Butler Institute of American Art, exhibition catalog – Ronald Davis: Abstractions 1962 – 2002

[This essay was originally printed in the catalog that accompanied the forty work retrospective, “Ronald Davis: Abstractions 1962 – 2002,” exhibited at the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio in October, 2002.]

The best abstract painting made in America during the past thirty-five years has been eclipsed. Great American abstract painting hasn’t been replaced by anything comparable, and I’m using the word eclipse here because eclipses pass. Fanfare and fluff tend to obscure what has always been: that great art gets overlooked by mediocrity, pretense and market strategies, and today is no exception.

We all pay the price and suffer the vagaries of money and fashion in an art world with little or no taste and seemingly little regard for quality. Without belaboring the point too much, the greatest, most universal, timeless, original, genuine and important works made by American abstract painters now in their fifties and sixties are by and large suppressed from text-books, academia, art magazines and museum stages across the world. With very few exceptions, many important American abstract painters have fallen into obscurity and some have fallen by the wayside. None-the-less, and to our benefit, there are dozens of great American abstract painters who, though sometimes disillusioned and suppressed, have still continued to produce their work, and Ronald Davis – who’s had his share of the limelight – is one of the best.

I’ve known Ron Davis and his work for nearly forty years. I first encountered his paintings in 1964 when I was an art student at The San Francisco Art Institute. Ron had recently left the Art Institute, and I’d hear about these guys who were painting hard-edge paintings in a roller rink. I was painting hard-edge paintings too and my name is Ronnie so I looked at his work, which I saw at the Art Institute. Clearly his paintings were among the best student paintings I’d seen and I’d been looking at student work all over the country at that point. Over the years we’ve become friends and we’ve talked for countless hours about art and life. Ron is a generous soul, he is tough-minded about his art, he has had his share of grief and struggle, he’s raised a family the best he could, and he’s fought many internal battles with himself. He is a spiritual man, as I think most important painters are, even if they don’t let on.

When I visited Davis’s studio in downtown Los Angeles in January 1969 and saw his new resin paintings for the first time, I was thunderstruck. It can be argued that between 1966 and 1972 Davis produced one of the most remarkable bodies of work ever created by an artist on these shores. Certainly the Dodecagons from 1968-69 remain among the most visually stunning, audacious and intellectually interesting bodies of work made by an abstract painter in the last half of the twentieth century.

Davis, born in California and raised in Wyoming, was inspired by Jackson Pollock and, against all kinds of logic, remains perhaps the only American painter who has successfully used Pollock’s drip and splatter technique with fruition. His virtuoso paint handling in the resin paintings created a new kind of geometric expressionism, keeping an unspoken promise made to Abstract Expressionism years before.

Ronald Davis refers to his work as Abstract Illusionism. With the Dodecagons, Davis created plastic paintings that were optical illusions of shapes in three dimensions, under a flat shiny surface on a twelve-angled object to be seen on the wall. They essentially broke all the rules of modernist rhetoric while being brilliant modernist paintings, there-by expanding the definition of modernism. It’s difficult to remember just how innovative and radical these paintings were when they were made. The paintings of 1968-1969 were daring in so many ways. Davis took risks with his perspective drawing, color, use of transparency, his paint handling, his materials, his shapes, his style, and his use of illusion. He essentially painted his resin paintings backwards, face down, unseen, under the picture plane. They are utterly original and brilliantly conceived.

Besides masterpieces like Zodiac, Double Ring Roto, Spoke and Double Ring, an early Dodecagon I find particularly interesting is Spindle. Spindle, 1968, with a deceptively simple geometric format, breaks new ground with its clear painterly forms, mysterious depths of field (nearly dispensing with perspective and illusion), reading flatter than most of Davis’s paintings. In Spindle, the hard reflective surface toughens the picture and gives strength to its lyricism.

Among the few reservations that I have about Davis’s work of that period, albeit in retrospect, is his use of plastic surfaces which, as impressive as they look, tend to interfere with my ability to feel his paintings full force. The glossy plastic surface casts reflections and those reflections reveal pictures of pictures that I find distracting, although the reflections add to the power of the work. The plastic surfaces tend to be cold and put me off when I look at the paintings. I can’t feel them, perhaps because instead of paint on a surface they are paint under a surface. Paradoxically that is also one of the strengths of these works. If the weakness is the hard, glossy surface, the artist’s painterly skill transcends mere surface more often than not. I think Davis’s consistent use of forms in perspective sometimes gets in the way of discerning the pure quality of the paintings, which are extraordinary and in my opinion don’t always need the rendering of the illusion of forms in space. I think Davis succeeds as often as he does because of his color, his versatile surfaces and the concentration, intensity and clarity of his vision. When Davis allows himself the freedom to just paint pictures, the results are usually remarkable. I’d prefer more emphasis on pure feeling, paint quality, directness, transparency, translucency, surface vulnerability and drawing. When Davis is most successful, his paintings draw you in, providing easy access to the viewer. His paintings succeed most often when they resonate with the power, timelessness, and clarity that is always there in his best work.

