Los Angeles

Ron Davis

Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA)

Ron Davis’ new paintings at the Pasadena Art Museum are not, in my opinion, as good as his earlier work. But Davis is mature enough, even at only 34, to have his ups and downs and remain interesting; and he’s novel, radical, or whatever, enough to be newsworthy (as opposed to, say, one of those fellows in his fifties who is still, nobly enough, turning out the things which made his name in the first place). Michael Fried rated Davis right up there with the New York biggies (Artforum, April, 1967) for, to boil it down, reinforcement of Stellaesque “shape as form,” illusionistic perspective reinforcing the “literal shape” and “orienting the viewer” at odd angles, and employment of plastic as painting. Assuming such importance for formalist mechanics (I do), Fried is right. A couple of years later my favorite art critic, Darby Bannard, said, “The most striking characteristic of the best painting of the sixties . . . is the extreme spatial manipulation of the shape of the painting or of the elements of the picture surface to give color a visually plausible place on the two-dimensional abstract picture plane” (Artforum, January, 1970), then went on to rank Davis with Hans Hofmann as one of the two artists “most fruitfully . . . contriving a direct illusion of space in depth without shading which incorporates the features of the edge.” As far as I’m concerned, that’s true, too. But this January Ron Davis exhibited eight new paintings at Castelli (I didn’t see them, only the magazine reproductions) that “fit” between the “old” Davises and the newest paintings. Though these pictures drew praise from John Elderfield, the sort of quibbling sprouted around them that (a) punishes artists in their sophomore big league seasons who are beginning to be compared to themselves, that is, artists expected to be good, and (b) victimizes West Coast artists showing in New York. It seemed, from the photographs and Elderfield’s tone, that Davis, while trying to “push” his premise as all good artists must do, might be loosening the scaffolding underfoot. In the exhibition of new pictures at the Pasadena Art Museum the nuts and bolts are exploding from Davis’ support.

It might be helpful to recap what Davis accomplished in the earlier pictures (e.g., Six Ninths Blue, 1966, to the great, luscious, marbley, “solid” polyhedrons ca. 1968–69). First, he welded the raison d’être of the “inside” of the picture to the “outside” (shape of the format) more securely than Stella. In Stella, the colored bands follow/reiterate the format shape (the preliminary sketches, of course, proceed conversely). In Davis it’s the same, except that there’s a reason for the format, other than arbitrary design or design system—namely, the illusion of a geometric solid. Next, he took a West Coast sensibility—love of plastic—and applied it to a heavy, New York art problem . . . and made it work. The plastic (as material) dovetails smoothly with the shaped format (doing away with all those cobwebs at the crotch clogging up Stella’s protractors). And the “reverse painting” technique, roughly equivalent to window displays (whose artists, working on the inside of a glass facing out, paint the details first and the background last), is nicely suggestive of the structure of the illusionary object. Thirdly, he went Hofmann one better on color autonomy. Hofmann freed color from intimations of value (i.e., shading) that it still possessed even in Pollock, de Kooning, and the last Klines, and let it make space through hue and placement. But color, for Hofmann, was deliberately tied to push-pull space in the sense that only certain colors worked in certain spaces; picking and placing those particular colors with deftness and verve was, for Hofmann, the dominant task of a good painter. Davis, however, revived illusion (not corrupt Renaissance illusion, but basic gestalts) so powerfully that any color can make any space (i.e., any color could occupy any part of the picture plane without destroying the magic). Thus, in Davis, color is emancipated. Subjectively, there are even greater rewards in the earlier stuff. The 1966- 67 works give the viewer a great, woozying lift, a tingling, pleasurable, elegant confusion as to where he is (he’s not, he feels, standing on the floor) and what he’s looking at (a room, a floor, a jewel?). The 1968–69 psychedelic Zola tones are mouth-watering. At the UCLA “Color” show, Davis served me slices of mysteriously molten melons and portions of exploding Garden of Delights cream pie, everything fruity and hot and zigzagging and clean and crackling—all, impossibly, at the same time. That, as they say in that other strange occupation, is a tough act to follow.

