New York

Gene Davis

Charles Cowles Gallery

Why do I keep feeling these works, not just seeing them? And I don’t need the titles to help me. From Mr. Kelly’s Drum and Black Diamond, both 1963, through Firecracker, 1968, and Milk Shake, 1970, to the extraordinary Color Needles, 1984 (in which 51 long, sticklike canvases are arranged in series), I realized that Gene Davis’ stripe paintings are saturated with “feeling”—that famous nonobjective feeling. Why does authentic nonobjectivity—especially in the very confident form Davis gives it—have such subjective impact? And why does the “feeling” itself seem to signify something nonsubjective, some structure of meaning into which it is plugged, and from which it draws energy?

Color Needles is a special work, bringing all the drama latent in a Davis painting to a head. It creates its own environment, spilling off the wall to take over space. Everything depends on the divisions between and within each needle. Along insinuatingly irregular edges, which reveal the artist’s hand and “needle” one’s perception, each vertical of color aligns with neighboring and distant bands of various breadth, from super thin to extra broad. Each needle is striped internally to become a monadic version of the whole continuum; an incredible color spectrum is created whose logic defies the easy analysis implied by simplistic versions of “the interaction of color.”

The needles are mathematical, effecting what Kant called the mathematical sublime, and no doubt the rules governing their color combinations can be puzzled out, with patience. Perhaps they can even be displayed in a formula; and yet the work’s effect of the sublime is far from formulaic. Together with the understanding of combinatorics, a color-symbolism analysis might help explain how feeling is communicated here. For example, on one needle a virginal blue band, moderately broad, is paired with a very broad, black, death-evoking band. Both are on the outer edges of the needle; inside the black band is a white band, inside the blue band is a much lighter blue one, and both inner bands are of middling breadth and tend to neutralize the impact of the more strongly colored bands they flank. The inmost band, slightly off center, is the thinnest of all, a turquoise green stripe eager to become a Barnett Newman zip—which would end its function of coloristically resolving the painting’s tension in an “oceanic” clarity. The irregular though not entirely erratic edges give an impulsive look to the whole, yet the bands remain rigorously regular, as though Davis, like some god, had put each one in its just and proper place to create the best of all possible visual worlds.

Certainly the flow of difference and resolution, particularly because it is a rapid, restless flow, contributes to the emotional impact of Color Needles. But I think a fuller explanation of it lies elsewhere, in the sense of the determinate order of the colors, which gives a “lift” to the implicit order in which color already exists—the order of the spectrum. Davis’ ordering of his colors, however superficially random it seems, adds to the sense of determinacy that color possesses of its nature. He gives us color sensations in a “secretly” determinate order, one not immediately evident to the eye yet one that seems as unambiguous—as pure and absolute—as the colors themselves. Why does such completely “clarified” sensation generate feeling? The feeling we experience in Davis’ work signifies our discovery that our perception has been forced into a certain direction. Realizing that Davis has directed our perception with an iron grip, we become aware of the directedness of perception as such; the feeling is of this directedness being revealed to ourselves—the “sensation” of our consciousness taking a certain direction, acquiring a certain form. Davis’ work generates a primordial subjective experience of percept ion as directedness. The subjectivity increases when we realize that the color constellations seem to be directing us to what Maurice Merleau Ponty calls the “pre-objective realm,” the realm of the indeterminate, from which the direction originates and from which we get our sense of the direction our perception should take. This is why Davis’ brilliantly determinate paintings have such a profound subjective effect: they signal the objective indeterminacy in which they originated, and which, as a residue of superficially irregular but in fact carefully determined color pattern, they have left behind.

Donald Kuspit