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Gene Davis

By PETER PLAGENS "Look at the painting in terms of individual colors," said the Washington painter of vertical stripes, Gene Davis (1920-1985). "In other words, instead of simply glancing at the work, select a specific color such as yellow or a lime green, and take the time to see how it operates across the painting.... And then, you can understand what my painting is all about." Usually—at least with me—it's annoying for an artist to tell viewers how to look at his work. But with Mr. Davis, and this deliciously select show of a half-dozen large paintings from 1961 to 1980, the instructions are entirely tolerable.

First, Mr. Davis wasn't a product of an art school or a university, but of a background as a young reporter. (He was at the White House for the announcement of D-Day and allegedly played poker with Harry Truman.) When he started painting as an adult, he thought being outrageous was the only way to go. In 1958, an edge-to-edge colored-stripe painting qualified.

Second, Mr. Davis's method of perceiving his paintings works, particularly when you alternate it with looking straight ahead at the entire picture. It's then that you notice the colors shifting to duller versions at the peripheries.

Could anybody who's reasonably neat and careful paint such stripe paintings? No. Mr. Davis had a conspicuous talent for picking without planning the colors that were precisely right for what he was about—creating beautiful abstract paintings.

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