess that the idea of trite subject matter appealed to me. It was a sort of corollary motivation in painting stripes. I thought maybe stripes would be my way of getting to trite subject matter because stripes are in dresses, they’re in wallpaper, they’re in decorative art. They are trite in the same way that the American flag and Campbell’s soup cans and comic strips are trite. So I was a little influenced by the precursors of Pop art.

How did you know their work?

Through the magazines. As a matter of fact, I remember being extremely impressed with an Art News cover in 1958 of Johns’s target. I still have it upstairs. You know, when you’ve been used to looking at Milton Resnick and de Kooning and Philip Guston, and you pick up a magazine and suddenly there is a totally symmetrical cliché on the cover and it’s presented as art—it’s a bombshell. So I figured what the hell, I’ll do some stripes. If he can do that, I can do stripes. So my stripes were not motivated exclusively by formalistic considerations.

What do you think is the difference between, say, stripes in painting, and stripes in wallpaper design—what is the cutoff point between painting and applied art?

The only requirement I make of art, and this may sound a little simplistic, is that it look good and continue looking good with the passage of time, whether it’s wallpaper or whatever. Maybe wallpaper can be art, too, if it continues to look good. That’s quite a demand actually, that something continue to look good forever.

Do you think it might have something to do with spatial qualities?

What my stripes have become now are quite different from what they started out as. I didn’t really understand what I was about at first. I think maybe the best painters don’t know what they’re doing in the beginning. The painter who can tell you exactly what he’s doing isn’t doing much. At first I didn’t have the foggiest notion of what I was doing. It just seemed like maybe a good idea. Pure whim motivated it. I think that’s a pretty good motivation anyway, to do something just for the sheer hell of it. Later I began to realize there was something behind my decision. You see, I’m a frustrated musician. I studied music all through my teens. But I have a tin ear, and I wasn’t really very good. Painting stripes with musical intervals may be a kind of unconscious compensation for the fact that I never made it as a musician. I don’t set out to do musical paintings—that’s corny. The fact remains, however, that music is an art of interval and my work is an art of interval.

I have always been an interval artist. Even now in the new black and white paintings I’m working on, I am interested in spatial interval. Before it was color interval.

What’s the maximum number of colors you’ve used?

I haven’t counted them down to the last color, but I did a commission for Nelson Rockefeller for the South Mall project thing in New York which is 60 feet long. It has 750 stripes in it and I think 60 colors. Yet it does not come across as being all that busy. The stripes, hopefully, are in the right place.

Do you do sketches before the paintings or do you just kind of place the colors?

I haven’t any idea of where any painting is going when I start out. If I did I’m afraid it would cramp my style. I’m the most intuitive of painters. This sounds a little bit flip and I don’t intend it to be, but I often will use the color I have the most of at the moment and trust to my instincts to get out of trouble. Just whatever I happen to have around is put on because I have to bounce off of things, I have to get something started. It’s sort of like a jazz musician. He’ll use an old standard tune to bounce off of. I’ve got to get some red or some green up there on the canvas to have something to relate to and then I start off and I paint my way out of the painting. The painting takes over after a while, and I go along for the ride. It shows me where to go and I’m not always the master of where the painting ultimately winds up. In that sense I’m a very romantic painter.

One of the things I am interested in about the early paintings is that when you start centering the image, you have a big field of raw canvas and a small centered square of stripes. How and why did that come about?

I think that’s kind of a left-handed salute to Albers. Given the stripe as an increment of space division, you are apt to come up with a million different variations on it. You say O.K. I’m not going to do the nude, I’m not going to do stars, I’m going to do the stripe, that’s my subject matter. Let’s say you take three painters who are using stripes; it’s not too surprising that some of them might come up with a number of pictorial solutions to the stripe that are related. A centered square just happened to be one variation that one could do with the stripe. Centering them and relating them this way or running them all the way down from the center are two obvious formats. I think critics who like to draw comparisons between one artist and another assume that so and so got this idea from so and so. I think that’s a little too easy. I think certain things are in the air and a number of people may get involved with similar problems.

