SOME YEARS COUNT AS DOUBLE
On September 17, 2014, I drove from my office in downtown Los Angeles to the Underground Museum. I still didn’t understand what east and west meant in LA, so I ended up somewhere on East Washington Avenue surrounded by train tracks and electrical lines, and I remember thinking either this joint is seriously underground or I am majorly lost. A few minutes and a big U-turn later I arrived at the actual Underground Museum, a storefront space located on a block that was home to a Jamaican lunch spot and a Spanish language evangelical church. It was ninety-six degrees. I had an appointment to meetKahlil Joseph and see a video that two of my Museum of Contemporary Art colleagues—Emma Reeves and Bennett Simpson—had urged me to see in an exhibition organized by Noah Davis called “The Oracle.” This was how I met Kahlil and his brother Noah for the first time. Everyone who has seen Joseph’s double screen projection video m.A.A.d, 2014, knows that it is nothing short of mesmerizing. I sat through it twice before walking back into a large office behind the galleries where Noah and Kahlil were hanging out; a black cat was being as still as possible on an old sofa upholstered with African or Japanese indigo fabric, and a stunningly beautiful woman, Onye, Kahlil’s wife, was working intently on a laptop. Even though the heat was deadly, we sat around and talked for hours. We talked about film; we talked a lot about Kerry James Marshall, an artist Noah loved. It turned out that Noah had heard some gossip from New York about the show I was working on with Kerry, and we laughed a lot about the ludicrous nature of museum politics. It felt easy and natural, and the connection was filled with the sparks of energy that fly around among people when they meet and realize they mutually love many of the same things: Marshall, David Hammons, Marcel Duchamp, Henry Taylor, art, bookstores, Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room, Black Mountain College. And then there was the irreverence, the shared deployment of humor as a way of navigating the great cruelties of the world. While we were hanging out, another impossibly beautiful woman came in. Karon, Noah’s wife, was breathless, in a rush, with Moses, an angelic little boy of five. When introduced, she flashed me a huge smile, but she had things to do.
I had just had my first studio visit in Los Angeles. I drove back to my office, where I had worked for three weeks, and put Kahlil’s video on the exhibition schedule. I didn’t really know what I was doing, I only knew the video felt utterly and completely NOW and urgent, and we were making a new museum at MoCA, and I wanted it to be the kind of museum that could move fast and show what felt right.
The next time I went to the Underground to hang out, I asked Noah if we could do a studio visit, and he sort of blew me off. Standing outside smoking, he said something like, “This is it, you know, it’s just here. When I make some new work you can see it.” Noah was like that, humble, always deflecting attention away from himself. Because Kahlil’s video was showing at MoCA, I started seeing Noah and Kahlil, either at the Underground, or at MoCA. At the William Pope.L opening, Noah and I stood in awe of Pope.L’s huge, wind-whipped and blowing, frayed flag, and Noah told me he felt a little embarrassed by it because it made him feel like he used to feel when he looked at art. I knew what he meant, but asked him to say more, and he said something like, “It’s like art was before the market killed it, like when art was for the people who really loved art and thought art could really do something.” He thought the piece was unassailable, complete, full, uncompromised. It was one of the most open-ended, hopeful conversations I had had about a work of art in a long time.
I’m not exactly sure when Noah pitched his dream for the Underground to me. I remain flummoxed by how I can’t remember where we were; what I mostly remember is how nervous I was when I wrote toPhilippe Vergne, the new director of MoCA, to tell him that what Noah wanted was to show “museum-quality art” (he always put quotes around that phrase; Noah was so damn funny) at the UM. But I do remember the important question: Noah wanted to know “Would MoCA be willing to lend art to the Underground?” And I know that all I wanted to do was say “YES.” The Underground had started to feel to me like an artwork in and of itself, in the tradition of Katherine S. Dreier, Duchamp and Man Ray’s Société Anonyme, Marcel Broodthaers’s Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, and David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology. I was completely turned on by the hopefulness of it all. No more trying to change things slowly from the inside. Fuck it. The general vibe of the Underground (and of Noah in general) was a tacitly shared “These folks fucked up . . . let’s just make this shit ourselves.” At least that’s what it felt like to me, and I confess I wanted in. And it turned out that Philippe wanted in too. For him it was a way to rethink museum expansion: No big-name architect needed! Let’s move horizontally, not vertically. Los Angeles was starting to work its magic on us.
