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Gene Davis papers, 1920-2000, bulk 1942-1990

Biographical Note

Gene Davis (1920-1985) was a Washington, D.C.-based artist and educator who worked in a variety of media, including painting, drawing, collage, video, light sculpture, and conceptual art. Davis is best known for his vertical stripe paintings and his association with the Washington Color School.
Davis was born in 1920 in Washington, D.C. and began his career as a writer. In his twenties he wrote pulp stories and worked as a journalist, reporting for United Press International and serving as a White House correspondent for Transradio Press Service during the Truman administration. Later, he worked in public relations for the Automobile Association of America. A self-taught artist, Davis began painting while still working full-time as a writer, influenced by the prevailing abstract expressionist artists of the time, his frequent visits to the Corcoran Gallery and Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and by his friend and mentor, Jacob Kainen. His first one-man show was held in the lobby of the Dupont Theater in Washington in 1952. He had a drawing accepted in the Corcoran Area Show in 1953, and won several local art prizes in the 1950s. He began showing work regularly in galleries around Washington, such as the Watkins Gallery at American University, the Gres Gallery, and the Henri Gallery, and had solo exhibitions at Jefferson Place Gallery in 1959 and 1961. Many of the painters who made up what became known as the Washington Color School also showed there, including Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring, and Sam Gilliam. In 1965, the Washington Gallery of Modern Art held a seminal exhibition entitled
Washington Color Painters
, which included Davis, Noland, Mehring, Morris Louis, Thomas Downing, and Paul Reed.
Davis began showing outside of Washington regularly in the 1960s, including the Poindexter and Fischbach galleries in New York City, and in several important group shows at museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He had three works shown in the 1964 exhibition
Post-Painterly Abstraction
, organized by the influential art critic Clement Greenberg at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In the late 1960s, he began teaching art classes at the Corcoran School, and spent the summer of 1969 as artist in residence at Skidmore College's "Summer in Experiment" program.
Davis experimented with form continuously throughout his career, including a period of conceptual work in the late 1960s. In 1969 he participated in the "Giveaway," organized by Douglas Davis and Ed McGowin, in which multiple copies of a Davis painting were given away to invited guests in a gesture intended to subvert the art market. Davis also began experimenting with scale, creating a series of tiny paintings he called "Micro-paintings," which were exhibited at Fischbach Gallery in 1968. Around this time he also began working with film and video, recruiting models from his art classes to enact tightly choreographed movement pieces that played with rhythm and interval. Convinced by a lawyer that his videos were a liability without having obtained releases from the models, Davis destroyed all but one of his video works. The surviving video, "Video Puzzle," shows a foreshortened view of a model on the floor of a gallery spelling out a statement by Clement Greenberg at predetermined intervals.
Davis made several large-scale site-specific works using the stripe motif in public places. The first of these was created in the Bal Harbour, Florida, Neiman Marcus department store in 1970. Later works included
Franklin's Footpath
, executed in the road leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1972, and
Niagara
(1979) at ArtPark in Lewistown, NY, promoted at the time as the largest painting in the world. Interior large-scale works were created twice at the Corcoran Gallery, with
Magic Circle
(1975) and
Ferris Wheel
(1982), both executed in the museum's rotunda.
Black Yo-Yo
was created for the Cranbrook Academy in 1980, and
Sun Sonata
(1983), an illuminated wall of colored liquid-filled tubes, was created as an architectural feature of the Muscarelle Museum of Art in Williamsburg, Virginia. Plans for an unexecuted work called "Grass Painting," for a site near the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., were exhibited in the 1974 "Art Now" festival.
In the late 1970s and 1980s Davis consistently exhibited his work in several solo gallery shows a year, and also had numerous solo exhibitions in major museums. A major exhibition,
Recent Paintings
, was organized by the Walker Art Center in 1978, and traveled to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1979. A drawing retrospective was held at the Brooklyn Museum of art in 1983, and the same year the Washington Project for the Arts organized an exhibition entitled
Child and Man: A Collaboration
, featuring drawings Davis made in response to childrens' drawings. Davis died suddenly in April 1985 at the age of 65, and a major retrospective of his work was held at the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art in 1987.