There are historical precedents for showing Gene Davis (1920-1985) and Tadasky (b. 1935) together as they had a joint exhibition at Cincinnati's Closson Art Gallery in 1969 and shared their New York dealer, Fischbach Gallery. Yet what interested my gallery in exhibiting the paintings of Davis and Tadasky together was the opportunity to compare working methods, goals, and achievements of two artists from different art circles who were both working exclusively with the stripe (vertical and circular) as a compositional device in the 1960s and 1970s. Gene Davis was part of the Washington Color School, which included Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Paul Reed, Thomas Downing, and Howard Mehring. The group was known for staining acrylic paint directly onto raw canvas. Tadasky was part of the international Op art movement, which included artists in Europe, North America, and South America. Op artists examined new discoveries in perception through hard-edged geometry and color. In discussing the different approaches and goals of Davis and Tadasky in their use of the same compositional device to explore color, we hope to illuminate why these artists and their respective art groups are regaining an audience today. Considered together, Davis and Tadasky's work demonstrates the broad experimentation with materials and techniques, as well as the openness to viewer interaction, which characterized and gave such diversity to art of the 1960s.
Alfred Frankenstein said in the foreword to Gene Davis's solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1968:
There is something a little heroic about an artist who sticks to a single theme and works out all its possibilities, and it is remarkable how many painters of recent years have elected so rigorous a course. Rothko, Noland, Poons, Glarner, Tadasky, Youngerman, Olitski- these and many others have at one time or another made a great renunciation, eschewing all forms but one and pursuing that one to its ultimate statement....The painter who remains perennially faithful to a given form is rare, and his fidelity to it can only mean that, because it is axiomatically simple, it offers an infinitude of possibilities.i
Gene Davis considered the stripe an efficient way to explore unusual color combinations and still achieve balance and harmony in his paintings. Davis soon began to see the stripe as an interval to represent time, whose reading could be manipulated through the width of each stripe. Tadasky uses the stripe as concentric rings to achieve speed and dimension through color patterning and line width. The optical response for the viewer is determined by how Tadasky handles these elements.
Gene Davis (1920-1985) first came to art as an appreciator, admiring works by Paul Klee and the Impressionists that he saw at the Phillips Collection in his hometown of Washington, DC. After establishing a career as a journalist, Davis began to paint in 1949. Not compelled to study art formally, Davis regularly sought the advice of artist and curator Jacob Kainen who taught at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts run by Leon and Ida Berkowitz. Kainen connected Davis with the other artists who would become identified as the Washington Color School, particularly Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. Influences that led Davis to work in stripes in addition to Paul Klee included Barnett Newman's zip paintings seen at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951, the targets of Jasper Johns seen on the cover of Art News
in 1958, and the vertical fields of color in Clyfford Still's paintings. Davis also suggested he was attracted to the stripe as a "trite" subject akin to the Pop artists' embrace of advertising images and comics.ii
Yet as Davis said in a 1975 interview with Donald Wall, his enduring attraction to the stripe was its "fantastically economical and effective way to relate color."iii
Tadasuke Kuwayama (b.1935, later known as Tadasky) was born and raised in Nagoya, Japan where his family owned a Shinto shrine building factory. An early influence for the artist was time spent with the factory's shrine carpenters. In the privileged position as the boss's son, Tadasky was shown carpentry techniques and tool building by these secretive artisans. Later studying engineering in Tokyo in the mid-1950s, Tadasky was greatly impressed by a book on the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus emphasis on the unified approach to all arts- architecture, weaving, furniture, and painting- aligned with Tadasky's own appreciation of trained technique and skill. Bauhaus ideas on design also complemented the clarity and symmetry of Shinto shrines and their lack of decoration. Reproductions of Josef Albers's Homage to the Square
were a revelatory shock for Tadasky who had grown up only knowing traditional Japanese arts. Tadasky saw the geometry of such work as a way out of the traditional painting still being taught at Tokyo art schools. Always determined to achieve his vision, Tadasky set out to move to the United States where he felt an artist could have a career working in abstraction. He developed a portfolio to apply to American art schools as a means to a visa. Accepted to study at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, Tadasky arrived in New York in 1961. Scholarships from the Art Students League and the Brooklyn Museum of Art allowed Tadasky to stay in New York and set up a studio. Tadasky supported himself with carpentry work for galleries such as Leo Castelli and Betty Parsons, making stretchers and frames for other artists, including Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein. Meanwhile in his studio, he developed over two years a turntable that allowed him to achieve the perfect circle. Using the turntable and a narrow Japanese brush, Tadasky began to work in concentric rings of bright color. In 1964, at the age of 28, Tadasky first showed his work. His talent was quickly identified by curator William Seitz who was then planning the Museum of Modern Art's upcoming exhibition The Responsive Eye
. Through Seitz, Tadasky came to the attention of early patrons Philip Johnson and Larry Aldrich, as well as the dealer Sam Kootz who gave Tadasky his first solo exhibition in January 1965.
