"A Painting’s Just Gotta Look Better Than the Wallpaper"
by Ronald Davis
statement was originally printed in the catalog that accompanied
work retrospective, "Ronald Davis: Abstractions 1962 – 2002," exhibited
at the Butler Institute
I really had no aspirations to be an artist. It was my third choice. I wanted to be a racer, or possibly a writer or a musician. Mostly a sports car race driver. I blew up an engine and went into a ditch in my twin-cam MG-A once in La Junta, Colorado, and narrowly escaped being creamed by two guys in Porsche 550s going around me at 180 while I was going just 120. I realized I might get killed doing this. That would have been OK at the time, but racing is a rich man’s sport, and I couldn’t afford it. So I switched to painting.
Later I found out that being an artist is much more dangerous – and just as expensive.The first painting I painted, a couple of years before I had thoughts of becoming a real painter, was a bleeding half of a cantaloupe on a checkerboard tablecloth with a fork looming overhead. As Yogi Bera says, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.”
Needing therapy, I enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute. My father paid my tuition and $150 a month for four years to keep me off the street, and to keep me from embarrassing him. Originally, I just wanted to go to Mexico and live on the beach, eat fish heads and rice, and paint; but my father wouldn’t let me. I had this big ball of something in my gut, and I needed desperately to vomit it out. At the same time, I was about to be drafted into the army, and I was terrified, although willing to go. I somehow made them understand that I was incapable of military duty. I told them I would go, but that I couldn’t be responsible for my actions under the stress of regimented duty. They deferred me.
In art school I discovered I had to try harder to compensate for the deficiencies of growing up knowing nothing of art in the cultural desert of Cheyenne, Wyoming. I mean, there was a watercolor society there, and some cowboy and Indian paintings, but nothing more. I saw some paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in my teens once, on a one-day whirlwind tour: the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, and the National Gallery. It didn’t occur to me then that making those pictures that were hanging there could be something one could actually DO in life.
In painting, I had discovered a “profession” that suited my dependencies. That is to say, if I became an artist, it was partly because it fitted my lifestyle. Life is funny that way: I haven’t had a drink in 18 years, but I am still an artist. Because now I know I really qualified, whereas when I went to the Art Institute for “therapy,” I only suspected it. I agreed with Camus – that I was a rebel, a criminal; but one who wanted to change the world to a more beautiful place, rather than deface it. The director of the Art Institute, Fred Martin, said that I was “a pain in the ass, but a worthwhile one.” In later years, the visionary art dealer who launched and nurtured my career, Nicholas Wilder, said, “You can say what you want about Ron Davis, but he sure can paint.”
In the early 1960s at the Art Institute, the pervasive influence of both Clyfford Still’s legacy and the prevailing Bay Area expressionistic figurative style presented a truly insurmountable hurdle, one I couldn’t even go around, much less go over. I couldn’t paint man’s aspirations as opposed to his physical limitations! But I discovered I could paint a stripe. And later, checker-boards. Abstract geometric objects.
Thus, I was led to do the opposite, not to be intentionally contrary, but out of desperation. During my first months in San Francisco I attended an exhibition of the Ben Heller Collection of Abstract Expressionism in the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the memorial building to the veterans of World War I. Out in front was one of the many casts of Rodin’s Thinker, squatting on a pedestal. Inside was Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. I looked at it a long time, and the poles began to churn viscerally, literally, in my gut. I had to go outside and throw up on the lawn. And, I didn’t know what it was, but there was a Joseph Cornell Box that transported me to the starry heavens. The pictures by Clyfford Still presented to me the stratified canyon walls of the mind and soul. My despair was that I could not, would not ever be able to make a picture like that. Having been “churned up,” I struggled to learn and eclectically emulate the space and power of these great paintings. But it had already been done. The buzz word at the time was “commitment,” or “existential commitment.” And, as a young artist, I had to admit I didn’t yet have anything to express, let alone a commitment to do so.
These were issues of personal artistic development, abstract content, and style, problems that to me were overwhelming. But my concern was how to make a picture, not how to look at one. Rather than just emulate the great works of my predecessors was not enough. My strategy became to do a Mondrian in the style of Jackson Pollock, and a Pollock in the style of Mondrian. And down in Studio 15 at the San Francisco Art Institute, an instructor of mine, Frank Lobdell, emphasized the importance of what you leave out of a painting, not what you put in.
