A Big Dialogue Across Time

The Art, Life and Legacy of Noah Davis

Noah Davis  (Davis family collection) During Noah Davis’ final illness, his friend and colleague Helen Molesworth occasionally found that she still had a large capacity for hope.  In retrospect, that capacity seems a bit like “magical thinking,” says Molesworth who is chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles. But Davis’ creative output during this period gave reason for hope. All the paintings shown here were completed in 2015.  

Noah Davis, Carlos World, 2015, oil on canvas,  72 x 54” © Noah DavisNoah Davis succumbed to a rare form of cancer at his home on August 29, 2015 in Ojai, California. He was 32.

After creating a body of painting that has been compared to that of Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas and Neo Rauch, Davis expanded his artistry to include three-dimensional forms — installation art and the ultimate form of 3D art, an artist project that is a functioning museum. Believing that “fine art” should Noah Davis, Untitled, 2015, oil on canvas,  63.5 x 63.5” © Noah Davisbe confined to fine spaces, he created his Underground Museum on an lackluster commercial strip in Arlington, California.

"He cared deeply about community and artists,” recalled Michelle Joan Papillion, director of Papillion Art in Los Angeles, in a memorial statement issued by her gallery.

Helen Molesworth reflected on Davis' art, life and legacy for IRAAA+ shortly after his death. The Underground Museum “is a great art work in and of itself,” she said — one that required monumental effort. "(H)e took over several connected storefronts on Washington Boulevard — spaces that had once served as a pupusería and a storefront church — knocking down walls, building a garden out back, and establishing a community library stocked with art books and vinyl records," explained Carolina Miranda in her LA Times article about the museum.

Although Noah Davis wanted to bring museum-quality work to a working class neighborhood, when the Underground Museum first opened, no museums were willing to lend such works. So Davis decided to recreate artworks by well-known artists such as Marcel Duchamp and On Kawara for an Underground show that he called Imitation of Wealth. The vacuum cleaner in a vitrine on the right is a Davis installation based on Jeff Koon’s famous New Hoover Convertible. Davis also curated shows of works by other artists and artisans at the museum.

Installation view of Imitation of Wealth at the Underground Museum

Noah Davis, Moon, 2015, oil on canvas,  74 x 57” © Noah DavisNoah Davis, Diamonds, 2015, oil on canvas, 72 x 48” © Noah DavisIn September 2014, Helen Molesworth visited the Underground Museum, met Noah Davis and discovered that they shared a wide range of interests  — Black Mountain College and Kerry James Marshall, for example.  She also met Davis’ brother, Khalil Joseph, a filmmaker and video artist.  

Molesworth and Davis developed a collaboration between their museums. Now Molesworth remembers her late associate as “an incredibly special person” for a number of reasons including his art knowledge: “He was deeply interested in art history. And he had almost a photographic memory, was obsessed with other artists and had a big dialogue across time with them.”

Noah Davis, Untitled, 2015, oil on canvas,  88 x 77” © Noah DavisAbout his art mastery, she observed “The sophistication of the composition and the quality of paint on canvas are beyond that of a young person.”

Noah Davis, Untitled, 2015, oil on canvas, 32 x 50” © Noah DavisMichelle Joan Papillion agrees with Moleworth’s assessments. “(Noah Davis) loved painting — I mean he really loved painting,” she said.  “I always believed and still do that he will be remembered as one of the greatest painters of our generation.” 

Noah Davis’ illness was in remission in fall 2014 when Molesworth and Davis began their collaborative plans.  “In the beginning the work was fun but it took on an urgency and intensity when it became clear that the chemo wasn’t working and the gravity of his illness was clear,” she said. “We decided that the first show (at MOCA’s Grand Avenue storefront) would be Imitation of Wealth. But I didn’t think he’d pass on like that. I thought he would see that show.”  Noah Davis transitioned on the day the exhibition opened, August 29. The show closes February 29, 2016.

Noah Davis, Bishops, 2015, oil on canvas,  72 x 48” © Noah DavisHelen Molesworth, Khalil Joseph and Davis’ spouse, artist Karon Davis, will carry his work forward.  MOCA and the Underground Museum have a three year partnership to produce shows at UM based on selected works loaned from the MOCA collection.  “He curated them in advance,” said Molesworth.

Imitation of Wealth at MOCA Grand Avenue site. Photo: Cameron Crone & Carter Seddon, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los AngelesAnd so Noah Davis' "big dialogue across time" continues.

The Underground Museum (Davis family collection)     — J.H.

Above center photo: Noah Davis at the Underground MuseumFor more, see the L.A. Times and New York Times Noah Davis obituaries

External photo: Sihouette of Noah Davis. (Davis Family Collection)