Gene Davis (1920–1985), one of the best-known artists of the Washington Color School, was born in DC and spent nearly all his life here. The Washington painters were among the most prominent of the mid-century color field painters. Davis is best known for his acrylic paintings and silkscreens of colorful vertical stripes, which he began to create in 1958.
Entirely self-taught, the artist began painting in 1949, using his apartment as a studio in Scott Circle, later moving his work space to a building on Pennsylvania Avenue. Davis started out as a journalist and sports writer, covering the Washington Redskins and other local teams, as well as the Roosevelt and Truman presidential campaigns. He eventually befriended Truman and became his partner for poker games.
Davis's first solo exhibition of drawings was at the Dupont Theater Gallery in 1952, and his first exhibition of paintings was at Catholic University in 1953. A decade later, he participated in the Washington Color Painters exhibition at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, a space located off Dupont Circle, which also showed works by the likes of Grace Hartigan, Robert Indiana, and Ellsworth Kelly. Gerald Nordland was gallery director at the time and coined the term Washington Color School. The show traveled to other venues around the US, establishing the District as an important region for art and garnering national attention and acclaim.
Davis took his self-described jazz inspired stripes to extremes. In 1972, he created Franklin’s Footpath, by painting colorful stripes on the street in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (and, after his death, recreated in DC), as well as the world’s largest painting, Niagara (43,680 square feet), in a parking lot in Lewiston, NY. His “micro-paintings,” on the other hand, were as small as 3/8 of an inch square, smaller than a matchbook. Davis began teaching in 1966 at the Corcoran School of Art, where he became a permanent member of the faculty. In 1974, Davis was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. In 1984, he was appointed the commissioner of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Davis’s works are in the collections of many major museums, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY; The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; The Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection in Albany, NY; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.