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Washington Color School: The “Give-Away” with Gene Davis

It was 1969.  I went over to Ed Mc Gowin‘s studio to talk to Gene Davis about his color theory.  When I arrived, there were a bunch of students mulling about, with canvas on the floor – a total mess. The students could not paint at all.

After talking to Gene, he said he had no color theory but I am sure he did.

I went home and soon after Ed McGowin called to see if I would come back over to make the paintings.  Gene had lost interest in the project at that point. I told Ed that I would do it if the students followed my instructions to the T.

I took on the project.  And interestingly,  no students worked on the project with me.  There were 2 girls – one was Ed McGowins girlfriend (Venessa Gurein) and Christine Guzman (names are on the back of canvas), along with a friend of mine named Larry. Ed did the taping. The project prefigured Sol DeWitt’s wall pieces where the assistant names are included.  In this case the 3 people that helped me had their names silk screened on the back of the canvas.  The only real signatures were Gene, Doug, Ed, and mine.

I single-handedly painted 50 of these paintings in 9 days which was the equivalent of 350 feet of paintings! 1700 strips!! 6ft x 6ft –  the paintings were called Popsicle.  According to Washington Art Matters, the Giveaway best encapsulated the times in the late 60’s in WDC  and the symbolic end to the Washington Color School.

I consider it my conceptual performance piece.

Greg Allen describes the scene here:

There are so many fascinating things about the Gene Davis Giveaway, I almost don’t know where to start. And I’m embarrassed to not have known about it sooner.  Gene Davis Giveaway, or Give Away, or as it was called at the time by its creators, The Event, was an amazing art project, part Happening, part Conceptual Art, part ur-Post-Modernist appropriationist market critique, and–yes–part Relational Aesthetics mayhem. And it happened in Washington, DC, in 1969.

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SEE ALSO: When the Washington Color School earned its stripes on the national stage [Washington Post]

THE BEGINNING of the Washington Color School
June 25, 1965
 — Art lovers converge at the Washington Gallery of Art west of Dupont Circle. In suits and ties and dressy summer sheaths, they dance to a four-piece band and pose for photos in front of rivulets of paint, whirling dots, T-squares, chevrons and vibrating stripes. The museum’s director and curator, Gerald Nordland, has hung works by six artists and identified them as “the Washington Color Painters.” Something dazzling and maybe important is happening.

THE END of the Washington Color School
May 22, 1969 — 
A black-tie crowd buzzes in the grand ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel. Hundreds sip wine, surrounded by stripe paintings in the signature style of Gene Davis — 50 copies of his 6-by-6-foot “Popsicle” rendered by a crew of Corcoran students guided by artist Michael Clark (!). It’s the Give-Away, a happening launched by critic Doug Davis and artist Ed McGowin to dispense all of the art by random drawing. The two describe their event as an homage to the “Color School,” as an overdue send-off that liberates Washington art to come.

I’ll share more of my Washington Color School experiences in a future posts.

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Popsicle [1969] acrylic on unprimed canvas, 6″ x  6″