Center Stage: Getting on the “Hot Beat” at Smithsonian American Art

WASHINGTON — An exhibit of Gene Davis’ work “Hot Beat” is currently running at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. At “Hot Beat,” visitors can view Davis’ signature art, which is defined by his unprecedented use of multi-colored, rhythmic stripes.

The title of Davis’ exhibit is also the namesake of one of his artworks. “Hot Beat”, like many of his other paintings, has a repeating motif of one color surrounded by colors that pop out and play with the notions of the viewer.

In “Hot Beat,” red is initially perceived as the dominant color, surrounded by an unconventional color palette, including olive green, sky blue and light pink. After prolonged viewing, the visitor may notice that the other repeating color in “Hot Beat” is black.

Black is not initially perceived like the other colors since it serves as the negative space, or the background that complements the brighter colors. Black gives “Hot Beat” its balance as well as its funky vibe, like the bass or percussion in a jazz improvisation.

Slightly off-center is a stripe of bright orange with stripes of teal on each side, breaking the repetition of black. Sky blue seems to have its own pattern, only to be broken by the light pink and grass-green.

This style of creating a theme and breaking it off or toying with it is seen in Davis’ other works. On one wall of the exhibit, Davis is quoted: “I never plan my color more than five stripes ahead and often change my mind before I reach the third stripe.”

Davis initially wanted to be a musician but became a journalist in his early career. In the 1960s he renewed his interest in art and started painting without any academic training in the genre of abstract expressionism.

In the description of the exhibit, Davis explains his devotion to the stripe: “Stripes feel right to me for some reason … They have a rectitude, an uncompromising quality… a monotony that appeals to me… If I worked for 50 more years, I wouldn’t exhaust the possibilities.”

One of the guards at the exhibit said that her favorite piece was Davis’ early work “Peeping Wall.” “The title itself catches me because I think of it as a child with cotton candy, peeping behind a wall, hiding candy that they’re not supposed to hide,” she said.

“Peeping Wall” is primarily composed of light pink along with red, baby blue, navy blue and gold, colors that evoke childlike qualities. Between each stripe, Davis allows the white canvas to peek through, creating a sense of something lying behind the “blinds” of color stripes.

For the exhibit guard, who asked to remain anonymous, the pink and baby blue colors evoke innocence, while red and blue are stronger emotions like anger or conviction in a child’s desire. The gold represents a higher, more admirable quality.

“I didn’t know anything about Gene Davis prior to working here, but it’s been maybe a month now, and I’m already a fan,” she said.

“Peeping Wall” is just one of many examples of how Davis’ work encourages people to inhabit their own imaginations. The simplicity of Davis’ motifs, paired with his provocative color patterns, allow viewers to draw their own conclusions about his art.

“Gene Davis: Hot Beat” is open free of admission through April 2. Location: Third floor North, Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F Streets NW) Hours: Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Phone: 202-633-1000.



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