How Noah Davis Became a Powerful Painter and Museum Founder before His Death at Age 32

Scott Indrisek
Jan 8, 2020 6:05PM

Noah Davis, Isis, 2009. © The Estate of Noah Davis. Courtesy of The Estate of Noah Davis.

Noah Davis died at the young age of 32 in 2015, but he’s now remembered as a talented painter, a generous member of the Los Angeles arts community, and the founder of one of the city’s most unconventional institutions.

The Underground Museum—a family-run venue that Davis launched with his wife, Karon Davis, to showcase his own work as well as that of his peers—ended up becoming a wildly singular venue that was able to present the likes of William Kentridge and Deana Lawson to fresh audiences. Now, a new exhibition opening at David Zwirner in New York on January 16th (before a version of it travels west to the Underground Museum) sheds welcome light on Davis’s uncommon career. It draws from the roughly 400 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and other works that the artist left behind.

Davis studied at the renowned Cooper Union in New York before moving to Los Angeles. The young painter was in the midst of sharpening his own personal style, combining disparate influences into something new. As Helen Molesworth—who collaborated with the artist in her role as then-chief curator of Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and organized the David Zwirner show—described it, Davis was juggling inspiration from both the U.S. (abstract pioneers like Mark Rothko, among many others) and abroad (Luc Tuymans, Marlene Dumas).

Noah Davis, The Last Barbeque, 2008. Courtesy of Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California.


“His taste in art was pretty catholic, as in very broad and expansive,” Molesworth said. “He was a real student of art history; he had an enormous number of pictures in his head.”

While Davis had a fraught engagement with the mainstream gallery world, he did get his start there. Bennett Roberts, who ran Roberts & Tilton along with his wife Julie and mentor Jack Tilton, first included the young artist in a 2007 group show, “Bliss.” (The gallery became Roberts Projects after Tilton’s death.) He recalled selling two works from that show to the collector Dean Valentine, after which critical and market interest in Davis began to build. Roberts said he later sold several small canvases to the mega-collectors Mera and Donald Rubell, who decided to include Davis as the youngest participant in “30 Americans,” their now-iconic traveling survey of African American artists. The Rubell exhibition put Davis in impressive company, from Mickalene Thomas to Kehinde Wiley.

“The best element of his work is that it’s very psychologically demanding, both of the viewer and of the artist,” said Roberts.

Davis’s paintings have a dreamlike magnetism. The artist’s hunt for subject matter led him to seek inspiration everywhere, from family photographs to friends and lovers; trashy pop culture, from The Jerry Springer Show to Maury Povich; and obscure literary sources, such as hippie-era cult writer Richard Brautigan, whose esoteric novel In Watermelon Sugar (1968) informed an entire painting cycle. Throughout, the influence of Davis’s contemporary figurative painting peers sneaks in, with hints of everyone from Kerry James Marshall to Francesco Clemente, as well as personal touchstones that ranged from R.B. Kitaj to Leon Golub and Giorgio de Chirico.

Noah Davis, Candyman, 2007. Courtesy of Roberts Projects.

“He was very interested in Los Angeles, the architect Paul Willliams, [and] everyday black life, vernacular black culture,” Molesworth said. All of this would play its part, an “intensive outpouring that would manifest itself in the paintings.”

Davis’s narratives always seem fleeting, teasingly incomplete. In Candyman (2007), a prim white woman shines her flashlight on a black figure racing through a graveyard. Single Mother with Father Out of the Picture (2007–08) is a more straightforward domestic scene, but one that still poses its own unanswered questions. Often, his subjects’ faces are hidden, or obscured; there’s always a sense of quiet drama and mystery.

Noah Davis, Single Mother with Father Out of the Picture, 2007-2008. © The Estate of Noah Davis. Courtesy The Estate of Noah Davis.

Davis was full of ideas, and occasionally seemed like he could barely keep up with his own restless mind.

“The only problem with Noah,” Roberts said, echoing similar stories from Molesworth, “[was that] he would call me and say, ‘Come to the studio, I painted 10 great new paintings.’ He was very fast when he was working. I’d go in there and just be mesmerized. ‘These are unbelievable, can we get them to the gallery? I’ll photograph them.’ Two days later, he would say, ‘Oh, sorry, I painted over every one of them.’”

