Beacon Gallery is pleased to present the first-ever retrospective of works by artist Malcolm Montague Davis (1933-2021, American) on view from February 4 to March 13, 2022.
An architect by training, hard-edge artist Malcolm Montague Davis created a niche for himself with artistic reinterpretations of both his architectural structures and landscapes. With an eye for color and an uncompromising attention to detail and consistency, Davis captured reality and translated it into geometry.
Always an enthusiast of architecture and transportation, these two themes run through his work. No matter the subject, however, almost all works started as architectural maquettes. Davis stated, “Colored paper maquettes are made to study the proportions and color relationships. From these paper studies, candidates are culled to be enlarged into paintings. A single building may result in several paintings, which depict its diverse features.”
Davis’s work is true to the architectural forms of the Bauhaus movement. He used simple materials in their unadulterated state: his works sit on standard size Masonite panels, hung on attached wooden strainers. In addition, he only used Benjamin Moore paints, never mixing his own colors. Davis’s works have a modern look thanks to the straight lines within, and also keep near to simplicity with the renderings of architectural and natural forms.
This retrospective intends to give an overview of Davis’s work, from the most ambitious pieces to some of his most meticulous miniatures. For any fan of modernism and the legacy of the Bauhaus, it shouldn’t be missed.
Series and Models
Davis’s “Class One Railroad” series is just one of several devoted to his appreciation of architectural systems, transportation, and travel. A proposed large-scale memorial in dedication to the American railroad systems, the Class One Railroad series exemplifies Davis’s ability to envision brilliant color, light, and space. This series of works is particularly striking as it breaches upon Davis’s strict use of pure abstraction by way of minimalist straight lines. Featuring human figures, to scale, towards the bottom of two large 45″x 45″ works, the Class One Railroad series stands out from the vast majority of Davis’s lifetime archives. However, the artist’s signature use of bold, clean colors and unmatched perspective is, arguably, at some of its best example here.
On his website, the Davis wrote: “The painting series I am working on acknowledges the seven Class One railroads in the United States. The model has been made and photographed to show clear shadows. The locomotive livery colors have been collected. The predecessor railroads are also included representing the recent mergers. A total of thirty-five railroads are depicted on the stepped pedestal of the model. As an abstraction, this is my most ambitious project.” Composed in 2010, the series represents an homage to the American railroads, a system for which the artist’s great-grandfather helped build.
About: Class One Railroad Series
There are seven Class One railroads in the United States. This system of rail freight is the best in the world. Most of the freight rails, approximately 140,000 miles, are unnoticed by the majority of people. Yet, one freight train can carry the equivalent of two hundred and forty trailer trucks. However, these trucks on the Interstates are very noticeable and they compete with passenger vehicles.
The number of ton miles of freight carried per year determines the size of the railroad. The Class One railroads have an annual revenue of two hundred and fifty million dollars, or more, a year. The western Class One railroads are the Union Pacific (the largest US railroad with 45,400 miles of track) and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe with 40,700 track miles. The eastern Class One railroads are CSX, a proper name, not an abbreviation, which stands for Chesapeake-Seaboard together) with 28,900 track miles and Norfolk Southern with 18,700 track miles. The northern Class One railroads are Canadian National with 23,000 track miles and Canadian Pacific with 16,700 track miles, both with extensive trackage in the US. The southern Class One railroad is the Kansas City Southern with 6,000 track miles and extensive trackage in Mexico.
Davis’s interest was to design a commemorative tribute to the freight railroads in a midwestern railroad city’s park. His design includes a circular, stepped base supporting seven level petals radiating from an empty center. Between the petals are gental ramps with illusionary tracks leading from the perimeter up to the center. On each petal is a rank of tall, narrow and faceted pylons. The outer pylons have a wide diameter and represent one of the Class One railroads. Their height varies according to the size of railroad they depict. The subsequent pylons in the rank, diminishing in height and diameter, represent the railroad mergers and acquisitions, which were made to form that particular Class One railroad.
Each pylon carries the livery colors of that railroad’s locomotives. As the pylons are facetted, the colors change according to the amount of light received. With light coming from the left, the pylon’s left side is the brightest and each successive facet shows a darker value of the color until full shadow is reached. In addition to the abstracted livery colors on each pylon, there are white headlamps of the locomotive at the correct heights. Thus, the many pylons are abstractions of individual railroads.
Davis’s paintings are a head on view looking up one of the seven ramps between the stepped petals. On either side, in the foreground, is that petal’s Class One railroad. The merger and acquisition pylons rank behind them diminishing toward the empty center. In the center background is the Class One railroad on the far side of the complex stepping away from the center. The steps’ risers in the base are colored to echo the Class One railroad being supported. The ramps’ risers show the colors of the illusionary track bed and the shadows of the adjacent pylons.
Like most of Davis’s series of works, Class One Railroad began, first, with a vision conceptualized from reality then used to compose physical 3-d paper models. With these standing models, Davis was able to compose lines, shadows, and resulting perspective to meticulous accuracy.
As the Class One Railroad series showcases the full-view design of Davis’s monuments, a second series entitled “Mergers & Acquisitions” supplements with several smaller 22.5″ x 22.5″ magnified sections of the same plan. A deeper look into these smaller-scale works is essential in understanding not only Davis’s vision of this proposed monument, but his meticulous process and eye for design, as well. Now on view in Beacon Gallery, these works remain a memorable favorite to visitors and admirers, both new and old.
About: Mergers & Acquisitions Series
Color is a painting’s initial engagement with the viewer. At closer inspection, questions may form in the viewer’s mind. For example, what is being conveyed by the painting? Has a conversation been established between the painter and the viewer? The painting’s title may unlock understanding, perhaps an “aha”.
Davis’s paintings are structured abstractions of a place, an event, a process or acknowledgement of an activity. Each of these is expressed abstractly through form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation. The structure of the painting consists of the interdependent parts in a definite pattern of organization. Davis employed mostly only straight lines and simple blocks of color. Often, the color is graded from bright to dark to suggest shadow and three dimensionality.
Colors, straight edges, and shadows are combined to illustrate the motif of the painting, or the back story. With the Class One Railroad Series, Davis wanted to honor the nation’s freight railroads with a proposed monument for a Mid-Western city park. The seven Class Ones are displayed with their merger/acquisition partners. There are thirty five railroads depicted on the pedestal shown in the model’s seven photographs. The initial abstraction was to depict the railroads as pylons and to rank them by relative size and order of acquisition. Three large paintings were made of the model by viewing it with bright light from the left.
The large paintings are not pure abstraction as they do include steps, sky with clouds and scale human figures. Harvested from these large paintings are much purer abstract paintings. They are in the form of enlarged details which become the merger/acquisition paintings. These paintings have more pronounced facetting, more intense coloration, and a stronger three dimensionality. The ‘real’ elements vanish and the pure color is the attractive force.
The responsibility of the artist, as a creator, is to determine the composition in all its aspects. Davis created form with the model. The subsequent paintings are depictions of sides of the model with shadows and in color. The culling of portions of the large paintings as enlargements, requires judgment of proportion and balance. The merger/acquisition compositions are a ‘gift’ from the long work which preceded. These paintings suggest the denser railroad community of the past. Locomotives’ colorful liveries and bold heralds are now lost in history.
Malcolm Montague Davis – Retrospective is on view at Beacon Gallery now through March 13.
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