New York CityDavid Zwirner
January 16 – February 22, 2020
When artist Noah Davis succumbed to cancer in 2015 at the age of 32 he left behind an ambitious body of work. A studio of paintings revealed a flourishing artist already making preternaturally mature work, while a self-conceived exhibition space in Los Angeles, the Underground Museum, attested to the spirit of a social maverick. Rather than being overtly political, Davis’s politics were instead baked into a nuanced and sophisticated body of work.
At the eponymously titled show on view at David Zwirner, curator Helen Molesworth has united these two facets in a show that simultaneously serves as both a broad introduction and a memorial to Davis and his work. Molesworth was an early champion of Davis’s vision. While in her capacity as chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, she worked with Davis to bring works from the institution’s collection to Davis’s Underground Museum, the exhibition space he conceived and co-founded in 2012 with his wife, the artist Karon Davis, in LA’s Arlington Heights neighborhood, a mostly Black and Latino community. In the subdivided sprawl of Los Angeles, Davis envisioned the museum as a space to feature work by both emerging and established artists of color in a section of the city that had no easy access to the world-class collections held by the city’s venerable art institutions. At the time of his death, Davis had already planned for an ambitious exhibition schedule for the Underground Museum, with around 18 shows slated for the space.
One gallery of Noah Davis is a “viewing room” that recreates the homey back offices of the Underground Museum (which continues to operate and partner with MoCA in the wake of Davis’s death, with ongoing participation by his family in its structure and programming). Smaller paintings hang in a room arranged like a parlor, with furniture designed by Davis’s mother, Faith Childs-Davis. Viewers are invited to sit on the sofa or armchairs (one is titled Noah’s Chair) and take in the two-channel video installation, BLKNWS® (2018–2019) by Davis’s brother, the filmmaker Khalil Joseph. At the center of the room a sculpture by Karon Davis holds a place of prominence. And perhaps most poignantly, at the front of the room, scale models of the Underground Museum, hung with exhibitions Davis had planned, are available to view. Excellence—married with the familial—is palpable in the space. One also acutely feels the loss by this family as a central element of its whole.
The remainder of the show is given over to Davis’s painting. On the surface, his subjects appear straightforward—portraits, interiors, and landscapes all feature prominently. But Davis had a facility for altering details just enough to evoke a sense of the uncanny. Much has already been written about the magical realist aspects of his work; this seems due in large part to his masterly use of a canvas’s space. He had a flair for cutting into the rectangle on a surprising bias; an ostensibly simple work like Delusions of Grandeur (2007) highlights this unexpected division of the plane. Here, the balustrade of a staircase, inside a seemingly ordinary house juts into the foreground of the painting. The balusters mirror the vertical stripes of the wallpaper, while the staircase partitions the painting yet again, this time horizontally. From an open door at the top of the stairs, a hazy cluster of tiny stars swarm, as if carried on a breeze. At the foot of the stairs a small, faceless person—perhaps a child—gazes upwards. The spectral child at the bottom of the painting and the celestial body at the top pointedly undermine the steadfastness of the compositional lines, infusing it with magic and even a little disquiet.
Elsewhere, 1975 (8) (2013) depicts an expansive public swimming pool from the vantage point, perhaps, of one waiting to leap from a diving board. The viewer sees the diver just ahead of them, his feet thrust into the foreground as his body bisects the plane of the blue water, framing the bobbing heads of swimmers splashing below. Nearly every figure painted in Davis’s paintings is Black, and it is especially significant that every body in the pool of 1975 (8) is a Black body. Historically, swimming pools in America were sites of segregation, places from where Black bodies were purposely barred, whether by law or custom. By populating his swimming pool with Black figures, Davis not only alludes to this shameful history, but also wrests it from the annals and reinvents it with the joie de vivre of a forsaken community, much as he did in real life when founding the Underground Museum in the culturally ignored neighborhood of Arlington Heights.
NO-OD for Me (2008) lingers on a spare nighttime scene, a father and son lazily adrift on a small rowboat on a lake, an imposing range of cliffs in the distance behind them. The painting is dark—dark waters, dark cliffs, and dark night sky—with the exception of the famous HOLLYWOOD sign, illuminated at the top of the bluffs, the lone point of light in the painting. Significantly, the last two letters of the sign are missing, so that the sign spells only HOLLYWO, and is cheekily referenced by the painting’s title, NO-OD for Me. Two other elements of Davis’s composition immediately stand out. The first is the expression of the father’s face. Though painted in with only dusky, muted brushstrokes, the man stares intently at the viewer, as if he’s been interrupted—and indeed he has. The viewer becomes aware that they are intruding on a private moment, one meant for only a father and a son. The other is the rich, all-encompassing nature of the varying shades of black paint that saturate the canvas. The deep pool of black water is distinct from the black mountains, with their undertones of earthen color. And these in turn contrast the hazy blackness of the expansive sky. Davis, above all, understood the multitudes of Blackness.