Noah Davis, Influential Artist Who Died as His Star Was Rising, Comes Into Full View in New York
A David Zwirner gallery show charts his life as a preternaturally talented painter and a founder of Los Angeles’s beloved Underground Museum. He was “a master at composition,” its curator, Helen Molesworth, says.
On Monday morning, when the curator Helen Molesworth walked into the David Zwirner gallery in New York, where she was hanging a show of work by the late artist Noah Davis, a friend and collaborator, she “burst into tears,” she recalls of seeing so many of his paintings together in one place. “I had this moment of like, ‘Oh, it’s actually real.’ They were real.”
In just the few years since Davis’s death in 2015 of cancer, at the age of 32, his work as an artist and founder of the influential Underground Museum in Los Angeles has become the stuff of legend. Davis, explains Molesworth, as she sits in a backroom of the Chelsea space, her white bangs spilling around her pink glasses, got a lot done in a short time. Standing in front of his canvases again was “a sobering moment to see how good they are.”
The exhibition that Molesworth has organized, which runs through February 22, establishes him as one of the signal figurative painters of the era, and a once-in-a-generation colorist whose output—paintings, drawings, sculptures—numbers about 400 works.
With tenderness, intimacy, and bracing inventiveness, Davis’s paintings channel scenes of contemporary life, usually black life, in the United States. Two women (sisters, perhaps) sleep on a sofa, as the legs of a man float to the side of an untitled 2015 picture, a bewitching mixture of tans, browns, and whites. In 1975 (8), from 2013, a boy dives headfirst into a crowded pool; the bottoms of his feet dominate the frame, so that we seem to be falling in after him.
“When you look at Noah’s paintings, I feel like I understand that I am in the hands of someone who is a master at composition,” Molesworth says, recalling his deep love for art history, and how he would paint while surrounded by images that inspired him. “Xeroxes, books open, things like that—almost like this André Malraux moment of the ‘Museum Without Walls.’ ”
The two met in 2014, when Molesworth, then the newly minted chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, was tipped off by colleagues about an artist-run space called the Underground Museum in an Arlington Heights storefront that was screening a video by the filmmaker Khalil Joseph. His brother, as it happens, was Davis, who had started the venue with his wife, Karon, a sculptor, to showcase vanguard art in a predominantly black and Latino area that was short on cultural institutions.
“It was an extremely convivial hangout space,” Molesworth says, describing it as “the opposite of Cheers. You didn’t know who was going to be there.” Eventually Noah—already a fast-emerging artist whom she remembers as “extremely gregarious,” always “joking and playing and teasing”—explained that he had been trying to borrow work from museums and private collectors for shows but kept getting turned down. She offered to facilitate loans with MOCA.
Eventually Noah, who had already been diagnosed with cancer, and Karon mapped out 18 shows—“there was a lot of planning from a hospital bed,” Molesworth says—and they are still being presented at the Underground Museum, which has become one of the most thrilling cultural venues in L.A., a potent counterpoint to increasingly corporatized art galleries and museums that have been proliferating in the city and beyond. It does not limit itself to art shows. Barry Jenkins screened Moonlight there in 2016, the same year that Solange hosted a listening party for her album A Seat at the Table.
At Zwirner, the Underground Museum gets its own domestic-style space modeled on its L.A. home, with dioramas of some of its shows, a bookstore, a sculpture by Karon, and cozy sofas ideal for watching Joseph’s BLKNWS, the transfixing video piece he debuted at the 2019 Venice Biennale, and which he described in a recent cover story for Surface as “conceptual journalism,” a DIY news network focusing on the black American experience. “The show is me trying to show people, basically, the breadth and the heterogeneity of what Noah did,” Molesworth says. (It came about after Zwirner reached out following her 2018 dismissal from MOCA—“a total debacle,” she’s said of that event. To be curating again is “very nice,” she says emphatically.)
Even apart from his manifold activities as a curator and organizer, Davis was hard to pin down as a painter. His works in the medium have a disarming candor—artists like Fairfield Porter, Peter Doig, and Palmer Hayden are clear forebears—but elements of mystery or even magic often appear, interrupting any easy sense of familiarity. Straightforward narratives slip away. In Pueblo del Rio: Arabesque (2014), two trios of women in white dresses and long white gloves pose improbably in that ballet pose on the lawn of a housing complex in the dark of night. Imaginary Enemy (2009) has a man walking through a giant golden bracelet as a man on fire approaches from the background. They suggest a kind of dream logic, or an overlaying of memory and fantasy.
Molesworth herself is still working them out. Discussing her view on Davis’s work today, and her emotional reaction to seeing it again, “it’s hard to put this into words,” she says. “Some art gets better with age, like wine. It’s an organic, living, breathing thing.” Such things are not easily summarized. “We all have to figure out what Noah Davis’s work means together,” she says. “This is a collective enterprise now, to figure out what things mean.”