I certainly see that one could, if one wanted, draw comparisons between my centered image idea and all those Noland targets, for example. The fact remains that this was a coincidence. I can’t prove that to your satisfaction but I don’t think that it makes any difference. There is a relationship obviously between those works and Tom Downing’s grid paintings as well.

There’s that curious 1958 painting with the Snoopy cartoon, where the motif is symmetrically centered. It kind of prefigures what happens in later stripe painting. I suppose it is inevitable that somebody is going to find such a solution. There are also your paintings of 1952–54 in which there’s an empty center. And there are the paintings of an open oblong or square in the center. Where did these formats develop from? What were you thinking about at that point?

It’s hard to pinpoint it, but—this sounds kind of pretentious—one of the guiding lights of my endeavor in art has always been that one should try to do the outrageous thing, the thing which is seemingly ridiculous because I think that’s generally where it happens, in the area of the seemingly ridiculous. In 1952 the idea of ignoring Cubist composition and plopping something on dead center in the middle of a canvas seemed like a sufficiently absurd idea to me. I really feel that although they are not really closely related to Newman, he may have served as a model.

Did you ever see those early Newmans? The Death of Euclid, for example?

Only in reproduction. Whether I saw them then or not is quite another thing. I don’t think they received that wide a circulation in the early ’50s, but I saw them later. But you know Newman serves as a kind of example of how far you can go and get away with it.

Your 1954 painting with the big blue square in the center, is that related to Kline’s rectangles?

Yes, it is a kind of homage to Kline. I did three others like it, each in a different color, but on a canvas 8 by 10 feet—one was an enormous red square—kind of like a kick in the stomach—powerful. These paintings are of course essentially Abstract Expressionist although they are concerned with structure. I must confess also that one guy who turned me on for a brief time when I saw his work at Kootz was Dubuffet. You may be able to see some distant relationship between my early paintings and Dubuffet.

Yes, they have the continuous surface of a Dubuffet and depend on impastoed texture to maintain it and to avoid conventional figure-ground relationships. It’s odd that Dubuffet should have interested a painter in Washington in the ’50s. Tell me more about what it was like in the fifties in Washington.

None of us really took ourselves all that seriously. Artistic activity sort of gravitated around the annual Corcoran area show. I’ll show you some catalogs; we were all in those shows. It was the only place a local artist could get any exposure. I remember each year that it was the exciting event for an artist. If you got in the area show, it was important. And of course there was the Washington Workshop of the Arts, an important oasis, as well as the Phillips Gallery.

What was the Workshop?

The Washington Workshop was a school run by Ida and Leon Berkowitz where quite a number of people, including Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, taught. I never taught or studied there, but I used to go up occasionally and hang around. It was a place you could go and bullshit with the other artists. There’s never really been a place like the Cedar Bar or Max’s in Washington. We don’t have that sort of thing. For the most part, there’s never really been an art community here. If there’s a closeness, it’s because everybody’s isolated.

Do you think that isolation had any effect, either positive or negative? Washington work looks very original; perhaps the isolation has something to do with that.

I think that’s true. I think Clem Greenberg always held as his own opinion that it was valuable to live in Washington because you were free of any political entanglements, and you weren’t subject to any pressure to conform.

Back in those days, it would have been the most grandiose thing for me ever to think I could make it in New York. It was enough to get in a Corcoran area show.

How did the fact that your work was different from what you were seeing in New York affect you?

I think it’s sort of like handwriting. After a while you settle into a style that’s comfortable to you, and you don’t have as much control over that as you think. There’s an awful lot to the axiom that success in art, like anything else, is a matter of standing on the right corner at the right time. I think geography is destiny in art, and the fact that we all lived in Washington can’t be discounted as a part of what we did.