This wasn’t self-destructiveness on Davis’s part, but merely what those who knew him recognized as a personal drive to one-up himself. Molesworth described how Davis’s good friend, the painter Henry Taylor, called it “a kind of internal besting. Noah would paint something, see how good it was, and then be like, ‘Fuck that, I can do it better.’”

Meanwhile, Davis wasn’t only getting his own practice off the ground. He had taken charge of a storefront space on West Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles, initially to use as a studio, but always with grander ambitions in mind.

Noah Davis, The Future's Future, 2010. Courtesy of Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California.

“As Noah became more established,” Roberts said, “he would always talk to me about [how he was] going to create some kind of an artist space for writers, filmmakers, poets; a place to see work and make work.”

After a great deal of time and renovation, the Underground Museum was born. Davis cheekily opened his institution with a 2013 show called “Imitation of Wealth,” for which he made bootleg versions of iconic sculptures by Robert Smithson, Jeff Koons, and others—works that major museums wouldn’t agree to loan out for his exhibition. It was a revelation for the area, which straddles West Adams and the predominantly African American Crenshaw District, a part of the city that Davis, according to NPR, “likened to a food desert, meaning no grocery stores or museums.”

That was followed with a solo presentation of sculptures, photographs, and videos by Noah’s wife, Karon, and, later that year, a group exhibition, “The Oracle,” which included video work by the artist’s brother, Kahlil Joseph. This show would be Molesworth’s introduction to Davis, which later resulted in an official partnership between MOCA and the Underground Museum, with the former institution lending major pieces to the upstart venue.

The Underground Museum’s particular location in Los Angeles meant that it could appeal to audiences that likely weren’t visiting MOCA, or the city’s other official halls of high culture. It was all in keeping with Davis’s general attitude of nonconformity, of trying to write his own rules. While the artist certainly recognized that selling art helped support his practice, Molesworth said, he also evinced a “general antipathy” toward traditional galleries. (He’d part ways with Roberts & Tilton in 2013.)

Noah Davis, Mary Jane, 2008. Courtesy of Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California.

“He thought the systems had a rigidity in them and that they didn’t necessarily serve all of the people that he was interested in them serving,” Molesworth said. “He didn’t like the elitism of them, and I don’t think he liked the drive to market principles rather than art principles. He was a very idealistic person.”

Davis died of a rare cancer in August 2015, two months after the Underground Museum’s first collaborative show with MOCA opened. The institution’s programming since then—including solo shows by Lorna Simpson and Roy DeCarava—has been informed by plans Davis sketched out before his death.

Although the financial side of the art world always seemed to leave a sour taste in his mouth, the market has posthumously embraced Davis. His auction history so far is fairly sparse, but Single Mother with Father Out of the Picture sold at Phillips this past November for $168,750, more than double its high estimate of $60,000 (it will be featured in the show at David Zwirner); and in May of last year, the painting Bust 3 (2010) sold for $47,500, more than triple its high estimate of $15,000, also at Phillips. It’s hard to imagine that this month’s presentation at David Zwirner won’t fuel greater demand for his work.

Noah Davis, Untitled, 2015. © The Estate of Noah Davis. Courtesy of The Estate of Noah Davis.

Davis might have been bemused to learn of this renewed interest from collectors, but he doubtlessly would have been pleased to see how his other passions have survived and evolved. Both Roberts and Molesworth paint a picture of Davis as a young man who was intensely committed to his goals and demanding and confident of his own skills, yet also willing to share his time to support others.

“His idea was to create a place where people who didn’t know it was possible to be an artist could see that it was possible,” Roberts said. “His greatest attribute really was to see possibilities where none existed before.…He was a visionary.”

Meanwhile, Molesworth—a founding member of the Underground Museum’s board—is keen to continue honoring Davis’s goals for an institution that has become a beloved part of Los Angeles’s cultural fabric. Did some of Davis’s unrealized plans, I wondered, seem tough to achieve—a bit pie-in-the-sky? She admitted that this might be the case, in certain instances, but welcomed the challenge.

“One of the things I’ve learned in this process, of being a member of the Underground Museum family,” she said, “is that some things that seem implausible actually are not that implausible.”

Scott Indrisek

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized certain past collaborations between MOCA LA and the Underground Museum. The article has also been updated to accurately reflect these collaborations as well as Helen Molesworth’s role as a founding member of the Underground Museum’s board of trustees.