BY MICHAEL SLENSKE, MODERN PAINTERS | DECEMBER 03, 2015
This was not supposed to be a eulogy. Though I’d heard Noah Davis was living with a rare form of cancer even before I met the young Seattle-born, Los Angeles-based artist this past January, it didn’t strike either of us at the time that his illness would ever prevent us from sitting down for a series of interviews that would inform a profile for this magazine. Tragically, we were wrong. Every time Davis and I would zero in on a time to meet, he would have to undergo another round of chemo or was simply too tired in the wake of it to summon the tack-sharp mental focus and big-picture vision he was known for in the L.A. community and beyond.
My first encounter with Davis was at the Underground Museum—the independent institution he and his wife, artist Karon Davis, had carved out of a former storefront in the historic West Adams neighborhood of L.A. I initially visited the space in the spring of 2014 with artists Jhordan Dahl and Ariana Papademetropoulos. Though Davis didn’t have a show up at the time, I was allowed to take a quick spin through his on-site painting studio, where I was stopped in my tracks. On the walls were several arresting examples of his bold figurative and abstract works, which reminded me of Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans, and Martin Kippenberger.
Over the past decade, Davis’s often autobiographical, surrealist-leaning paintings referenced everything from the Richard Brautigan novel In Watermelon Sugar and The Maury Povich Show to swing states (in minimalist purple abstractions) and Pueblo del Rio, the Richard Neutra–and Paul Revere Williams–designed projects in South L.A. They carried the narrative heft of his mentor, painter Henry Taylor, while retaining the firm control (and exploitation) of unexpected color reminiscent of Mark Rothko, his idol. In 2008, his painting of a slumbering young girl, Basic Training 4, was shown beside those of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Bradford, and David Hammons at the Rubell Family Collection’s seminal “30 Americans” survey—which is currently on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts. His works were also exhibited by the Los Angeles galleries Roberts & Tilton, Papillion, and Wilding Cran, and earned a spot in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s acclaimed 2012 “Fore” survey.
Though Davis became known—and subsequently pigeonholed by some—as a black figurative painter, he was always pushing himself into new territory with minimalist canvases, assemblage sculpture, and his most ambitious project, the Underground. His goal for the space was simple: Deliver museum-quality art—be it his brother Kahlil Joseph’s 15-minute “m.A.A.d” video installation that provides a kaleidoscopic Kendrick Lamar–soundtracked tour of Compton or a nine-screen William Kentridge extravaganza unearthed from the vaults of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) after a decade in storage—to a culturally underserved area of L.A. The model is similar to Theaster Gates’s work with Dorchester Projects on the South Side of Chicago and Mark Bradford’s Art + Practice in South Central L.A.
In typical Noah Davis fashion, he opened the Underground with an unexpected gesture: the decidedly conceptual exhibition “Imitation of Wealth,” which employed cheap materials to create street simulations of iconic works by Dan Flavin, Jeff Koons, and other famous artists. On the day he passed away at his home in Ojai, California, at the age of 32, MOCA reprised that show, which debuted the museum’s Grand Avenue storefront space (open through February 29, 2016). The museum had previously entered into a three-year partnership with the Underground—beginning with the Kentridge exhibition “Journey to the Moon”—that will ensure Davis’s life and legacy continue to inspire new generations of trailblazers. Here, his family, friends, and fellow artists remember him as only they can.
Faith Childs-Davis, mother, art teacher:
I taught, so I always had stuff around for him to do, and he gravitated toward art, naturally. That was who he was. He sold his first painting when he was in eighth grade. A parent bought it for, like, $20. It was a little boy with an image of a lion. I think the assignment was “what is your power animal?”
Kahlil Joseph, brother, filmmaker, video artist:
My mom was so balanced culturally—we’d go see movies, play sports, go outdoors. During the summer she filled our time with these art projects: mosaics, stippling. I got into photography when I was 12, and she got me into classes with a darkroom. I never thought about who Noah was going to be or what he was going to do. Maybe it was just this blind assumption: He was going to be an artist.
Ben Haggerty (a.k.a. Macklemore), rapper, recording artist, and childhood friend:
Noah came to tops [The Option Program at Seward], an alternative public school that focused on creativity in the arts. Up until that point, I was always known as the artist in my class of 60, in terms of drawing ability. When Noah showed up, it was like “this dude is an artist,” and I was quickly thrown out of my spot. He was just that guy who was good at life. He never tried to fit in; he just fit in, in this way that was all-inclusive to everyone.