Can you tell me something about the artists you knew in Washington and the nature of their relationships?

I first met Ken Noland at, I think, the Institute of Contemporary Art run by Robert Richman, around 1950, I believe. Robin Bond, an English friend of Ken’s who was teaching at American University introduced us. I met Morris Louis at the Washington Workshop for the Arts in 1953, I think. I can remember Leon Berkowitz introducing me to him. He was standing up on a ladder painting the ceiling of Ida’s office. He reached down, shook hands with me, and that was the last time I saw him for about five years. He was rather a recluse and he didn’t mingle too much. I think I saw him only three times in my life despite the fact that we were Washingtonians and he was in the art world. I saw Ken more often. He was more gregarious. I always liked Ken; from the early days when I knew him he was essentially an outgoing, helpful kind of guy. We both exhibited at the Dupont Theater Gallery in 1952; after he saw my show (I exhibited drawings), he called me up to ask me if I wanted to show at Catholic University where he was teaching.

I remember the time that Harry Jackson (he now does cowboy art) and Ken and I met at the Phillips Gallery in front of, believe it or not, The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir. Harry Jackson had just come back from Spain where he was absolutely destroyed by Velasquez. He was ready to give up. He was a pretty good action painter around the fifties, but he took this trip to Europe and it destroyed him. He came back, renounced it all, and began trying to do it like the Old Masters. Jackson had a series of slides of Velasquez with which he was trying to bowl Ken and me over. The one thing that stands out about that little meeting was Ken looking at The Luncheon of the Boating Party and calling it a crock of shit except for the little teacup on the table, which he said was moderately well painted.

Did you and Noland have anything in common?

I think one of the obvious things we had in common was an early worship of Paul Klee. Klee was my first love when I began to paint and Ken was also influenced by Klee. I think this may have had something to do with the fact that the Phillips Gallery always had a Paul Klee room. We were also interested in the paintings of August Vincent Tack because they were so obviously un-French. Generally the Phillips Collection is French in its tone—we always used to say Mr. Phillips likes nut-brown paintings. But Mr. Phillips’ personal taste, which was so French, also led him to buy many paintings with an emphasis on color. He has Delacroix, he has a number of Monticellis and Impressionist paintings.

Do you feel the Impressionist paintings to be seen at the Phillips Gallery influenced Washington artists?

Yes, I’m sure they did. Of course you can’t underestimate the influence of Pollock, which involved overall-ness and breaking down the surface into little pieces. Linear all-overness, it’s true, but another version of that could be breaking it down into little daubs or dots. But, as you say, all-overness is related to Impressionism. I think that the Phillips Collection played a crucial role in the emphasis on color in Washington. I can’t prove it, but it seems a likely guess.

You spoke of the absence of any kind of geometric painting, such as Mondrian, in Washington, and of how this kind of painting did not interest Phillips, and of how this may have affected the direction of Washington painting.

That’s very true. One had to go to the Philadelphia Museum to see this side of art, the Mondrians, Maleviches, Van Doesburgs, all the people who offered an alternative to Impressionism. For a long time I thought that the only real approach to art was painterliness and chromatic color.

You spoke about the importance of August Vincent Tack. What exactly did you mean?

He was not very important to me; but he was probably more important to Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland because it’s a logical step from Pollock and Frankenthaler to Tack. I didn’t come out of that sensibility at all. As a matter of fact, I was not really a great admirer of Frankenthaler’s until later when her qualities began to become more apparent.

What was Louis painting in Washington in the fifties?

Louis was doing some very turgid, muddy, late Cubist type works in 1952. But after a trip to New York, he came back and immediately began to paint enormous mural-size unsized canvases that he would show here and there in Washington.

How did they affect you?

To me it was almost as if he were doing something different from what the rest of us were doing. All the rest of us were playing baseball, and he was playing football. It was that foreign.

Did it inspire you in any way?


Technically though, weren’t you painting on raw canvas in 1958?

