In 1972, American Painter Gene Davis took his work to the streets by painting an array of rainbow stripes directly on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The 414-foot-long creation, “Franklin’s Footpath,” was dubbed the world’s largest artwork at the time of its establishment. A parking lot now sits in its place.
This summer, artists Polly Apfelbaum and Dan Cole are bringing Davis’ work back to life in Philadelphia.
Their multi-room installation, “Polly Apfelbaum + Dan Cole: For the Love of Gene Davis,” is currently on display at Temple Contemporary. The show includes striped wallpaper and large striped rugs in Davis’ signature colorful style, as well as a display of pieces of asphalt from the original “Franklin’s Footpath” and Davis’ spread in Life magazine.
“The first room is kind of like the background [on Davis], the middle room shows the real pieces of the show, and the last room is a comment on the whole show in hindsight,” Cole said. “As you walk through, it’s really narrative-forming. There are wall paintings mixed with digital projection and they’re intermingling.”
Some of the pair’s chosen projections include a scene of Davis in the process of painting, as well as scenes from the 1971 film “Harold and Maude.”
“I happened to see [“Harold and Maude”] while we were working on this. The personality of the movie was right for the installation,” Cole said. “It’s sort of like a dark comedy. It also fit with the general theme of intergenerational relationships like [Apfelbaum and I]…the idea that two people from different generations can come together and not have any problems relating.”
Apfelbaum was paired with Cole as part of the Distinguished Alumni Mentoring Program, which teams up renowned Tyler School of Art alumni with recent graduates. Apfelbaum, a 1978 Tyler graduate with a BFA in Printmaking, chose Cole from a group of candidates based on his graphic design skills and what she calls a “surprisingly natural” personality match.
“Well, he’s an Aries and I’m a Cancer,” Apfelbaum said, laughing. “We are not supposed to work or get along, but we do. I was really impressed by his personality. He’s laidback, but also serious.”
Apfelbaum said the clue was that Cole, a 2010 Tyler graduate with a BFA in Painting, Drawing and Sculpture, had successfully worked for multiple artists and teachers during his artistic career.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. There must be something here,’” Apfelbaum said. “Artists are very picky and wouldn’t work with just anyone. A lot of us work by ourselves in the studio and collaborating is tough. But from day one, we accomplished so much together.”
Cole said he was confident he would be chosen for the mentorship during his initial interview with Apfelbaum when the two discovered a common interest in 1960s and ‘70s pop culture.
“When I walked out, I knew it went well because we just started chatting in there,” Cole said. “We had to get cut off. The guy actually had to come in and stop the interview.”
Cole began working with Apfelbaum after she delivered a lecture on her work and artistic influences to Temple Contemporary in October 2013. A photo of Davis was featured in her slideshow—a fact Apfelbaum said was pushed to the back of her mind until the mentorship.
“It had been in my slideshow for years,” Apfelbaum said. “When I was working in the studio with [Cole], it just hit me. I grew up in Philadelphia. [“Franklin’s Footpath”] was there when I was growing up. I thought it would be really interesting to do something about the city and this painting that had influenced me.”
“We [decided] to spotlight this because it’s a major part of history that is overlooked,” Cole said. “I mean, it’s in the ‘Rocky’ poster— hat’s pretty important.”
Apfelbaum and Cole worked constantly to prepare for the installation, completing the Philadelphia-manufactured wallpaper and spending five months on the Mexican-woven rugs. The artists said their efforts were rewarded upon receiving feedback at the installation’s opening on May 13.
“It was overwhelming,” Apfelbaum said. “There were, I think, five people there who had actually worked on [“Franklin’s Footpath”]. They were so thrilled and they said we had brought it back to life for them. It meant so much to them that we had done this.”
“For the Love of Gene Davis” will run at Temple Contemporary until July 11, but Cole said people have already requested appointments to view the installation after that date.
“A lot of people couldn’t make it in time and called asking if they could still come,” Cole said. “We’re just too popular.”
“You know, Davis’ original piece was up for three years,” Apfelbaum said. “We could just do this forever.”
Jessica Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.