Retrospective – Oakland Museum of Art, 1976 Index

RONALD DAVIS Paintings 1962 – 1976

by Charles Kessler

This essay was originally printed in the catalogue of the same title published by the Oakland Museum of Art, Oakland, CA, and accompanied the Ronald Davis restrospective held in 1976.


""In the sixties, Ronald Davis seemed the paradigm of the formalist painter. Now, with ten years perspective, it appears that he has been concerned with a multiplicity of influences – Surrealism, Du Champ, Pop Art, as well as the more usually acknowledged modernist tradition (Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, etc.).1 As a result, a radically different interpretation of his work is evolving.

""Almost from the start, Davis' paintings were ambitious and displayed an awareness of diverse contemporary trends. Tapestry, 1962, a work he did while a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, shows Clyfford Still's pervasive influence: thick, dark layers of oil paint, vigorously applied to large, rectangular canvases. And early works like Ball Point Pen, 1964 and Roll Your Own (Zig Zag), 1964, both painted with acrylics, have all the hard edged zappiness and optical play of Op Art while displaying evidence of visionary surrealism, a la Robert Hudson and William Wiley, so prominent in the Bay Area at that time. Further, the linear design patterns were derived from such diverse sources as Byzantine mosaics, Persian miniatures, Paul Klee, late Kandinsky, and even Scientific American illustrations and advertising billboards.2

""More importantly, Davis internalized these influences and adapted them to his own ends – a process seen here in a yet unrealized state. For the first time, he put forth the idea of a painting as a depiction of an object. Moreover, the painting is beginning to be shaped to the contour of the object depicted, so that Roll Your Own (an isometric view of a cylinder) is elliptical and Ball Point Pen (in part a sphere) is circular. Following Clyfford Still's example, Davis orders color in space by layering one on top of another. In later works, like Spoke, 1968, Single Sawtooth, 1971, and several of his "cubes," Davis uses Still-like tears and holes which reveal the field underneath, thus establishing their relative placement in space. Unlike Still, Davis avoids figure-ground ambiguity, opting instead for a stable, clearly defined spatial placement ... a critical distinction that differentiates him from fifties Abstract Expressionism.

""By early 1965, Davis had moved to Los Angeles, where he became friends with the painters David Novros, Paul Morgenson, and William Pettet, and the sculptors Judy Chicago and Lloyd Hamrol (who were doing minimal sculpture at the time). In the mid-sixties, being avant-garde was a major concern to Davis and his friends. Frank Stella, whose "V" series of paintings Davis saw at the Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, in 1965, was considered the key painter to deal with; and the important issues were thought to be monochromatic painting, shaped painting, series painting, and the idea of a painting as an object. Davis' initial response was a series of eight monochromatic, shaped paintings on four-inch-thick stretcher bars (e.g., Large Red, l965) done during the summer of 1965 and exhibited that fall in the Nicholas Wilder Art Gallery, Los Angeles. These paintings were a methodical working-out of the various possibilities: the shapes consisted of a square, rectilinear planes viewed isometrically (i.e., parallelograms), and rectangles seen in one-point perspective (i.e., trapezoids). The color was equally logical: the three primaries, three secondaries, and black and white. Nothing appeared arbitrary – everything was controlled, systematic, ordered. These works were far more than Stella's without the stripes. Originally conceived as minimal sculptures, they radically changed to become paintings of sculptures; and the idea of painting as an illusion of an object took a firm hold.

""At this point, Davis began a long process of technical and artistic innovation and refinement. In works like Ultramarine, 1966 (still a rectilinear plane), and Green Skew, 1966 (one of a series derived from a nine-section plane with two or three sections removed), he employed two-point perspective in order to make the illusion more convincing and the ideas more clear. (The planes were mistakenly divided into equal portions – a drawing error that somewhat negates the perspective illusion). Influenced by the techniques of Billy Al Bengston and especially William Pettet, whose monochromatic paintings he admired, Davis tried spraying his canvases with paint, rather than rolling the paint on as he had done previously, to achieve a more chromatically varied surface. However, the paintings were very time-consuming to make, because in order to achieve the smooth surface he desired, it was necessary to apply up to ten coats of paint, carefully sanding each one. As a result, Davis began to search for a smooth, hard surface which would not be so difficult and tedious to work with, and experimented with molded plastic.

