The Whimsical and Free Artwork of Gene Davis

Installation view of Gene Davis’s “Untitled” works, on view in Ten Americans: After Paul Klee

“My last show of symbol paintings are just Klee blown-up large.”—Gene Davis

Gene Davis acknowledged the profound impact of Paul Klee—“his very first mentor”—on his artistic development. Beginning in the 1940s, Davis made regular visits to “the Klee room” at the Phillips, where Klee’s small masterpieces left an “unforgettable impression.” These untitled works by Davis with playful, flat forms were among a series of symbol paintings the artist made at the end of his life that harken back to his early experiments of the 1950s, when he painted freehand compositions with organic motifs (for example, Black Flowers). Davis attributed his “urge to do whimsical, free-hand drawings” to his “early infatuation with Paul Klee and children’s art.” Like Klee, Davis valued spontaneity and intuition over intellect—aspects that lay at the heart of Davis’s artistic methods, whether in his stripe paintings (such as Red Devil) or in his more gestural works.

This work is on view in Ten Americans: After Paul Klee through May 6, 2018.

Tuesday Tunes: A Playlist for Gene Davis

Taking inspiration from the major theme of music in Ten Americans: After Paul Klee, we paired 11 staff members with 11 works from the exhibition and asked them to create a playlist in response to their individual artwork. Kathryn Rogge, Manager of Academic Programs & Phillips Music, created her playlist in response to Gene Davis’s “Black Flowers.”

Gene Davis, Black Flowers, 1952, Oil on hardboard, 36 1/8 x 24 1/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Anonymous gift, 1974 © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Black Flowers got me thinking about polyphonics (multiple voices), with each of the flower stems stretching vertically like an individual voice raising to the sky in song. While polyphonic texture extends to ancient and sacred music from all over the world, it may be found in any composition with overlapping melodies in counterpoint. The “voices” in a polyphonic piece can either be sung by a single voice in overlapping recordings (like Mouth’s Cradle), multiple voices (a whopping 40 voices appear in Spem in Alium) or played on instruments (such as Fables of Faubus); or in this case, painted into the long, slender stems of Gene Davis’s black flowers to create a tension and rising movement evocative of the songs on this list.

Kathryn Rogge, Manager of Academic Programs & Phillips Music

Feeling inspired? Create your own playlist based around works in the exhibition and send it to us at communications@phillipscollection.org and we may feature it on our blog and social media.