It’s probably worth saying that during the late sixties there was a lyrical revolution in American abstract painting. By the early seventies the strongest and most independent young artists were disenchanted with the hypocrisy and hierarchy of the Formalist followers of Greenberg and gave it up looking for alternatives. The second generation Abstract Expressionists, who Clement Greenberg called “Post-Painterly Abstractionists” and everyone else called “The Color Field Painters,” had essentially closed down the field. Trying to find alternatives to the pedantic and tedious rhetoric of minimalism and formalism, some independent young painters changed the face of painting radically.

Young artists looked again to their origins as modernist painters, going all the way back to Goya, Manet, Monet, Cþzanne, Chinese and Japanese landscape painting, Luminism, and The Hudson River School for new inspiration. Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, and other abstract expressionists were renewed as sources for inspiration. In a search for meaning the landscape provided the fertile direction for change. Young painters in the late sixties created a new hybrid abstract art that was about process, but was also about liberation, subjectivity, and sincerity. It was about making art that was painterly, pictorial, historical, precise, geometric, literal, spiritual, and occasionally overtly representational.

The direction those artists took demanded a more personal and poetic course than the ones proscribed by the philosophies of minimalism and the philosophies of color field painting. Ironically, the innovations and influence of Lyrical Abstraction as it was then called quickly spread to the older Post-Painterly Abstractionists, the so-called Color Field Painters, who relaxed their dogmatic approach and limited mannerisms, quickly embracing and following many of the ideas originated by Lyrical Abstraction and the new generation. Consequently, taking the cue from us, the Color Field Painters dropped theory and became painterly, pictorial and landscape oriented, thereby also liberating themselves. Along with other painters of his generation (like me) Ronald Davis was one of the important leaders of that revolution.

The paintings that first brought Davis international acclaim were the Slab paintings begun in 1966 and exhibited at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York City in October, 1966. The buzz around New York among most of my painter friends and at Max’s was about how important that show was, and I agreed. The paintings I saw were complex, precise, although somewhat repetitious, and began what was to become one of the most astonishing six year runs in American painting. Six-Ninths Red is a significant painting of the series, made with molded polyester resin and fiberglass mounted on wood. The paintings depict rectangular forms in perspective. Frankly these are very difficult paintings to describe. Generally the viewer is looking down onto the paintings in which a rectangular slab is seen from the top, shaped in an overall diamond, with a smaller rectangular slab at one end, and what appears to be the other side of the slab minus the piece on the end. Six-Ninths Blue was reproduced on the cover of ArtForum in April 1967 and in that issue Michael Fried authored an important article, Ronald Davis: Surface and Illusion. Fried discussed Davis’s use of three-dimensional illusion, two-point perspective and the unique surface quality those works had.

I think the paintings have a curious way of dealing with time and space; they take a lot of time to digest, and the forms that seem to occupy particular spaces seem to slide around a lot. Sometimes the smaller slab slides away from the other slab, and sometimes the viewer senses an impending collision on the part of one or both of the rectangular slabs. The surfaces make these paintings special; they are painted from the back, face down on a smooth fiberglass mold and are both translucent and opaque. Translucency adds to the rich mystery and tension these paintings evoke. My favorite painting from that series was One-Ninth Green (The Unicorn Pen) which was nearly totally trans-lucent. Nothing like them had been done before. One minor aspect of these paintings is their wit. For Davis, humor, paradox and wordplay seem to have a special place. There is a Duchampian aspect to Davis’s work too, best comprehended by contemplating Duchamp’s The Large Glass, T’M, and The Chocolate Grinder. Davis’s work relates to the only charm Duchamp has for me: his sense of humor.

Davis followed the Slab Series of 1966, the Crab Series of 1967 and the Dodecagons of 1968-1969 with the Cutout Series in the early seventies. The Cutouts are especially remarkable for their refined use of transparency, and those paintings should be fully appreciated for their sheer beauty and sophisticated uniqueness and delicacy. The level of concentration in the Cutouts is exceedingly high. They are perfection in their complex directness; perhaps they were the zenith of the run of paintings Davis made in downtown Los Angeles. When I first saw them around 1971 I admit that I didn’t understand them, then. In retrospect they have gotten far better for me and I realize that, as my own taste has grown over the years, I’ve come to understand and appreciate those pictures. Those were the last series of Davis’s resin paintings as he left downtown Los Angeles in 1972 and moved into his mostly self-designed studio built in collaboration with then-unknown architect Frank Gehry in Malibu. In his new studio and for reasons of health and aesthetics, Davis discontinued working with the extremely toxic fiberglass and resins of the previous six years in favor of works on paper, prints and the slightly more benign paint and canvas which he took up in 1973.