Gene Davis and Tadasky eschewed formal art training and developed their own technique and tools. Davis was credited by Gerald Nordland for being the first artist in 1958 to use masking tape to achieve clean lines. Faced with a comparable problem, Tadasky's turntable was an inventive solution to create a hard-edged circle. The economy of each artist's technique was matched in his compositional choice of the stripe. As Davis said, "a color achieves its identity only through juxtaposition."iv
Neither Davis nor Tadasky followed a color theory, but in each of their styles they found the stripe offered a controlled format to test the interaction of color with just two neighbors, in effect expanding Josef Albers's investigations on color relations. Davis told Gene Baro in a 1967 interview, "While I didn't realize it at the time, this concept offered the possibility of almost endless variations. I've been painting stripe paintings for nine years, and I've only begun to understand the ramifications."v
Tadasky reflecting on his career has shared a similar opinion saying he does not understand how young artists jump between media and subject when he is still five decades later learning from the circle.
Gene Davis's earliest stripe paintings from 1958 were narrow vertical pinstripes painted freehand in oil on primed canvas. Influenced by fellow Washington artists Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, Davis began working in acrylic on unprimed canvas in 1959. From 1959 to 1961, Davis created a wide variety of stripe paintings with differing widths and levels of symmetry. In some paintings, color covered the entire canvas and in others Davis left the center as exposed raw canvas. By 1962, Davis systemized his approach so each painting had stripes of uniform width, which he continued through 1968. Works from this period are known as classic stripe paintings. Davis felt stripes act as "a simple matrix to hold the color and do not distract the eye too much with formal adventures."vi
Gene Davis called himself an intuitive painter when discussing his color selections, but he began his paintings in a regimented method. First he ruled out the stripe widths in pencil with a long board on unstretched canvas. With the widths mapped out, he would select a first color to paint. Masking out the first stripe with tape, Davis brushed on the selected color, often starting with red or green. Davis would apply the first color to several stripes across the painting then move on to a second color, purposely leaving some stripes raw as future "escape valves" to adjust the balance of the painting. One can see how Davis structured his paintings by looking at Firebox
, 1964 in our exhibition. Davis likely started with the black stripes then added the red and olive green. The bright blue, pink, turquoise, and yellow act as accent colors to break the unity of repetitive black lines. In Firebox
, black is used for every third stripe on the left side of the canvas and every other stripe on the right. Davis often distinguished the left and right halves of his canvas with different patterns to test the level of asymmetry a painting could have while maintaining overall balance and cohesion. This approach was extended in the 1970s when Davis returned to leaving raw canvas exposed as in his 1959-1961 works. In the 1970s paintings, these voids of color become as important as the stripes, as seen in Interlude
, 1975. Also in the 1970s works, for the first time some stripes become wide enough to be read as fields, like the gray in Leapfrog
, 1970. Davis's art shifted from examining color intervals in the 1960s to space intervals in the 1970s when he expanded his stripe widths to include both thin lines of color and broader fields while subduing his palette.
