Continued from Part 2:

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 36 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 San Francisco 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.

Jackson Pollock Blue Poles


Jackson Pollock – Blue Poles 

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.