Yes. As a matter of fact, my introduction to unsized canvas was influenced by Louis and Noland. But of course they got it from Frankenthaler, so this sort of falls into the “so what” class.

Did you talk to other Washington painters?

It’s a unique environment here. I don’t really mix very much and most of the other artists, the well-known ones, don’t especially either. Now in the interests of historical accuracy one ought to say that Tom Downing and Howard Mehring shared a studio for a time. They were partners in a gallery they opened in the late fifties on P Street called the Origo Gallery, which showed a lot of pretty good artists. That’s where I first saw Mehring’s work. He and Tom were both former students of Noland’s at Catholic University.

It seems very evident what happened after 1958 now, but that period of ’57–58 in Washington is really not very clear. And I don’t think there’s any clarity to be discovered. If you’re looking for a pattern or something that has clarity, I think you’re looking in vain because it doesn’t exist. It’s not neat. There were a lot of things that happened that don’t seem to make too much sense. It’s interesting that I am linked with the Washington Color School despite the fact that I arrived at that point through a route basically alien to everything the others were doing here.

But there are things that link the work done in Washington. I was surprised at how coherent that show at the Corcoran looked with the Melzac Collection of Louis, Noland, Mehring and Downing and Reed along with your earlier works in the separate exhibition. Undoubtedly, Washington had a school of painting. There are many similarities, not only the stain technique, but the push toward structuring color after the early all-over period. You said, however, that in the late fifties everyone was showing different types of work, casting around for a style.

That’s true. And of course, so was I. We all were. I remember that Howard Mehring’s show at the Origo Gallery had about five different styles of painting. And Noland was experiment-ing with many types of work. He did some great big poured paintings. His 1958 show at the Jefferson Place Gallery, for instance, was all poured paint—just big daubs, rivulets of paint poured across the canvas. Then, early in 1959, he had a life-size expressionistic male nude in the window of the Jefferson Place. You look back at it, it’s kind of surprising. This takes nothing away from Noland, because he was rooting around looking for something. None of us knew quite where to go. I think it’s a myth to perpetuate or to advance the theory that there is a clear-cut father-son relationship in this business. Let’s just say we all had accessible to us the same sources and we all drew certain conclusions. Anyone who thinks that there is this historically neat division—Noland and Louis, and then the second generation, Davis, Downing, and Mehring (and now a third generation!), is kidding himself.

Do you feel Clement Greenberg had any influence on the so-called Washington School?

Oh, undeniably. I’m perhaps overstating it, and being a bit overdramatic, but we knew that he was a kingmaker; we knew that he had immense power, as evidenced by his piece in Art International in 1960 about Noland and Louis. The effect it had was very impressive.

Was it demoralizing or impressive?

Maybe a little of both, I don’t know. But this was the first time any such thing ever happened in Washington. Nobody had ever written up a local artist in a national art magazine. That made a tremendous impression on us. And who did it? Clement Greenberg. I didn’t know him, at the time, but he was a presence that we were all aware of. Later, of course, he put all five of us—Downing, Mehring, myself and of course Noland and Louis in his post-painterly abstraction show. To that extent at least he was an influence.

Generally, how would you describe what happened in Washington in the late fifties? How, for example, would you account for Louis’s action paintings, of which there is one of the few remaining examples (a 1956 untitled abstraction) in the Melzac Collection?

The idea of action painting was very hard to resist, and Noland and Louis found it very hard to resist too. In the light of all that action painting, that power stuff, that strong-arm stuff, poured veils of tentative color may have seemed to Morris Louis not enough and maybe he, not feeling all that sure of himself, decided, well maybe I’m wrong, maybe these guys are right and maybe I ought to sling paint a little bit. I think he slung paint for a few years and then decided to reject all of this and go back and pick up on the veil paintings. At that point it seemed to make more sense. By 1958 everybody was slinging paint; it was a cliché we were all struggling to get beyond.

Barbara Rose