For me, besides his resin paintings of 1966-72, the most enigmatic, thought provoking and successful series of Davis’s work are the Snap Line Paintings, which were done in the mid-1970s and taken up again in the late 1980s. Generally they were large-scale, and uncharacteristically made on rectangular canvases. He painted grounds of loose, painterly, acrylic stains, often applied with random abandon and overlaid with a precise network of dry pigment snap lines. He used a full range of painted surfaces, opacity, translucency, transparency; and his color was often charged with emotion. The paintings feel right, they are intense, urgent and intelligent. The Snap Line Paintings define whole complex universes of geometric shapes in perspective, resembling mathematical portraits of objects in space, suspended in a psychological landscape. The paintings combine (as Davis tends to do in his best work) several historical directions in one. The viewer has quick access because they are so direct and are endlessly filled with rich, subtle meaning and nuance. While Davis has created works in a wide range of manners he is inconsistent within his varied series, and the Snap Lines sometimes seem a little forced. From the beginning, Davis has had a preoccupation with re-defining abstract painting. His interest in trying new materials and new shapes goes back four decades. He’s a paradoxical mixture in that his sensibility is clearly grounded in conventional painting but his paintings are rarely ever conventional. His long running interest in computers, plastics, inventing new and different surfaces to paint on, his use of animator’s colors, resins, encaustic, and acrylics sets him apart from most other painters. He makes geometric objects, in relationship to the viewer, the wall, each other, often with the illusion of perspective, deep space, shallow space, or infinite space. While these are consistent and co-existing themes in his work, there have been other works that chart other directions too.

Davis is a painter of precise and paradoxical measure, practice and procedure. His new paintings are object-like and seemingly non-pictorial. The theme of objects in space has been a constant in Davis’s work for forty years, and these new paintings are a continuation of that theme with a renewed sense of vitality and commitment. These new works are the most succinct paintings of his long career. Yellow Hinge, 2001, for example, reads quickly as abstract object on the wall, intensely and sensitively colored and at the same time highly complicated when read as an abstract object in space, carefully balanced and constructed so the illusion of bends and twists in space is often literal.

Ronald Davis is once again the master of illusion but this time a little more direct. The surfaces of his new paintings are worked with layers of paint rolled on sometimes thick and heavy, allowing for the pure language of surface to flow fast and then slowly emerge in the eye as paint and as in some cases literal material. His color is full, loaded, aimed at the viewer, and he pulls no punches; the emotional impact is compelling. It’s surprising that for a painter as conceptual and cerebral as Davis, his color is so crucial to the power of his paintings. His color is passionate at times, cool at times, always carefully weighed and intuitively regulated. He is a complicated and sometimes weird combination of brilliant forethought and planning and spontaneous combustion. The poetry in his work comes with a mathematical precision and a master painter’s imagination. He hasn’t exactly made paintings in the conventional sense of paint on a rectangular canvas for many years and the argument can be made that these paintings aren’t paintings. Which is one reason Davis’s work is always interesting.

The range of style that Davis allows for is usually fairly close, going from hard edge precision to a loose painterly relaxed manner that tends to be contained in an organized, controlled system of ribbons, boxes or bands of color. A new work, Octagon Ring, 2001-2002, is organized in such a way, and is a good example of one of the typical container type formats Davis has used in variation over the years.

His new prints and digital work on the computer are decisively pictorial. In Ball and Chain, 2001, and Mazzocchio in Room, 2001, he creates abstract still-life using geometric imagery that verges on realism in a surreal kind of way. As if to underscore his penchant for word play and allusion to realism, Crate 99, 2001 is a picture of an actual wooden box with lettering and wood grain included used to contain paintings when they are shipped. There are a few series from the late seventies to mid-eighties, notably The Music Series, the Floaters and the Checkerboards, that also read primarily as pictures with an abstract geometric narrative at the heart. The Music Series is Davis’s most direct homage to Jackson Pollock who remains one of his most important inspirations, and those paintings ironically remain among Davis’s most under-appreciated bodies of work. The Music Series breaks free of the constraints of style Davis usually imposes upon himself and often they are unabashed expressionist pictures occasionally held in check by various floating, phantom shapes.

