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Frederick R. Weisman Foundation
Including Davis's White Lid, 1969
White Lid, 1969
One of the first Southern California artists to impress the New York cultural intelligentsia, Ronald Davis was hailed by powerful East Coast critics in the late 1960s for his vivid abstract paintings made from new synthetic materials.1 His series of 29 resin-and-fiberglass dodecagons (twelve-angled objects), of which White Lid is a prototypic example, dates from 1968-9, the period of his greatest professional success. The Dodecagons pushed the limits of painting in both their slick, impersonal appearance and the unorthodox process of their production. Like many other artists of the 1960s who challenged romanticized notions of painting associated with abstract expressionism, Davis created the Dodecagons in much the same way that fiberglass surfboards, boats, and car bodies are constructed. He painted these works from behind, as it were, brushing different colored liquid resins directly into a waxed Formica mold, masked in tape according to his chosen design. Once the resin had hardened, fiberglass cloth impregnated with additional resin was laminated to it, providing a means of support in the absence of the traditional canvas and wooden stretcher. Ultimately, he peeled the work away from the wax mold, revealing the front of the painting for the first time. The resultant surface, which he polished until glossy, betrayed no evidence of brushstrokes or textural irregularities.
Whereas Davis sometimes left parts of the resin translucent or clear, he chose to make White Lid entirely opaque, reinforcing the sense of absolute planarity. Although White Lid is, in fact, perfectly flat and declares this in its overt lack of texture, its linear surface design and exterior shape together suggest a twelve-sided structure rendered in perspective, thereby sending a comflicting message of apparent three-dimensionality. Davis's placement of colors and design elements reinforces a three-dimensional reading. By alternating the colors of the rectilinear sections inside and beneath the white dodecagonal ring, and by then angling the contrasting splatter-designs so that the sections appear to be seen in three-dimensional perspective, he further compels the viewer to read the work as a single volumetric form, set against the infinite space of a white wall.
It would at first seem surprising that East Coast critics like Michael Fried and Barbara Rose so fervently supported Davis since they were loyal formalist disciples of Clement Greenberg, who demanded flatness in painting at all costs and discredited illusionism
of any kind. This support was virtually unprecedented for California artists, who had consistently been denigrated as producers of "kitsch" by Greenberg's coterie and by the New York art establishment since the early years of the century.² Yet Fried and Rose argued that Davis created the illusion of three-dimensionality in his works precisely to expose it as an illusion, by
means of the obvious artificiality and flatness of his chosen material. In Rose's words, "[A]s long as it receives contradictory information, the mind understands that it is dealing not with actual space, but with a purely artificial, imagined space...In the sense then that it never fools the eye, this new illusionism [Davis's art] makes every effort to insure that the mind grasps at
once that there is no space behind the plane of the picture."³ In this light, Davis's illusionism actually served to disprove the possibility of reproducing the natural world in art — Rose, like Greenberg, believed art should never try to imitate nature — just as his stylized and controlled drips and splatters cast doubt on the alleged immediacy and spontaneity of abstract
expressionist painting. What Rose and Fried interpreted as Davis's principal goal of taking abstract painting to a new plateau through irony and critique distinguished him, for them, from other California artists and put him in the company of such theoretically-minded East Coast painters as Frank Stella (who was, in fact, Rose's husband).
Rose and Fried viewed Davis's art through a formalist lens, popular among art critics of the 1960s, presenting him as an ascetic concerned only with artistic issues of flatness and abstraction. In hindsight, however, Davis's work appears very much related to life beyond the realm of art and specifically, to life in Southern California in the 1960s. Nancy Marmer has convincingly argued that, in contrast to the image of Davis as a "wily theoreticiam of modernism" that emerged in the 60s, "Davis's work must finally be seen in the familiar line of sensuous, hedonistic California abstraction."4 In addition to celebrating the hedonism of California beach cultures through his palette — "His colors, compounded of sunshine and sherbet, jewel-lights and tropical fruits, flesh and pearl...border on the orgiastic."5 — Davis's works invoke the very staples of existence in leisure-loving Los Angeles, namely, the surfboard, the boat, and the car. Not only do they have colors and forms reminiscent of these objects, but, as mentioned earlier, they were crafted using techniques from this culture as well. In keeping with a general openness to popular culture among Southern California artists6 which finds no parallel among the New York abstractionists, the Dodecagons also call to mind such icons of middle-class suburban life as jello and the portable swimming pool.7 Thus, while Davis's plastic paintings do seem to deal with culture rather than nature, as Rose and Fried have asserted, the works are about culture in the most familiar, human sense.
² See Clement Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and 'kitsch'." (1939) Reprinted in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism vol. I. Greenberg's belief that the avant-garde painter should remain impermeable to all non-aesthetic concerns and should strive increasingly for pictorial flatness strongly influenced Michael Fried and Barbara Rose.
³ "Abstract Illusionism." Artforum 6, no. 2 (October 1967), 37. In addition to Davis, this article dealt with Darby Bannard, Jules Olitsky, Miriam Schapiro, Frank Stella, and Larry Zox. Rose also suggested in the same article that Davis purposely did not use perspective accurately, thus further calling illusionism into question. She wrote, 'In Davis's case, we finally realize, after many futile attempts to fit together the information we are receiving in a logical way, that there is no angle of vision that would allow us to see the views constructed in the paintings." (p. 37)
4 "Ron Davis: Beyond Flatness." Artforum 15, no. 3 (November 1976), 34; 36.
5 Ibid., 36.
6 On this topic, see Paul Karlstrom, "Introduction." Turning the Tide: Los Angeles Modernism, 1920-1950.
7 Even the title, White Lid, is evocative of a consumer product rather than a purely abstract, conceptual design.