|Gene Davis: 1960s Stripe Paintings|
I CHOOSE PINK. There are various reasons for this choice, not all of which are in keeping with the formalist emphasis of Davis’s recommendation. I choose it because the color is just so startling when seen in relationship to the life Davis led before he began painting. When I think of the young Gene Davis, I picture a man with a press pass stuck in the brim of his fedora, squinting at a boxing ring through clouds of cigarette smoke, and scribbling pithy commentary on his small ring-bound notepad.2 I picture a man exchanging obscenities with Harry Truman while playing a hand of five-card stud in a huddle of other reporters on the White House beat. I envision a gritty guy who was once fired from a newspaper job for carrying a piece while accompanying cops on a numbers joint raid — and then I look at his paintings. There I see a cheerful spectrum of lavender, periwinkle, chartreuse, lemon chiffon, cantaloupe, and, best of all, pink. Used as subtle grace notes for canvases like his UNTITLED of 1964, or as a rhythmic ground against which other bright colors work, as in SWEET SCORE-SKYLARK of 1960, pinks proliferate across Davis’s canvases. Astonishing!
I suppose Davis’s taste for the color was really not so very odd — some of the most interesting straight men of the postwar period put butchness to the test by dressing it in pastels. Like Frank Sinatra in a peppermint cardigan, like Kojak sucking on a lollipop, Gene Davis found candy colors delicious, and he had the guts to use them. Davis did delight in the contrast, however, and would sometimes comment upon his visual confections with a wink and a tongue slightly in cheek. Talking about his canvas Moondog of 1966, for example, Davis once startled a critic by bragging about his “boudoir painting of candy-box pretty colors.”3 But every now and then Davis would shift gears and surprise interlocutors with declarations of masculine prowess. When questioning Davis about the constructions of gender in his painting. Buck Pennington once asked,
Davis interrupted the interviewer and was unequivocal in his response:
This sounds rather shrill, at least until one reads the next few sentences of Davis’s comment. In his next breath, Davis proceeds to praise two other artists who were, in his opinion, similarly tough: Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler. “Having balls,” in other words, was not a biological condition, it was chutzpah. It was a sort of courage to paint against expectations. Sometimes it was the audacity to use pink. Some important artists in the fifties and sixties lacked the nerve to use that color. Davis’s role model Barnett Newman would name a series of paintings Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?, but he never mustered the courage to plunge his brush into a dollop of bubblegum-colored pigment. Critics of various temperaments could also raise their eyebrows when pink was used in hard-edge or color field abstraction. In 1965, for example, Lucy Lippard suggested that the rosy hues of Jules Olitski’s paintings evoked “a perfume ad cliche.”5 When Michael Fried argued that Olitski’s colors challenged good taste, pink was no doubt the chief culprit.6 The implication was that the color could signal commercialism and popular culture, and no wonder. “Think Pink!” is the name of the big musi- cal number that opens the film Funny Face of 1957. When Kay Thompson’s character in the movie — a Vreelandesque editor of a fictional fashion magazine — decides to liven up her glossy pages, she declares pink the new color of the season. With quick-paced, fiat rosa gestures, Thompson conjures peppermint pink office doors and cotton candy colored uniforms for her assistants. The lyrics of her “Think Pink” anthem recommend that all of Manhattan be likewise colonized with the hue: Think pink “for bags! Pink for shoes! Razzle, dazzle and spread the news! And pink’s for the lady with joie de vivre! Pink’s for all the family. Try pink shampoo. Pink toothpaste too….”7 The song and dance routine is enough to summarize all that the color could signify in the period: superficiality, the capriciousness of taste operating within commercialism, the bold conspiracies of marketing agents to seduce female interest, and the gullibility of women consumers.8
The purchase of gender on such perilous pink terrain seems to have fascinated Davis, who would sometimes bundle references to that color with stereotypically masculine associations. Titles likePink Bayonet (1968) and Pink Gun (1980) prodded viewers with (not terribly subtle) references to phallic power. Some of the titles for paintings in this exhibit perform a similar gambit by wrapping phallocentrism in “candy colors” as well. Just consider that for his 1968 canvas of purple, orange and pink, Davis chose the title Popsicle — a shaft that comes in delicious fruit flavors—and, well, you get the idea. I don’t think this was a simple attempt to recode pink and other pastels as masculine. Rather, it was an attempt to flavor mainstream models of straight masculinity with a lighter, sweeter quality. In other words, it was a way of expanding hetero-masculinity by allowing it an exuberance that less creative forms of gender might not allow.