By the late 1960s Davis was showing his paintings in leading galleries worldwide. He was represented by his longtime dealer and friend Nicholas Wilder in Los Angeles, Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, Kasmin Gallery in London, and David Mirvish Gallery in Canada. Davis’s paintings were widely collected by important museums and private collectors all over the world. Articles about his work were written, and his paintings were shown everywhere there was an important venue for contemporary art. During the late seventies and until the early nineties, Davis was represented by the BlumHelman Galleries in New York and Los Angeles and since the early seventies the John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco. While fashions came and went, Davis continued producing his visions, remaining true to his essential self.

In 1962, I saw an exhibition that rocked the world. The Sidney Janis Gallery shocked me, and the art world, with The New Realism Show in a rented storefront on 57th Street. That exhibition marked the official arrival of Pop Art in the very heart of the abstract expressionist stronghold. The arrival of Pop Art and the advent of Post-Painterly Abstraction and Minimalism had by 1962 struck a nearly fatal blow to Abstract Expressionism. I regularly began visiting Dick Bellamy’s Green Gallery where I saw Op Art, Hard-Edge Painting, Pop Art, Minimalism and frankly, I was stunned. I was fifteen and an art student on 57th St. in New York, painting large gestural abstract expressionist oil paintings with charcoal and enamels, working in a manner similar to the artists I admired most: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline. I began to rethink what I was doing after I’d been to the Kansas City Art Institute (and left in early November 1963) having done scores of abstract expressionist paintings in my two months there. I’d met Hans Hofmann at the Kootz Gallery in December 1963, and Hofmann words of encouragement impacted me almost as much as his paintings did. Hofmann’s rich, deep color range, his sophisticated formats, his free and bold brushwork, his occasional use of white grounds, the masterful use of hard-edge rectangles against organic stains, had left an indelible impression on me. In early 1964 after I turned seventeen I decided it was time for a big change in my work. I hit the road, left New York City and headed for California determined to create new paintings. When I settled in Berkeley in March 1964 I began to paint my first hard-edge acrylic paintings. The challenge I faced was how to bridge all that I loved about Abstract Expressionism with all that I’d seen that was new and radical; I vowed to myself that I’d find the way.

It’s nearly forty years since I first saw Ronald Davis’s work in San Francisco in 1964. He struck me then as an important new painter and thirty-eight years later, having created a deep and rich legacy of art in five decades, he remains an even more important painter. In 1964 I saw hard-edge acrylic paintings of high levels of intensity, clearly distinguished, defining and dealing with major issues facing advanced American abstract painting of that time. The dilemma many young abstract painters faced was how to create relevant, meaningful art that was new, would reflect their own time, and would be viable, universal and as timeless as was the best Abstract Expressionism. Some of the issues were clarity, clear color, sharp surface distinction and the elimination of the subjective, relational approach for a more rational decision making process. I was struck by the level of quality in Ron’s work and the interesting resonance his work had with some of the best new work I’d seen in New York.

In 1993, Ronald Davis moved to Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, where in collaboration with architect Dennis Holloway and anthropologist Charley Cambridge he built a compound of six Navajo-type hogans to live and work in. Davis has worked in many mediums, and in 1997 he created the remarkable, educational web site www.abstract-art.com. He has made masterful digital works on the computer for two decades, and some of his digital works are among his most stirring and moving images.

For all of his humor, subtle wit and clever ideas, Davis is a sincere artist. He came to painting somewhat late at the age of twenty-two. He is a shy but straight and direct person and that’s reflected in his achievement. There is no place for irony or cynicism in Davis’s work; he is from a generation of American painters who are somewhat irreverent, independent and very serious about what they do, and Ronald Davis has always been aware of his place in American art history. Today he continues to create paintings of high quality and, if the issues have changed as indeed the world has changed, then the richness of his new art as does the richness of all great painting from any time will continue to compel anyone who loves the art of painting.

– Ronnie Landfield, NYC, March 2002

[Ronnie Landfield is an abstract painter who lives and works in New York City. He is represented by the Salander/O’Reilly Galleries. Since 1966, at the age of nineteen, Mr. Landfield’s paintings have been included in hundreds of group exhibitions worldwide. Since his debut in 1969 at the David Whitney Gallery in New York, Landfield has had nearly sixty one-man shows of his work. His paintings are in the permanent collections of dozens of museums worldwide including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others. His work is also included in hundreds of private and corporate collections as well. Mr. Landfield equates his time spent at Max’s Kansas City from 1966 to 1970 with the equivalent of a graduate school education in the New York art world. He taught fine arts at the School of Visual Arts from 1975 until 1989. He currently teaches at The Art Students League in Manhattan.]