New York

Gene Davis

Fischbach Gallery uptown and downtown

Gene Davis’ show of recent paintings filled both the uptown and downtown Fischbach galleries. That in itself I am beginning to notice as an issue. There is a certain 57th-Street imperialism in many of these colossal, uptown and downtown shows, at the expense of the Soho ideal. This is not just a question of price and marketing, but, less visibly, it is a matter of access to exhibitions for new artists and of a bearish withdrawal of confidence from unfamiliar art in general. Perhaps this became apparent to me at this point because of problems that have always bothered me in Gene Davis’ own art.

I can’t stand tedium, and Davis strikes me as one of the most tedious artists in the world. Confronting a Davis I find myself following Ruskin and William Morris into moral and esthetic distinctions between labor and decent work. Isn’t a main function of art to give practical insight into what life might be like beyond alienation? Davis’ art looks mighty industrial too; in fact it looks milled, as though it’s being turned out by the yard and bolt. It isn’t, of course, being made by machine; it’s all being done “by hand,” inch by inch. But it is not machines we are against but servitude, and voluntary servitude is a perverse subversion of art as liberty at work.

What Davis seems content to go on year after year supplying is X hours’ work or X amount of anxiety and pain in exchange for Y number of dollars; the profit is Z. The people who buy and sell art have no right to a man’s life and spirit in that way: it is bad enough that they get away with it in everyday life. One satisfaction for me in lyrical painting is that there at least the work seems initially pleasurable.

In any event, these feelings, which for me attach to each of Davis’ multistripe pictures on its own, have by now come oppressively to hover over his output as a whole. The paintings obviously don’t all look the same, but they do look enough the same to make the act of distinguishing them uncomfortable. We have by now been so swamped by stripe pictures that we almost feel in the midst of one super-work in which the individual canvases themselves are but compulsively repeated stripes. It is not impossible that some relief is in sight. In this show there were a few canvases—big ones too—in which the almost penal grill loosens up and wide, nearly airy, bands of canvas separate lines that are even permitted to take on some human irregularity.

Joseph Masheck