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Acrylic on canvas
Gene Davis, the artist, was a leader in American art in the 20th Century. He was instrumental in helping establish Washington, D.C. as a contemporary art center. Additionally, he had a significant role nationally and internationally in color abstraction. A movement that was prominent from the 1960s onward.
Davis was born in the capital and attended school there. Later he worked in sports writing and as a White House correspondent before pursuing his art career. In his early writing career, he covered the presidential administrations of both Harry Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He even partnered with President Truman in poker games.
With no formal art training, he taught himself by visiting the art galleries and museums in New York. He also visited the art institutions in Washington, particularly the Phillips Collection. He also benefited from the friendly guidance of his counterpart, Jacob Kainen, an art curator and artist. He had his first art studio in Scott Circle in his apartment. Later on, he had a dedicated studio which was on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The fact that Davis did not come from an academic background was a blessing for him. It meant that he felt unlimited in what he could create, compared with the traditional orientation through art schools. His first drawings and paintings show his improvisation. They also portrayed the artistic influences of Arshile Gorky, the American abstract artist, and Paul Klee, a Swiss painter.
His color choices are characteristic of his spontaneous preferences. This is evident in his stripe paintings created in his later years. Gene Davis paintings have a calculated look, but the stripe work was not devised by formula or theories. He often said that he was like a Jazz musician playing by ear, or rather painting by eye.
Art critics acknowledged Gene Davis as a leader in the Color School in Washington during the 1960s. This was a group of painters in Washington loosely connected by creating abstract compositions on canvas with acrylic color. Barbara Rose described the work of the Washington Color Painters as the primacy of color for abstract painting. Other members of this group were Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis.
Gene Davis’s first painting of vertical stripes is from 1958. It was 12 x 8 inches, had pink, violet and yellow uneven stripes that change regularly in their width. Davis believed that vertical stripes meant you could explore the color relationship better. He stated that stripes in this direction were a simple way of dividing a canvas.
In contrast to other artists at the time, artist Gene Davis tried out different complex schemes that can be viewed for extended periods. He believed viewers of paintings should be able to spend time looking at how color works across a painting. He thought that by looking at one color, you are able to understand the meaning of the painting. Davis said that his work with stripes didn’t simply outline the color importance, but also spoke about color intervals, those music-like, rhythmical effects that colors can have within an art composition. Gene Davis stripe paintings span over 27 years. He was an artist that was versatile, working with many media and formats.
Davis explored his ideas with stripes varying in their proportions and size. One of his paintings included Masonite panels in irregular shapes all embedded with gravel and rocks. In another painting, he covered a comic strip from a Peanuts cartoon with white and blue stripes. Later in the 1960s, his larger-scale works included stripe patterns in complex sequences and rhythms. One of his biggest works is the South Mall Project, a mural created for the New York State Capitol in 1969. On the other end of the scale, he painted some micro-paintings that were less than two inches square! Often, these micro-paintings were hung in a group on a wall.
Davis had an unorthodox approach to life. This is reflected in Gene Davis paintings as they do not follow a particular sequence. He said that he goes back to concepts that he played within his past, exploring the concept and idea even as far as twenty years later. He does this as if there has been very little time between its initial thought and his present work. For this reason, many works that are similar may have been painted decades apart.
One particularly famous painting of Gene Davis is his 1964 “Black Grey Beat”. This painting reinforces the eponymous musical components. There are pairs of black and grey stripes that alternate and repeat the whole way across the canvas. They are recognizable despite other colors being substituted in the canvas, breaking the pattern of grey and black with sharp, contrasting colors.
In 1966, David started teaching at the Corcoran School of Art. He also became a permanent faculty member there too.
As for his largest painting created, in 1972, Davis’s masterpiece is Franklin’s Footpath. At the time, this was the world’s largest piece of art. It consisted of colorful painted stripes in the street outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He also painted Niagara, which is the largest painting in the world (43,680 feet squared). Niagara is in a Lewiston, NY, parking lot.
Gene Davis passed away on April 6, 1985, in Washington, D.C., his home town.