When Noah was a junior in high school, his dad and I got him a studio. It was the back apartment in a house. It wasn’t that great-looking, but it was close to our home in Seattle and we found it really cheap. He had literally been destroying his bedroom with paint, and I kept having to replace the carpets. I was like, “look, you can go destroy some other place.” We would drop him off after school and come back around midnight. I know it sounds kind of crazy now, but he wasn’t the kid who played video games and went out drinking and partying. I remember there was a record store [Easy Street] by us, and he went down there and wanted a job and they were like, “what can you do?” He said, “I can paint.” I guess Marvin Gaye had just come out with an album, and they asked him do some kind of window display. He did this big painting of Marvin Gaye with three cherubs, and it was in the window for a long time. I think Motown later bought it.
When Noah was applying to Cooper Union, he was looking at a lot of Francesco Clemente, and he was doing a lot of watercolor. He got into Cooper with a modern version of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. It was a small accordion book, an urban take on the painting. Cooper Union keeps them, so I haven’t seen it since 1999.
Rhys Gaetano, of Bruce High Quality Foundation:
I met Noah at Cooper in 2003. He was completely outgoing, didn’t really go to class that much, but all the teachers loved him. But he couldn’t fit into school at all. He actually crashed his car into my car, and his dad sent him out to California. Cooper was really competitive and very different from anything he was used to; he didn’t make work for a little while and wasn’t really happy, but then he met Karon in L.A. and loosened up a bit. I think California was really good for him. He really found his freedom and voice.
Karon Davis, wife, artist, president of the Underground Museum:
At Cooper he made a great film. It was beautifully shot and well cast. It was just like his paintings. It was a love story about a boy and a girl adventuring through New York. It was never shown—I don’t think it will ever be shown. He was also involved with Bruce High Quality, and they did that famous photograph Raft of the Medusa, which they re-created in the Hudson River. I think he was very proud of that. He always said he was the silent partner.
The first public image that we made was Raft of the Medusa, and that’s Noah standing in the middle of it. It was sort of a moment when the art world was picking up all these younger artists, we were in Brooklyn trying to move into Manhattan, and this was a photographic recreation of a painting of these people suffering and dying trying to be seen. They were the people left over, and it was a commentary on art world consumption and this void. The day we made it was my 21st birthday, and he was two weeks older than me.
Dagny Corcoran, proprietor of Art Catalogues at LACMA:
Noah was my assistant at Art Catalogues in 2005, when my bookstore was at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center satellite. He showed up for work the first day wearing a suit, and was so utterly charming and so clearly intelligent that I fell for him right away. He had just dropped out of Cooper Union, and I think this was his first “real” job. It’s ironic now that MOCA has finally discovered him, because he was actually working for them 10 years ago and got a really lousy performance evaluation, which set off a huge anti-MOCA rant from him. I think he quit about 10 seconds before they would have fired him.
We met 10 years ago. I was in a house with all these girls who went to USC film school, and my best friend at the time met him at the grocery store. She was trying to put together this party/art show, and he mentioned that he was a painter. She says, “Oh, you can be in my show.” He says, “I have nowhere to paint.” So she says, “You can paint in my living room.” I was working long hours at the time and would come home, and he would just be there. We would talk and hang out, and automatically I felt his presence—he’s intelligent, charismatic, good-looking—but he was taken at the time, so we remained friends. And then years later we started hanging out again, and then one night he came over and never left. After that, we were together every day.
Daniel Desure, friend, artist, and founder of the creative firm Commonwealth Projects:
In 2007 Noah had this little place in Koreatown, and I remember being blown away by it: paintings everywhere, stacks of them. Shortly after, we got a studio together in Boyle Heights, in this space that artists like Sterling Ruby and Thomas Houseago have gone through. During that time was when I saw him work in this really true way, and that’s the time I remember the best. It was incredible because he would crank out paintings for a show so quickly. Other times, I would go there and it would be empty except for 15 sculptures that he’d created in the course of a week. He stayed up for an entire week. I had never seen him dabble in sculpture before. They were kind of like Noah Purifoy, with these amazing compositions, and they were super graphic and each had this incredible quality and felt really thought through.
He was fun and silly and loved to laugh. He’d dance around the house and he was always spending time with our son, Moses, and painting with him. He would often sit outside and stare for an hour or so. He was like, “I’m planning, I’m plotting.” His brain was always going. He’d read the paper every day front to back: New York Times, L.A. Times. He was constantly feeding himself information. We were always having dinner parties—he was so giving of his space and his home.