It should come as no surprise that Davis would revel in such experiments. Just as Davis clothed masculinity in colors otherwise coded as feminine, he also infused his abstract works with artistic concerns usually considered off-limits by those committed to the purity of modernist painting. While powerful critics like Clement Greenberg were trying to immunize abstraction against the contamination of kitsch, Davis exposed his art to the influences of Pop.9 The influence could sometimes appear in Davis’s titles: Popsicle is shamelessly commercial in its allusion to a consumer product, but the title also uses “Pop” as its first syllable. And Davis’s 1963 canvas Pepper Potborrowed its title from a flavor of Campbell’s soup that Warhol had painted in his silkscreens of 1962.
The influence also operated on the level of form, however, as Davis understood a deep connection between stripe painting and Pop that other artists were loath to acknowledge. “I share one important quality with the Pop artists,” Davis wrote in 1971, “Like them, I work with visual cliches. Stripes have been a part of the environment for some time.”10 Indeed, stripes abound in wallpaper, awnings, chair covers, and clothing. So, like many Pop artists interested in appropriation, Davis deployed the cliched stripe as a form of pictorial language that is always already given by popular culture. And like Warhol, Davis valued pictorial elements that, in their repetition, could mimic the operations of industrial reproduction. Stripes, because they fit neatly together and are thus easily repeated across the surface of a work, suggest the serial progression of commodity culture itself.11
I like to think that Davis’s cute, cliche colors were part of a similar mission to camp up abstraction with connotations of the popular. I shouldn’t exaggerate, of course. Despite the phobia of pink from which some artists suffered, there was a substantial modernist tradition for that color from which Davis could draw. Indeed, just about any painter interested in that hue must bow to Monet, and SWEET SCORE-SKYLARK does just that. The lateral expanse of pink and lavender, punctuated with green and brightened with solar yellow and orange, directly interprets the chromatic effects of the NYMPHEAS. This is Davis striving for legitimacy by demonstrating that, like Monet, he could discipline pink with the rules of modernist painting and acknowledge the flatness of the canvas. Whereas Monet flattened those water lily paintings by, in part, tilting the viewpoint down toward the reflective surface of ponds, Davis achieved that flatness more directly by juxtaposing stripes of equal dimensions. The rectangular shape of each stripe repeats that of the picture frame; the parallel lines of the stripe edges prevent the convergence of orthogonal lines that might suggest perspective; and the lack of variety in stripe width allows no illusory projection or recession.
When I choose pink as the portal through which to access some of Davis’s other paintings, I see that the color often serves a dual function by declaring changes in both composition and mood. PINK STRIPE (1960), for example, is unrelenting in its stoic alternation of dark green and blue bands of equal width — except for the lone rosy stripe on the left. The pink is a humorous surprise, a punch line, but it is also used in such a way as to be in keeping with good modernist composition. Davis’s substitution of a pink for a blue stripe preserves the two-dimensionality of the pictorial field. If the artist had replaced a dark green stripe with pink, the resulting green- blue-pink-blue-green region would have bulged out in an optical illusion. Buttressing the pink with dark green keeps that lighter color contained, and it holds the pink flat against the canvas.
Other paintings use pink to declare such shifts with greater complexity. Like several paintings Davis produced in 1964, Solar Skin offers a diptych structure in which two different organizational systems abut. The left half of the painting drones in relatively somber hues: the four-color pattern of dark green, lime green, dark blue and orange repeats four times without adventure. Then comes pink—school’s out! Pink invites additional colors to play such as light blue, lemon yellow, red and lime green. There is some repetition on the right, but only according to the colors used, not according to their position. Colors on the right repeat in five sets of three groups: there are three pinks, three light blues, three greens, three versions of yellow, and three versions of red, but no two members of any three color group appear next to each other. Their distribution follows no logic, but rather suggests an intuitive placement. The colors of the painting also divide the two halves of the work with different results. The sixteen stripes of the left half are evenly divided into four sets of the four-color pattern, and there is no remainder. The right is not so predictable, as the five sets of three colors divide the sixteen stripes incompletely to leave a remainder of one: hence the lonely dark blue stripe sulking at the party.
Davis’s paintings are pretty in other colors besides pink, of course. His canvases are invigorated with bright oranges and springtime greens. His tropical turquoise and cerulean can freshen even the stuffiest burgundies and blacks. But I choose pink. Thank heavens Davis did too.
SARAH K. RICH
Sarah K. Rich is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art in the Art History Department at the Pennsylvania State University. Focusing on abstract art of the Cold War era, she has written on artists such as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly and Jo Baer. Her writings have appeared in periodicals including Art Bulletin, Afterimage, and Artforum.