I drove east in 1962, having been invited to the Yale-Norfolk School of Music and Art as a grantee. The crits I got there were incomprehensible. After a while I figured out they were analyzing my paintings in terms of Cubism, and Cubism was something I was not looking for. I didn’t want to look at the world and then abstract it. I said I wanted to approach it more directly, just make abstract paintings – which resulted in a couple of heated discussions. Phillip Guston came up to Norfolk and sat on the lawn and talked about himself for five hours. He said, “You have to paint flat footed, not looking at your painting while you’re painting it.” Good advice indeed!
While I was back east I expected to be able to view the works of Pollock, Still, De Kooning, Rothko, et al. But what I did find in the museums and New York galleries were some gray boxes and some blown-up versions of panels from comic books. I was taken aback because these were not the serious, even elitist pictures I had been seeking to emulate and learn how to make. They amused me, particularly a Lichtenstein, where the viewer is looking through a keyhole at a couple, with the bubble caption: “I just looked, Brad, and there’s nobody out there.” It was reassuring to find out that I was the “nobody,” and interesting to find in these formative years that art had become entertainment rather than a means of expression. It was liberating to discover that art didn’t have to express anything or mean anything. That it didn’t matter what a painting looked like.
Struggling to gain a finger hold in the formidable tradition of abstract painting, I attempted synthesis between “the Minimal Object,” Pop and Op fashion, and traditional, emotion-driven expressionist painting. For instance, even though I, like DuChamp, reintroduced perspective illusion – and the illusions of objects – into my painting, the objects themselves remained abstract and non-referential, although that’s usually up to the surrealist viewer. This struggle between object and the pictorial remains central to my work after forty years. I did not bring ironic non-art objects or concepts into the context of art at a time when trendy non-art was being redefined as “art.” It’s my belief that art as art has become devalued.
It was never my intention to deconstruct art as I found it. I strove to expand the boundaries of painting, not the boundaries of what was then becoming art: gray or glass boxes, conceptual art, installation art, performance art, minimalist art, or political art. My choice was to do the opposite, yet remain on the playing field of twentieth-century abstract painting. In my case, doing the opposite did not mean doing something completely different; I embraced the traditions of twentieth-century abstract painting. In fact, I have always remained in the Clement Greenberg “dialogue of post-painterly abstraction,” although in the studio – in the moment – I haven’t always followed his theoretical suggestions. Also, I can’t say that I haven’t been influenced by minimalism; but the emptiness of classical minimalism was not enough. I had to include beauty. By straddling the fence (not without risk), I was successful in forging a style I could call my own.
For the first of many times, I had painted myself into a corner. I was left with making an object: a container for the activity and intensity of the stoop labor. The deal is, this activity is not fun, not romantic, not expressive – it is a mindless activity that requires an empty mind, beginner’s mind in the Buddhist sense. The hard work of making an object without thought or effort. “Having fun” and “feeling good,” I have found out, are two different things. As it works out, the art world – the length and breadth of it – is an artist, in the studio, doing stoop labor, making things – making objects. I am envious of the craftsman, because he at least makes things that are useful.
My paintings present no narrative. What you see is not what you get. They are self-didactic, teaching me about form, and color, and perception itself. They are concave and convex, to serve either sex. But then, I am not really trying to be of service to the “art world.” The paintings are often the opposite of what they seem. People think they’re “happy,” because I use bright colors. Conversely, some think the paintings are aloof and cerebral; rather, they are defensive, protecting my fragility. I don’t know what they mean; I just know how to make them. A painting’s just gotta look better than the wallpaper.
I’m hardly ever confronted with the blank canvas syndrome. It starts prior to that – I have to reinvent the concept of a blank canvas. I know a painting is finished, at least for me, when I get bored with it. Or, if it’s any good, it pushes me outside of it, and I just become another viewer.
Between 1964 and 1988 I painted about a thousand paintings, bouncing between painterliness and hard-edge, or combinations. A “Pollock in a box” comes to mind. I don’t always equate expressionism with gooey paint on canvas. Apollonian can be just as “expressive” as Dionysian; it’s a matter of what is being expressed.
In 1965, I moved to LA. I showed a lot, sold a lot, built a big studio in Malibu, and consumed a lot. I had a very successful career. By the late 80s, I’d had enough. I’d accomplished what I’d been sent back from the future to do. (Emphatically, I think I was reincarnated. I’m from the future.) Fifty-five one-man shows had left me with the taste of ashes.