Working in acrylic on unprimed canvas, each color painted was often for Gene Davis a final decision with little room for correction. Any stripe can be painted over with a darker color but not vice versa, so with each stripe painted, the artist must reconsider the painting as a whole. Steven Naifeh in his 1982 monograph on Davis said each painting is "a series of answers to the questions posed at the addition of every stripe."vii
Given the nature of his materials, Davis took the most difficult route by starting with his boldest, and therefore unchangeable, colors and leaving the light colors to the end to add syncopation to the painting. In the preliminary steps of each work, Davis created a compositional "problem" he must solve. Davis felt this approach led him to test the boundaries of balance. In the catalogue text for the San Francisco Museum of Art's 1968 retrospective on Davis, Gerald Nordland found this "trapping" approach led to the artist's "creative leap" which produced the painting's tension and thereby its success. Davis felt the dramatic impact of his paintings for the viewer came from these moments of struggle for the right color to hold the work together. Nordland concluded Davis's paintings "developed intuitively in the process of growth from random beginning to a highly imaginative and controlled completion." viii
While working, Tadasky sits above the canvas, which lays flat on his turntable below. In this way, Tadasky himself becomes the compass, using a fine Japanese brush and a very steady hand while the canvas rotates below him. Each line of paint applied is narrow so the width of each concentric ring is determined by how many times Tadasky rotates the canvas. Slight changes in pressure are applied to the brush only when the natural distortion of the stretched canvas requires it. By 1963, Tadasky's working method was systematic in paint application but relatively free in color selection. Tadasky was attracted to acrylics for their clean colors, as well as their ability to dry quickly and be thinned with water while retaining richness. Tadasky mixed his own paints combining powdered pigment with Liquitex medium. Each color straight from the package was kept in baby food jars to avoid any blending before the paint touched the canvas. Colors were blended on the canvas through overlapping layers of distinct paints to provide greater clarity. Tadasky desired crisp edges in his color juxtapositions so he always worked on primed canvas, which allowed the acrylic to sit on the painting surface rather than soak into it.
Tadasky's focus on the optical effect of color blending led to his creative approach of conceiving a painting visually in his mind first. Once he has a clear vision, Tadasky paints a rough version on the canvas outlining each ring of color. If he is pleased with the optical play of colors, he proceeds with finishing each ring with a sharply defined edge working from the outside in. If the color does not act the way he visualizes, he then relies on intuition and experience to adjust a few colors or widths of the rings. As with Gene Davis, Tadasky's method allows him only to cover up a light color with dark, limiting his ability to correct a painting as he works. An early example in our exhibition A-199
, 1964 shows Tadasky using multiple colors and narrowing widths of rings as they near the center. This creates the effect of entering a deep space. A-199
, 1964 also appears to have many more colors than the six used as the colors are applied without pattern leading to extensive optical blending. In contrast, Tadasky's C-176
, 1965 uses fifteen different shades of color for a comparable effect because there is limited blending due to the wide rings of black separating each color. In the B series of paintings started in 1964, Tadasky simplified the compositions to equal width stripes and repeating color patterns, often relying on the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue. This can be seen in B-110
, 1964 where Tadasky repeats in the same order red, blue, yellow, and green. Each color is distinguished by a black outline- a device Tadasky used to make each ring pop. The uniformity of ring widths and repeated color patterns in the B series produce a spinning effect as the comparable saturation of colors prevents the eye from reading any kind of figure and ground to orient it. In Tadasky's D series like D-144
, 1966, the artist achieves tremendous volume as varying concentrations of black rings define four larger rings within the monochrome green circle. In 1969-1970, Tadasky extended his search for dimension with a series of soft-edged circles that emphasize a central mass. This series is represented by F-132
, 1970 whose intense color and red aura suggest a solar eclipse. Later in the decade, Tadasky softened his palette and opened up his compositions as seen in G-101
from 1975-77. These paintings interestingly parallel Gene Davis's 1970s paintings when Davis used voids of color as often as stripes. In G-101
, Tadasky added greater complexity in his pursuit of dimension as the minute rings at the center seem infinitely deep and the outside rings with their blurred edges boldly project into the viewer's space. The G series shows immense technical skill in Tadasky's manipulation of paint from incredibly fine lines to strong gestural color in the outside rings. The range of effects achieved across Tadasky's series show the great variety he achieved within the circle format.
In Tadasky's process, he often addresses in his next painting a question or possibility envisioned while working on the last piece. Because of the importance of color play in Tadasky's paintings and the effect of scale on the viewer's experience, Tadasky believes a well-developed composition in his mind is better than a study on paper. When experimenting with a new idea, Tadasky will often start small with a 20 x 20 inch canvas to assess his vision before expanding the idea into larger and larger paintings. Over years of approaching each painting in the same disciplined way, which must be initiated with full confidence and strength to end successfully, Tadasky has conditioned himself to transfer his visualized image to canvas.