The new work at Pasadena has been completed within the last three months. I don’t know much about the pressures of the art biz, but the paintings look hurried, sloughed, settled-for in spots. These pictures are, like last year’s batch at Castelli, no more than a quarterinch thick and, according to the short exposition accompanying the show, placed “directly on the wall.” They aren’t—the objects are held in place by Velcro strips, lifting them out another quarter-inch, so that the perimeters float—and this causes trouble. The older work is thick and uses the shadow; the new work, ostensibly pure two-dimension, suffers from its smaller shadows. The shadows belie the supposed finesse of the new paintings.

The first painting you encounter is Sawtooth and Rectangle, a oneup on Sawtooth, 1970, and it alone says a bunch about the show. In it, a geometrically consistent three-dimensional figure, a “sawtooth” planar configuration, is arbitrarily attached to a regular, up-and-down painter’s rectangle; to what end, I don’t understand, except that Davis might be trying to “extend” the illusions into fancy designs. To what end he does that, I don’t understand, save that there is always this business about coming up with something different, yet the same. Two Diamond Rectangles, another painting in the hall, before the ten pictures in the main cul-de-sac, is a pretty straight, flat picture: two blended rectangles and two blended diamonds. But the rectangles seem to overlap, the diamonds are “behind” them, and the diamond could be top and bottom of a box with invisible walls, its corner down and toward us. There is, however, no rationale save taste (which is OK in pictures admitting that much intuitive composition) and Davis’ paintings, with their history and present intimations of solids in perspective, require something more self-explanatory. That’s what’s risky about “pushing” a premise.

The need for illusionistic consistency should predict that the best paintings in the new series are those that retain it. Indeed, Notch Rectangle, Nested Rectangles, and, especially, Diagonal Rectangle (looking like a box sliced on a bias, with the parts moved apart) are the best (and when Davis is good, he’s really good). But a few of that sort, like Triangle Cut Rectangle (a box with equilateral triangular chunks removed from its front wall and floor—together, so that the removed portion would be a diamond bent at right angles across the middle—and, likewise, from its rear wall and ceiling), Double Slice Rectangle, and Double Rectangle, are mediocre. One reason is the “cutout,” the device by which an intersection of drawn planes becomes an actual hole exposing white museum wall. True, there’s a nice pun—a recessive plane is really white, which projects, but is really a hole, which recedes—but there’s a physical problem. Shaped formats, even crisply cast in resin, can’t tolerate acute silhouette angles; sharp triangular cuts or projections make the pieces appear . . . well, cheesy. Your “willing suspension of disbelief” holds only as long as an imperfect tuck or ever-so-slightly chewed corner doesn’t tell us that the literal shape is arbitrary, after all.

Two pictures appearing glaringly amateurish to me on opening night (except in physical execution), Two Circle Rectangle and Four Hole Rectangle, become, with familiarity, the most intriguing pieces in the exhibition. At the outset, they look like enlarged freshman design problems, misplaced compass exercises on cut mat board; but they slowly convince you that what’s left out (Four Hole Rectangle has four holes, partially cut out, partially drawn) denotes a back-and-forth spatial passage of remarkable subtlety, demanding from the viewer the kind of labor Davis used to give to him. They aren’t the prettiest or most complete paintings, but, if Davis is going to break away from an idea appearing to have run itself dry (formats shaped like solid objects in perspective), they point the way.

Lastly, Davis’ work has always attracted some attention from its color. The 1968–69 polyhedrons are slick, formica bouquets of splashed opaques, and the recent thin “fans,” and such, are soda pop transparencies in swimming-pool-fence hues. Davis uses nice colors and generally doesn’t screw them up in combination. In the Pasadena show, Davis tries out a couple of new orchestrations—slightly dirty yellowings, and analogous color schemes, both with swampy, smokey curls, runs and puddles of intruding colors; but they don’t do anything except call attention to themselves (the bad side of the autonomy coin). All Davis’ three-dimensional ambiguities derive from transparency per se, not from choices of particular colors. Hofmann played Beethoven sonatas in embedding full-blast slabs in fields of crud, and Stella commands his carbolic Day-Glos uniformly to the surface. Davis, however, has yet to do more than flavor the formats.

If all this sounds carping, it is said in the context of Ron Davis’ being, with the possible current exception of Ed Moses, the best painter in Los Angeles, if not the West Coast. He’s done all the things everybody says he’s done and it’s evident even in these imperfect pictures, he can do more.

Peter Plagens