In 1990 I left the freeways of LA behind, and disengaged for the most part. I moved to New Mexico, where I built a group of domed polygonal buildings I designed with architect Dennis Holloway, based on the Navajo hogan dwelling.
I stopped painting for a while because I couldn’t see any reason to make objects in the context of the 1980s, for the sake of “show biz.” The self-indulgent self-promotional 80s: I didn’t fit into that. So I disengaged for 10 years. This exhibition at the Butler Institute of American Art is my first major exhibition in 10 years – with the exception of a small show of the 1996 Wax Series in January 1998 at a gallery in Taos, New Mexico. I did attempt to do some sculpture, enough to know I am not very good at it.
Now, I can reflect that my aspiration was to be an abstract expressionist, to walk in the footsteps of Still and Pollock but, characteristically, I was unsuited to do so. I can only construct things, something like the old European constructivists. Yet, like Clyfford Still and Jackson Pollock, I am an American Westerner, and an unsophisticated one at that, though I’ve learned a lot in my more than 40 years of painting. I am not a “cultured” man. I can only make objects, but “paintings as objects” was not enough, either. I was able to make it a bit more complicated by attempting to make pictures of illusions of objects. One thing I can say is that the subject of my paintings is not the unconscious.
A lot of people think I make my paintings – these objects – for them. They’re wrong about that. The activity is selfish. On bad days, I feel that it’s just a vehicle to confirm that I will be misunderstood once again.
Ultimately, my success was really my personal fail-u re, my original goal being to be a starving artist. Dealing with success has been so much harder than making paintings. If I’ve made any contribution at all, it is that counter to the glacial movement of serious twentieth century painting since Cézanne towards flat-ness, I reintroduced the theorems of three-dimensional Renaissance mathematical perspective into my made objects – my constructions. This is my legacy, my contribution to the art history books. With this, I stumbled into a style of painting that can excavate walls, shift the point of view of a Looker in a post-Einsteinian relativity within the context of a terrifying, existential, overpopulated nuclear world, where the observed is – only perhaps – relative to the Looker.
Even though paintings are not intrinsically useful, it was my thought that my paintings never wore out, no matter how much people looked at them, nor how many people looked at them. But I found out that when the paintings are moved or shipped, they are physically easily damaged. Of course that doesn’t happen out of maliciousness, but from lack of common sense. People will carefully put a plate in the cupboard, but will hang a big fragile painting with a little picture hook – and it falls off the wall!
don’t understand that as an artist, I some-times feel like the world
wants to hang me on the wall by the scruff of my neck. I am not my paintings.
(Sometimes I catch myself talking about them in the third person.) People
often don’t understand that an artist is someone who has to fill
out a credit card application, who has to put the word “artist”
in the space after “occupation.”
I did make a few gallery-museum sales and connections during the time I wasn’t working on actual painting. Actually, I have been working all along, the whole time. The wood sculptures, the encaustics. The watercolors I painted with my son. The computer drawings – hundreds of them. I am always in the pro-cess of learning three dimensional drawing and technical modeling techniques with new computer programs. The exploration of and experimentation with new modes of visualization. And I spend a lot of time building and maintaining the web site www.abstract-art.com.
When I stopped serious painting, I didn’t go dormant. There has been an alchemical process at work, a trans-formation I can’t explain except to say that these new paintings are an “inside job.” I am making them from a sense of personal obligation, which means a lot of things to me. On September 11, 2001, I watched the second airplane fly into the World Trade Center on television. After I cried, lit candles, and hung up my American flag on the front door of my kitchen hogan, a grave sense of my own mortality struck me. A week later, I drove to Albuquerque and bought seven hundred dollars worth of materials, something I haven’t done for a very long time. I know that for me, the only way to make a difference – which really will make no difference whatsoever – is to go into the studio for the rest of my life, and vent my emotional responses to the events that have changed all our lives forever. The new paintings are neither expressions nor representations of that event. My generalship in the world against existential terror-at-large is to just do the work in my studio.
I am not a connoisseur. I have not intentionally been to a museum in 15 years. I have no gallery affiliations. I have no subscriptions to art magazines. I read paperback novels and military history. I socialize little, and I watch a lot of TV. I abhor travel.
As I near my 65th birthday, I have come to know that the whole of the art world and of art history itself, is contained in the isolation of this artisan, making an object, a picture, in the dark of the night.