The entirety of MoCA’s storied permanent collection exists in picture form in three massive three-ring binders in my office. I refer to these volumes as the bible. I leaf through them almost daily, and when we agreed that MoCA would lend works to the UM we decided to give Noah a copy of the bible and let him start looking at what we had. The plan was to let the Underground take the lead: He would choose, and we would follow. Around this time, Noah’s cancer returned, and he called to let me know he was going to have to miss a meeting because he had to check into the hospital for a few days. Me being me, I didn’t want to lose momentum so I just drove the bible over to the hospital. Watching Noah flip through its pages was exhilarating. His excitement was off the charts. We went deep, we laughed, and then he started making up shows—just like that, in a hospital bed. It turns out, on top of everything else, he was a curator too. Over the next months, Noah made lists of artists he wanted to show, lists of exhibitions he wanted to do. He had fundraising ideas. And he had the most enviable titles EVER, like “Water and Power” for a show with Olafur Eliasson, Hans Haacke, and James Turrell. That was Noah; he made it look simple—three great art objects and one title that spun them around into a new formation. Boom! All my synapses would fire up, and to top it off I would usually be laughing.
He kept drafting exhibition ideas. We decided to start with a William Kentridge installation, a modest first step to see what it felt like. The Underground got all kinds of folks to volunteer to paint the walls and work on the show, and the staff at MoCA just leapt into the void; it was all about making things happen. The energy felt good. The press was off the hook (we were inventing a new model!). But the truth was Noah was getting sicker. The trips to the hospital were more frequent. It was clear he was in pain. I selfishly grabbed whatever time with him I could. I was always trying to get a little more out of him—a few more ideas about shows, a few more funny quips about art, a little more gossip. One day, en route to Palm Springs to check myself into a hotel to write a catalogue essay for my upcoming Kerry James Marshall show, I visited with him and Karon in the hospital. I started to tell them how nervous I was about writing the essay and Noah said, “Oh man, Kerry James Marshall: That work speaks for itself.” I laughed all the way from Santa Monica to the desert thinking about what a funny a thing that was to say to someone who was about to write an essay on Kerry James Marshall. Noah had a way of placing people’s egos in check. It still cracks me up whenever I think of it.
Art and death and love are inextricably linked to one another. Art is what is left behind; art is the trace of our brief time on the planet. It is a privilege to leave such traces, and it is an honor to tend to them. Love is the engine that makes the production and preservation of art possible. Love is the energy that allows us to connect equally with an art object made thousands of years ago or yesterday. Love—particularly love’s capacity for the infinite—is what allows us to be open to the experience of the other. It is love that enables the profound encounter with the ideas and vision and passion and feelings of another person. Such encounters form the very core of our engagement with art. It’s no mistake that Noah’s paintings are filled with figures that are touching each other. It’s also no mistake that Noah’s paintings are filled with solitary figures fully occupying the existential state of loneliness. For me, the Underground Museum is Noah’s magnum opus, a complete and total artwork, dedicated to creating a space for others, committed to making room for different encounters, inspired by the deep truth about art . . . that what it’s for is to pull individuals into fellowship—if only temporarily. Art helps us find the members of our infinitely dispersed tribe, art helps to bind us to one another. This is the great gift that Noah Davis left us, and the Underground is a reminder that setting out on a new path often means a return to the basics.
Noah passed on August 29, 2015. I was fortunate enough to know him for almost a year, but I will tend to his work and memory for much longer, because that is what curators do: They care for works of art. No bells and whistles, just back to basics. “Oh man, Noah Davis: That work speaks for itself.”
Helen Molesworth is the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.