GENE DAVIS (1920-1985) Black Widow, 1962

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Lot 4
GENE DAVIS
(1920-1985)
Black Widow, 1962

Sold for US$ 93,750 inc. premium
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE SAN DIEGO COLLECTION
GENE DAVIS (1920-1985)
Black Widow, 1962

signed, titled and dated 'BLACK WIDOW Gene Davis (1962)' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas

45 1/2 x 49 1/8in.
115.5 x 124.8cm

Footnotes

  • Provenance
    I. Irving Feldman Galleries, Southfield, Michigan.
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1979.

    "A colorist utilizes the fact that color is changing continually with changing light, placement and recurrence. He paints not so much with pigment as with light. Davis' art, abstracted from natural subject matter, is an art of pure color and a composition based on his unique sense of interval and balance."1

    Gene Davis emerged in the late 1950s as a leading figure of what has now become known as the Washington Color School along with Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, innovating vertical stripes as a compositional framework for experiments on the interaction of color.

    At the age of 29, Davis abandoned a career as a White House correspondent to devote himself to painting. Though he lacked formal training, he benefited from the guidance of artist friend and Smithsonian Institution curator of graphics, Jacob Kainen, as well as frequent trips to gallery and museum exhibitions in New York City starting in the early 1950s. Davis recalled being particularly inspired toward a vertical stripe format after seeing Barnett Newman's first solo exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950. Davis created his first vertical stripe painting in 1958, and a year later, began producing his signature style of "all-over, edge-to-edge"2 compositions, which would engage him for nearly the next three decades.

    Davis' experiments with color can be seen as philosophically aligned with that of Josef Albers' during the same period, both sharing a belief in empiricism before theory, and an understanding of the subjectivity and 'magic' of certain color relationships. By the late 1950s, however, Albers had already been studying color relationships for nearly three decades at Black Mountain College, and unlike Davis, codified his experiments into a groundbreaking treatise, Interaction of Color, published in 1963. Whereas Albers chose the square as his primary format, which enabled him to study color as planes overlapping in pictorial space; Davis chose vertical stripes which completely flattened the picture plane and enabled him to study color as distinct, abutting forms in relation to rhythm and intervals—properties more akin to music and prescient to Op art.

    Improvisation was key for Davis, preferring arrangements that were "unpredictable and even beyond his conception" and in this way, reveals an affinity with the Abstract Expressionists. By 1962, Davis had systematized his process, which Gerald Nordland described thus:

    "Having decided on stripe width, the ruled canvas was stapled to the easel wall. As each stripe was decided upon, its edges were securely taped with masking tape and the color soaked into the unprimed, unsized canvas with repeated brushfuls of acrylic paint. In early stages of the painting, the choices of color and placements are quite random...Occasionally he will prepare a color for us and just as he is about to apply it he may sense that it is wrong. He has learned to trust his 'hunches.' He sometimes takes foolhardy risks in color selection trusting to luck that he will be able to work it out. Since he cannot correct an unsatisfactory color selection, it so being fully saturated into the canvas, he must rethink the whole painting in relation to that stripe or any other. He is forced to invent combinations beyond his experience. The artist feels that much of the dramatic impact of his paintings derives from the esthetic-emotional risks he runs in their making and from his reliance upon color and daring to solve the 'unsolvable' positions into which he paints himself. This is the factor that keeps Davis from simply 'filling in the blanks' in his paintings. He is eternally on his mettle to discover what could not be predicted by the 'design painter' who conceives and then executes a painting."3

    The present work, created in the same year as Black Gray Beat, 1962 (Smithsonian American Art Museum collection), exhibits what Kainen called a 'motor-progressive' which is the visual path of the eye moved by the work's structure. "Like music or poetry, the work cannot be taken in at a glance, but must be savored in its elements or sections before it can be measured as a whole. It takes a passage of time to hold the experience in one's mind."4 Black Widow, 1962, is a prime example of Davis' color experiments which ultimately explore ways of knowing. It challenges the viewer to be aware of a phenomenology of seeing, the tension between observation and intuition as a source of knowledge, the relationship of intention and spontaneity, and the tension between color and line.


    1. G. Nordland, Gene Davis, exh. cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Art, 10 April-12 May 1968, p. 6.
    2. Ibid., p. 5.
    3. Ibid., p. 6.
    4. Ibid., p. 10.
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