""Living in Los Angeles meant easy access to plastic technology. The production of fiberglass automobiles, boats, and surfboards had become a booming industry, and several sculptors (including Terry O'Shea, Ron Cooper, and Robert Morris, whose fiberglass minimal sculptures he saw at the Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, in 1966) used these processes in their art. Davis first attempted to apply resin to canvas in order to seal it like a gesso; but that still left pock marks which needed to be sanded in order to achieve a smooth surface. Next, he tried eliminating the canvas and substituting fiberglass as a support for the sprayed paint (e.g., Small Tray, 1965), but that also needed sanding; moreover, commercially available fiberglass sheets came in widths no more than thirty-six inches, making it impossible to create large paintings without seams.

""Finally, after obtaining a book on how to make fiberglass boats and cars, Davis developed the technique of painting with colored resin – a process he continued to employ in substantially the same form until the spring of 1972, when he returned to canvas and acrylic paints. In addition to providing a smooth, hard surface, resin affirmed the painting as an object; the paint and ground were the same substance and, therefore, as in staining oil on canvas, were on the same surface plane.

The first resin paintings of this type, including No-Ninths Violet, 1966, Six-Ninths Red, 1966, and nine other paintings, were exhibited at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, in 1966. They are seminal not merely because of their new process; more importantly, because the illusion is no longer of a two-dimensional rectilinear plane but is of a three-dimensional object – a slab.

""Eleven Colors, 1967, one of the best of the early resin paintings, clearly illustrates the way Davis relates to Stella and other contemporary artists. Like Stella's paintings, Eleven Colors is a logical ordering of parallel light and dark stripes which echo the shape of the painting; but rather than repeating the literal framing edge, Davis' paintings echo the edge of the depicted object (in this case a thick slab with a quarter section removed). It is a tribute to Davis' skill that one readily accepts the edges of the illusion as the real, literal edges of the painting.3 The result is a painting with the compelling immediacy of a real object and much of the bold, aggressive, single-image impact of Pop Art. One should note, however, that the immediacy of Eleven Colors and most of Davis' other works, is pictorial whereas the immediacy of objects is literal. Davis underscores this effect by employing a literally impossible point of view. That is, the viewer would have to be much farther away than he actually is in order to see the painting in its proper perspective. The result is a disorientation and an impression of closeness that is quite disconcerting.

""Having established a tight perspective structure, Davis became freer in his use of color. Dodecagon, 1968, an excitingly bold and clear statement, is a relatively rectangular and therefore, neutral shape. As a result, colors are al lowed to interrelate freely since they are not locked tightly in place. Zodiac, 1969, which resembles Dodecagon in format, is even looser, and structure and shape dominate color even less. Zodiac's   segments are experienced more as backgrounds or color fields than as distinct, solid shapes; and, as with Jackson Pollock's all-over drip paintings, the biomorphic, Abstract Expressionist forms defy figuration. One is encouraged to skim over the surface of the painting rather than examine its composition piece by piece because the optical interaction of complementary colors and the "all-over" rhythmic play of biomorphic configurations hinder any attempt to focus on any one incident. Moreover, the colored drips in Zodiac are perceived as applied to, but distinct from, the depicted object in much the same way paint is perceived on sculpture. Consequently, color does not delineate or deter mine shape, nor does shape determine or contain color. Rather, shape seems to exist on its own, and color is free to advance and recede freely in space.

""But only up to a point! The painting is free and spontaneous only within controlled limits. The perspective grid still holds the configurations in check, placing them firmly in space by attaching them to an easily grasped illusion of an object. And the configurations themselves, upon closer examination, are carefully drawn and contained within each segment. Some times puddles, even drips, change hue as they cross a border not some thing easily accomplished without a great deal of control. This carefully controlled spontaneity, a studied casualness, adds another expressive element to Davis' painting, sometimes evoking a surrealist mood.