Both Gene Davis and Tadasky make comparisons of their process to other professions- for Davis, the jazz musician and for Tadasky, the boxer. Both musicians and boxers depend on practiced techniques combined with improvisation. Gene Davis used certain colors like standard chords, riffing off clusters of favorite colors with disruptive ones to show off his virtuosity in achieving balance. As Davis said, his method was to paint himself out of a corner. Tadasky's improvisation comes when the colors do not interact in the way he envisioned. At that point the boxer in Tadasky considers past solutions or develops a new one without losing his cool as any uncertainty would be betrayed in wavering lines. Both Gene Davis and Tadasky developed techniques that require discipline and follow a routine to leave little room for error as any small mistake can be perceived by the viewer. Yet, each painter relies on intuition and openness to improvisation, which results in energetic canvases that often feel playful.
GOALS OF WORK
Gene Davis said his work was about interval, first defined by color in the 1960s and then space in the 1970s. Whether considering the juxtaposition of colors next to each other or the effect of color and void, these intervals create a time element in Davis's paintings. The complexity of his color relations adds a time factor first as the viewer attempts to deduce a system or symmetry in the relationship between stripes and second as the viewer experiences the painting one color at a time to see how each color reacts to its neighbors. This second approach replicates Davis's working method and the artist liked the idea of the viewer "reliving the painting process."ix
Davis told Donald Wall in his 1975 interview, "The time element in my work has been missed by most critics. That is, the analogy between dividing up two dimensional space and dividing up time. It's almost as if I were, in my stripe paintings, doing an abstraction of time- a spatial abstraction of time."x
As with literature and music, a Davis painting cannot be absorbed in its entirety in one look. The viewer visually enters and exits the painting, creating a beginning and end that suggests a narrative however abstract. The route is not mapped out by the artist so the viewer can return to the painting for a new experience each time determined by how he approaches the colors, his placement in front of the painting, and the effect of light.
The focus of Tadasky's work is dimension achieved through color, which by its nature projects or recedes beyond the canvas's flat surface. For Tadasky, each painting is its own world and he strives to make the space, regardless of scale, all-encompassing. Tadasky was never interested in removing the corners of his paintings to make them into tondos because for him the framing square format is as essential as the concentric circles within it. The square canvas allows the painting to act as a means of entry into a transformative space, whereas turning his circles into a shaped canvas would have changed the work into a sculptural object. Also, Tadasky was drawn to the geometry of the circle in the square and the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue for their timeless and universal appeal. Both the geometry and color selection are part of Tadasky's commitment to simplicity- an outlook developed from seeing how Shinto shrines with their carefully executed, clean, and symmetric designs inspire awe. Tadasky elicits awe through precision of technique and contemplation of color, intending his work to act as a portal of energy from the creator to the viewer. Tadasky respects this transfer of ki
(spirit or energy) and starts each painting with clarity and confidence to instill ki
into the work. To encourage this direct connection for the viewer, Tadasky avoids titles, instead notating his paintings with the letter of the series followed by a number. Tadasky feels eliminating a literary context, which can place a work in a specific moment, allows his paintings to be timeless.
Using the stripe, Gene Davis and Tadasky show color's abundant variety and offer their paintings as environments into which one can escape. The strict geometric format of both artists' paintings contains and gives structure to their color investigations. Gene Davis used color to create an abstraction of time, whose representation over three decades moved from something dense, energetic, and a little brusque to something open, elegant, and subdued. Tadasky used color to create dimension far beyond the painting's surface, spreading both inwards and outwards to create a space for reflection.
Alfred Frankenstein and Gerald Nordland, Gene Davis: An Exhibition
, San Francisco Museum of Art, April 10-May 12, 1968; Washington Gallery of Modern Art, June 12-July 14, 1968
Barbara Rose, "Interview with Gene Davis," Artforum
, vol.9 (March 1971), p.50
Donald Wall, "Interview with Donald Wall", in Gene Davis
, ed. Donald Wall, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1975, p.58 iv
Donald Kuspit, "A Perfect Music: Gene Davis's Stripes," Gene Davis Memorial Exhibition
, ed. Jacquelyn Days, National Museum of American Art (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum), Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1987, pp.40-41
Gene Baro, "Preoccupation with Color: Conversations with Gene Davis and Albert Stadler," Studio International
, Nov.1967, p.10
Leslie Judd Ahlander, "An Artist Speaks: Gene Davis," The Washington Post
, Aug.26, 1962, p.G7
Steven W. Naifeh, Gene Davis
, New York: Arts Publisher, 1982, p.77
Frankenstein and Nordland, p.10
Information on Tadasky provided by the artist and his wife Patricia through interviews and emails.