Noah Davis (1983–2015) was a figurative painter and cofounder of the Underground Museum (UM) in Los Angeles. Despite his untimely death at the age of thirty-two, Davis’ paintings are a crucial part of the rise of figurative and representational painting in the first two decades of the twenty-first century.
Loneliness and tenderness suffuse his rigorously composed paintings, as do traces of his abiding interest in artists such as Marlene Dumas, Kerry James Marshall, Fairfield Porter, [Mark Rothko], and Luc Tuymans. Davis’ pictures can be slightly deceptive; they are modest in scale yet emotionally ambitious. Using a notably dry paint application and a moody palette of blues, purples, and greens, his work falls into two loose categories: There are scenes from everyday life, such as a portrait of his young son, a soldier returning from war, or a housing project designed by famed modernist architect Paul Williams. And there are paintings that traffic in magical realism, surreal images that depict the world both seen and unseen, where the presence of ancestors, ghosts, and fantasy are everywhere apparent.
Generous, curious, and energetic, Davis founded—along with his wife, the sculptor Karon Davis—the Underground Museum, an artist- and family-run space for art and culture in Los Angeles. The UM began modestly—Noah and Karon worked to join three storefronts in the city’s Arlington Heights neighborhood. Davis’ dream was to exhibit “museum-quality” art in a working-class black and Latino neighborhood. In the early days of the UM, Davis was unable to secure museum loans, so he organized exhibitions of his work alongside that of his friends and family, and word of mouth spread about Davis’ unique curatorial gestures.
In 2014 Davis began organizing exhibitions using works selected from the MOCA Los Angeles’ collection as his starting point. In the aftermath of Davis’ passing, the team of family and friends he gathered continued his work at the UM, transforming it into one of the liveliest and most important gathering places in Los Angeles for artists, filmmakers, musicians, writers, and activists. — Helen Molesworth
The exhibition NOAH DAVIS—curated by Molesworth—is now on view at David Zwirner in New York. An iteration of the show will open at the Underground Museum in Los Angeles in March 2020.
A new Davis monograph—featuring an introduction by Molesworth and oral history interviews that she conducted with Davis’ friends, family, and colleagues—is forthcoming.
Through February 22.
525 and 533 West 19th Street, New York City.
Noah Davis, Noah Davis, David Zwirner, January 16–February 22, 2020, from top: 1975 (8), 2013, oil on canvas in artist’s frame; LA Nights, 2008, oil on wood panel; Pueblo del Rio: Arabesque, 2014, oil on canvas; Single Mother with Father Out of the Picture, 2007–2008, oil, acrylic, and graphite on canvas; Black Widow, 2007, acrylic and gouache on canvas; The Waiting Room, 2008, oil and acrylic on canvas; Painting for My Dad, 2011, oil on canvas; Untitled (Birch Trees), 2010, oil on canvas; Carlos’ World, 2014–2015, oil on canvas; Leni Riefenstahl, 2010, oil on canvas; Man with Alien and Shotgun, 2008, oil and acrylic on canvas; Noah Davis in Los Angeles, 2009 (detail), photograph by Patrick O’Brien-Smith; The Last Barbeque, 2008, oil on canvas; The Summer House, 2010, oil on canvas; Pueblo del Rio: Concerto, 2014, oil on canvas; Untitled, 2015, oil on canvas; Imaginary Enemy, 2009, oil on wood panel. Images courtesy and © the Estate of Noah Davis, the photographers, and David Zwirner; quote courtesy and © Helen Molesworth and David Zwirner.