"I often think in musical terms, after finishing a painting. But I never consider such ideas when I'm actually at work on the canvas ... It is reassuring to the viewer to think that there is some special purpose here, some special relationship to something real. I guess it's awfully hard to accept the idea that my work is abstract. Actually, it's non-representational. The stripes are the subject matter. I can see where it would be very easy to draw the musical analogy but it's never entered my mind, not for one second."
- Gene Davis
A major contributor to the Post-Painterly Abstraction and Color Field movements, Gene Davis is best known for his dynamic canvases consisting of colorful vertical stripes. Davis was born in 1920 in Washington, DC, where he resided for most of his life. He was a central figure in the Washington Color School, a group that included artists like Kenneth Noland, Thomas Downing, and Morris Louis, all of whom focused on color relationships in their work.
Though Davis began his career as a sportswriter, he turned his attention to art in 1949, drawn to what he saw as the musical possibilities of painting. His early work was largely inspired by the syncopated rhythms of jazz, and it was influenced by artists like Paul Klee and Arshile Gorky, who took an improvisational, rhythm-focused approach to art-making. Davis had his first solo exhibition, a series of drawings, in 1952 at the Dupont Theatre Gallery, and the next year showed paintings at Catholic University, both venues in Washington, DC.
By 1958 he had begun making his now iconic vertical stripe paintings, some of which were included in the 1965 Washington Color Painters traveling exhibition organized by Gerald Nordland, which premiered at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. This seminal show brought attention not only to the Washington Color School painters but to Davis in particular. Throughout the 1970s Davis completed numerous large-scale public commissions, of which Franklin’s Footpath (1972) is one of his most emblematic large-scale installations. In this work he painted his signature stripes down several blocks of the street on which the Philadelphia Museum of Art faces. Conversely, this was also the period in which he began producing his “micro paintings”—tiny, often half-inch-sized canvases.
After several decades of prodigious output, Davis died in his hometown of Washington, DC, in 1985. His highly recognizable style prompted major institutions nationwide to acquire his work, among them the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.