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I’m Obsessed with the Solitary Figure in Noah Davis’s “Painting for My Dad”

The last time I saw ’s Painting for My Dad (2011) was at the end of February, during the closing weekend of David Zwirner’s retrospective on the late artist. The gallery was packed with people, but I was alone. And while being closely surrounded by strangers now sounds extremely unsafe, at the time it was an integral part of my weekend routine.
I had moved to the city just a few weeks earlier, and spent my weekends roaming through Chelsea, trying to fill my days with as much art viewing as possible, to open myself up to the full scope of what the city’s art world had to offer. The closing weekend of Davis’s retrospective was my second visit to the gallery in as many weeks. I had been struck by a number of works in the show, but that afternoon I found myself circling the massive Painting for My Dad, which hung alone on its own wall.
I wasn’t the only one. There were people all around me, similarly pulled in by the painting. The work is enormous and dark, and in the airy white gallery space, it felt like peering into a bottomless abyss in the wall. Much of Davis’s other works on display were intimately rendered portraits of quiet domestic scenes, but Painting for My Dad was all distance—the lone figure at its center a minuscule shape against the crushing weight of the painting’s dark hues. I was enamored with it then because of the solitude of that figure, and in the months since the world shut down, I find myself returning to it for similar reasons.
Davis painted the canvas in the weeks after his father’s death in 2011, and the anxiety of that moment in the artist’s life is reflected in the piece. The central figure stands alone in a rocky landscape, ahead of him an inky blackness studded with white dots. It’s unclear what the dark is—it’s hard to tell whether what we’re seeing is a descent into darkness or an emergence from it. The figure holds a lantern at his side, but it doesn’t appear to offer the solace of an illuminated path. Instead, the man is stooped over, his head down. He looks paralyzed, unable to step into the darkness ahead of him, unable to turn back to the earth behind him.
Over the course of my afternoons at the gallery, I had come to understand a few of Davis’s painterly trademarks. One of the most obvious is the clear, piercing quality of his figures—a quality that most often comes from his vivid rendering of their faces. It’s visible in works like Man with Shotgun and Alien (2008)or Single Mother with Father out of the Picture (ca. 2007–08), where the subjects feel like they’re looking directly out at the viewer.
“My paintings just have a very personal relationship with the figures in them,” Davis said in a 2010 Dazed interview. “They’re about the people around me.” The vividness of those characters was part of the reason I loved his work so immediately: Viewing his paintings felt like a sort of communion at a time when I was more alone than I had been in a long while. In a new city, surrounded by people I didn’t know, they were a way for me to see others and, in a way, be seen in turn.
In Painting for My Dad, though, none of those qualities are present. The figure is turned away from the viewer, his face concealed. In works like Single Mother and Isis (2009), the characters’ background feels like an extension of their personality; here, it feels like the figure’s surroundings might swallow him whole.
The painting resonated with me in February because of my personal situation. The story of moving to New York is nothing special—everyone knows that starting out in this city can make you feel small. Yet standing at the edge of that crowd gathered around the canvas, I felt not just seen, but reflected. I saw in the work the feeling that I, like so many others who move here, had come to understand: There is so much in front of me, and still I feel separate from it. I could go to galleries and stand at the edge of crowds, but the path toward the center of those things was obscured to me, and I felt most of the time like I was striking out into the dark.
Now, though, the things I love about the painting have taken on new associations as one form of isolation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed into another just three months later. I still identify with the central figure, but I also can’t help but see his stance reflected everywhere: people all over New York slouched over, avoidant, turned away from whoever might be facing them. Where I once read the pose as a hesitance to lose oneself in a consuming expanse, I now see it as a fear of not knowing where the darkness ends—of what happens once you reach its bottom.
The painting’s actual darkness has also taken on new depth in the months since I last saw the work in person. In Davis’s work, the color black is amorphous—it can be a flat background, like the rectangle the titular Man with Shotgun is emerging from, or it can be expansive and distant, like the night sky in NO-OD For Me (2008). It’s one of the other aspects of his practice that resonated with me, and in Painting for My Dad, the depth of darkness only amplified the feeling of solitude. The small specks of white Davis scattered throughout the canvas made it feel like the abyss ahead was deeper, wider, more full than you could imagine.
That darkness feels closer, more possible now. Loneliness is the abiding societal rule, and the future is less discernible every day. I still place myself in that figure’s shoes, hesitating there at the edge of something whose end is not in sight. But the question I now obsess over is what lies ahead of him—whether he’s descending into a deep and gleaming cave, or emerging into a night studded with stars.
Justin Kamp is an Editorial Intern at Artsy.