""The paintings gradually became more painterly, more involved with color, and less locked into a closed, orderly structure until a conclusion of sorts was reached in work exhibited in the fall of 1971 at the Pasadena Art Museum. These paintings (e.g., Diagonal Rectangle XV, 1971) revived the rectilinear plane that Davis had dealt with as early as 1965 in Diamond Lock.   They were flatter, more frontal and allowed for more push-pull color relationships than any of his previous work. These were nearly the last resin paintings Davis made (the last ones were painted in May, 1972) before returning to acrylic on canvas; and, for a period of about six months beginning in June, 1972, he did not paint at all. Most of this period was spent building and adjusting to a new studio – the planning – of which had begun as early as the winter of 1969-1970.

""The studio – a spectacular five-thousand-square-foot trapezoidal structure – was a collaborative effort with his friend, the architect Frank Gehry. Inspired by some resin sculptures Davis made in 1971 and 1972 (never publicly exhibited) and a hay barn and auditorium that Gehry had designed earlier, the architect and artist conceived the studio as a large cube seen in two-point perspective.4 The resulting structure is quite eccentric: the roof slopes from thirty feet to ten feet and the walls converge from ninety feet to forty-five feet. The immense interior space was awesome and intimidating for a painter of Davis' sensibilities, and the precious, pristine condition made it difficult for him to bang a nail into a wall. Davis withdrew to a small corner room to paint; but most of the time he spent alone, adjusting to his new surroundings and composing music on an elaborate Buchla synthesizer.5

""This was a period of psychological, physical, and artistic withdrawal, a state expressively revealed in the paintings: small, hard-edged, rigidly aligned geometric objects, compulsively self-contained by up to four or five internal frames. Color relationships were established according to pre-determined ratios of light to shadow; and a scientifically controlled color system6 was used to insure the utmost precision in value gradations. Unlike his earlier shaped paintings, which use the wall as a background and therefore depend on neutral surroundings (light switches, wall paper, paneling, etc., all be come part of the painting and disturb the illusion), these rectangular paintings provide their own backgrounds. The results are airless, hauntingly still worlds reminiscent of De Chirico.

""By the summer of 1974, Davis was not only adjusted to his new environment but was exhilarated by it. In response, the new paintings were enormous some over fourteen feet loosely painted, as extroverted as his resin paintings, and, although still containing geometric bodies in a perspective structure, as open and airy as landscapes. On an atmospheric, stained back ground, painted with great freedom and spontaneity, Davis plotted a network of fuzzy-edged grids (only implied in the earlier paintings) which determined the perspective structure, the source of light, and the shadows cast. In the best paintings, the geometric bodies and their shadows seem to be organically integrated with;their! ambiance; and decoration, rather than appearing to be applied to the structure, seems to evolve out of it. The large scale, bold illusionism, lush color and glowing light make these the most exuberant, rich and unabashedly lyrical paintings in Davis' oeuvre.

""At the same time, the "all-over" grids, the translucency of the geometric bodies, the general monochromatic tonality, and the high point of view which eliminates a horizon line, give the works a sameness of surface, a homogeneity, that merges figure and ground, thereby unifying the work into a whole very much in the Modernist tradition.

1 In 1962, Davis saw an "L" shaped painting by Frank Stella and was told by a friend that it was ""Pop Art and the "L" was taken from a series of paintings which spelled out Stella's name.

2 This and similar information used in this essay was conveyed to me in a series of interviews
""with the artist conducted in May and June, 1976.

3 See Michael Fried's essay, RONALD DAVIS:   Surface and Illusion ARTFORUM , April, 1967.

4 On Davis' studio, see Paul Goldberger, "Studied Slapdash," The New York Times Magazine,
""January 18,1976, pp. 48-50.

5 The music began as an experiment in creating space through the location of sound and
""gradually became more complex technically and musically.

6 A vinyl-acrylic copolymer paint manufactured for animators by Cartoon Colour Co. Davis
""continues to use this paint and color system in his current work.