Born in 1920 in Washington, D.C., Davis's formal instruction in art was limited to the drawing classes he took in high school. From 1939 to 1968, Davis was a writer and journalist, working at newspapers in Washington, Jacksonville, Florida, and in New York. Always fascinated by art, by 1949 Davis had begun to paint seriously. He became involved in the Washington art scene in 1950 when he met noted Washington artist and curator, Jacob Kainen, who introduced him to the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts and the artists involved with that organization, among them Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Davis' first solo exhibitions were held in 1952. In 1969, Davis began teaching art at the Corcoran School of Art and Design, followed by stints at American University, Skidmore College, and the University of Virginia.

Along with Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Howard Mehring, and Thomas Downing, Davis was part of the first generation of Washington color school artists. Like the other members of the Washington Color School, Davis considered color a primary element in painting. For his technique, Davis was indebted to both Louis and Noland, both of whom were involved with the New York art world, particularly through the influential critic, Clement Greenberg. They transmitted the excitement and experimental nature of the New York art scene to Washington artists, particularly the new technique that Davis used in Red Devil—staining and soaking unprimed and unsized canvas with acrylic.