The Theater Art of Paul Davis

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Mentally conjure up posters for Broadway musicals and symbolic images come to mind. Little cat's eyes, a half mask, a helicopter. But the theater posters of Paul Davis begin with realistic portraits in oils. Judith Kampfner reports on a legendary artist's return.

Kampfner: Paul Davis would like every theater poster to be a work of art. One of his most iconic images and one of his personal favorites was for a 1976 production of
The Threepenny Opera.

Davis: Mac the Knife is a very elegant, sinister nineteenth century fellow.

Kampfner: Raul Julia's stares beneath a bowler hat. His mesmerizing eyes seem to be say - wouldn't you like to know my story? The physical presence of an actor is the starting point for Paul Davis.

Davis: It would be almost impossible to do a bad poster of Raul Julia's face his face is very expressive and beautiful and could carry so much. I am trying to catch that moment between the actor and the audience - something either has just happened or is about to happen.

Kampfner: That poster was on the wall of the TV sitcom The Single Guy. Set designers use a Davis theater poster as a kind of shorthand to denote a Manhattan actor or arty type...Today Paul Davis posters are hunted down by collectors. But there was a period from the mid seventies to early eighties when his posters were all over town. He was part of a team working at the Public Theater and the NY Shakespeare Festival.

Davis: I've always liked doing Shakespeare plays.

Kampfner: In his Soho studio we look at an original painting of a far from introspective Hamlet. It's executed in a social realist style with stencil lettering.

Davis: It's Sam Waterstone and he's shouting. His mouth is wide open, he's in a Mao jacket - bright red flames are coming out of his shoulders. This relates to my Che Guevara image. I wanted to get some of the fire of this performance.

Kampfner: Davis loves paradoxes and sharp contrasts. He cites Alfred Hitchcock for his inspiration, admiring the genius of framing a crime on a sunny day. For Davis' poster for The Cherry Orchard , Irene Worth is defiant in a tall Russian hat but veiled by a curtain of falling snow and fragile blossom. That's from the Davis heyday when he illustrated Lincoln Center plays. Since the mid eighties he's only had a handful of commissions for Broadway. Live theater hasn't exactly been chasing Paul Davis . Until now. Above a marquee for a musical is a sign that looks like a painting. Signature Davis.
A recognizable portrait of the show's leading actor.

Davis: She's internalizing some of her problems, you can see on her face she's had a bad day, she's having a cigarette and she's in a pensive unhappy mood.

Kampfner: This is a picture of Tonya Pinkins who created the title role of the maid Caroline in the musical Caroline or Change by Tony Kushner.

Kushner: I see people walking past the theater looking up at the huge painting of a black woman in a maid's dress - it's a dangerous image and I think it's a beautiful and powerful image

Kampfner: Kushner says the image is unconventional for Broadway which is appropriate since this is a serious musical. The hunched figure of Caroline slumped on her stoop is in contrast to the shiny banners across the street where Chicago is playing. No fishnets for Caroline - only thick white stockings.

Kampfner: The white uniform what does it say to you? Davis: It's the kind of job that's a service job, demanding difficult she is serving all the whims of the family and yet they're not looking at her or seeing her problems - the white is almost glowing - it gives her this angelic quality.

Kampfner: The show is set in 1963 in Louisiana. The time, the place it's all there in the portrait says Kushner and there's complex information about Caroline.

Kushner: The figure has such weight and solidity and power. It's also strangely sexy, there's something quite sensual about the expression on her face, the lips are slightly parted, her legs are held together in a way that suggests a sensual life, and the dress defines here. There's something both forbidding and heartbreaking about it there's something very robust and erotic

Kampfner: Nancy Coyne of the Serino Coyne advertising agency chose Davis to do the art work for the Broadway production.

Nancy: I said OK you do it - you're the artist and that's what he sent me and he said are you going to have a hard time selling it because it is not happy and dancing?

Kampfner: There was some consternation from the production team that the image was too gloomy but Tony Kushner endorsed it and so Davis got to keep his original concept. However some patrons coming out of a matinee production of Caroline or Change last weekend did think the picture was too unhappy.

Voices: It is one dimensional. It doesn't show the excitement

Kampfner: However they were in the minority.

Voices: The despair is there.. I really like that it is the actress she did a fantastic job, I love Paul Davis I remember his stuff from the 60's

Kampfner: So at least one member of the audience knew Davis work from the past. There's less money to advertise drama today and young designers don't get a chance to work for small theaters. Theater posters are undervalued says Davis.

Davis: I walk around here and I see half a dozen theaters in the neighborhood. There's La Mama, Jean Cocteau, Pearl St and there is no shortage of graphic designers - it really seems to me that we should be doing better theater art here.

Kampfner: Toulouse Lautrec had the Moulin Rouge. With the death of Joseph Papp of the Public Theater, Paul Davis no longer has his patron. However now audiences with this high profile production of Caroline or Change can enjoy Davis' imagery once again. Tony Kushner says the poster of Caroline has captured the soul of the play and will be a talisman for audiences long after the show closes.