Davis, like Bryant, was a favorite son of Los Angeles. A selection of his paintings is on display at the David Zwirner gallery in New York. The show is so good — yet so poignantly final — that it leaves you feeling both euphoric and wretched. As art, it stands alone, 100 percent persuasive. But it also reminds us that Davis won’t be producing more paintings. And that hurts.
He died of a rare type of soft tissue cancer, only a few years after his father Keven Davis — a sports and entertainment lawyer best known as the long-term confidante of Serena and Venus Williams — died of a brain tumor. Among the works he did paint, in the wake of that loss, is an image of his frail father, holding a lantern, looking out from what could be the mouth of a cavern onto a star-strewn night sky.
I know, as word gets out and builds from this show, the world will see more of Davis’s paintings. But it feels important to acknowledge that his legacy went way beyond his own work.
In 2012, he and his wife, the artist Karon Davis, established the Underground Museum in a row of storefronts in Arlington Heights, Los Angeles, down the block from a liquor store and a tattoo parlor. Echoing a challenge his father had laid down before his death, Davis told the magazine Art in America: “I like the idea of bringing a high-end gallery into a place that has no cultural outlets within walking distance.”
The Underground Museum (named for the Underground Railroad) is now a thriving cultural hub. How thriving? John Legend and Solange have launched albums there; Barry Jenkins, the director of “Moonlight,” and Raoul Peck, the director of the James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” have screened their films there.
It’s a place where the artist David Hammons might be seen hanging out in the garden or Beyoncé spotted in front of a photograph by Deana Lawson; where you can sit in chairs upholstered by Davis’s mother and watch a video by Davis’s older brother, Kahlil Joseph, who also makes music videos for Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar and Shabazz Palaces. Along with other members of his family and plenty of friends, Joseph helps keep the Underground Museum running.
Just as Davis’s father remained active until the very end, Noah spent his final months in a frenzy of planning. He had teamed up the previous year with Helen Molesworth, at that time the recently appointed chief curator at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Other museums weren’t willing to lend their works to the Underground Museum. But Molesworth liked Davis and saw an opportunity to build on her institution’s reputation as an “artists’ museum.”
The first collaboration with LA MOCA, a group exhibition called “Non-Fiction,” was built, Molesworth says, around “images of historical violence against black bodies.” Opening nine months after Davis’s death, it included work from LA MOCA’s collection by Hammons, Lawson, Theaster Gates and Kara Walker.
“It was that horrible summer,” Molesworth recalls, “when it seemed as if a white cop had killed a black kid every other week.” Davis had wanted to address all that. But his own sensibility was as poetic as it was political. And although the second show he planned for the Underground Museum — it went up in the summer of 2017 — was called “Artists of Color,” the title was an example of his taste for mischief: It included almost no artists of color. Instead, it was focused on work that was, literally, colorful — mostly abstract art by the likes of Donald Judd, Carmen Herrera, Ellsworth Kelly and Jo Baer.
Confined to a hospital bed, Davis left behind plans for 18 more shows. (One by one, they are being realized.) After conversations with Molesworth, who was working at the time on an acclaimed survey of art produced at Black Mountain College, he even dreamed of establishing a school that might have the same kind of impact as Black Mountain.
The Zwirner show, which Molesworth organized (in developments that shook the art world, she was fired from LA MOCA in March 2018 by director Philippe Vergne, who himself resigned after a board meeting two months later), includes a dimly lit room that re-creates the vibe of the Underground Museum. You can sit and watch Joseph’s “BLKNWS,” a video piece that won plaudits at last year’s Venice Biennale, look at sculptures by Karon Davis or browse the bookshelves.
What was Davis’s most notable achievement? Was it the Underground Museum, or was it his own art? Molesworth can seem as confused (in a good way) as anyone. Around the time of his death, she described the Underground Museum as Davis’s “magnum opus.” But when, last month, she saw his paintings installed on the walls at Zwirner, she wept.
“I think he’s a really great artist,” she told me.
I think she might be right. Which is tough, in a way. Everyone can get behind the idea that a person’s most vital legacy is the community they built. The notion that something as fundamentally lonely as a bunch of paintings might matter just as much — and in the long run, possibly more — is hard to get your head around.
Davis liked painting people. But only a handful of his works qualify as portraits. Some teeter on abstraction. There is, for instance, an odd, intriguing, not quite successful painting that superimposes two paintings of houses on a brushy, brown abstraction resembling Mark Rothko’s work.
Others read as scenes from dreams. Describing them would be both laborious and redundant. Visually, however, they’re both hallucinatory and credible — unlike standard Surrealistic fare, which almost always feels concocted.
There was nothing formulaic about Davis’s approach. Even when he was painting mundane domestic scenes, his eye for the subject and his painterly treatment infused them with a sly, soft-pedaled, gently melancholy wonder. One thinks of Fairfield Porter with a little more zing, or of a more nonchalant Peter Doig.
In several images, Davis showed people dwarfed by varieties of magical immensity. He would paint a child in blue pajamas at the foot of a daunting wooden staircase leading to a door emitting a mysterious cloud of colored glitter. Or a man looking at a monumental abstract sculpture on the leafy grounds of a wealthy estate. Or simply the night sky over Los Angeles.
But my favorite Davis painting shuns any hint of the sublime. It depicts a mother and her young daughter at a street crossing. Beside them, a man dressed in black and clutching a plastic bag bends over to retrieve something from the gutter.
Merely as a fragment of life, the image is compelling. What makes it great is the division of the composition into taut diagonals and fiercely pulsing stripes. Against these, Davis superimposes the bright, almost jitterbugging mosaic pattern on the mother’s spandex pants. Combining formal audacity with emotional intimacy and sharp social observation, the picture attains a fullness of humorous, sorrowing life.
Davis painted brown bodies. He painted them diving and kissing and loitering at the municipal swimming pool. He painted them posing as Isis in front of a suburban house. He painted a black boy in Boy Scout uniform and a phalanx of black girls auditioning for dance parts at a casting call. One of his most beautiful pictures is a pale-toned image of two black girls, seated back-to-back on a couch, as if seen through a just-opened door. Their clothed bodies, abandoned to improvised sleep, combine to form a kind of notation, like Arabic calligraphy.
All these paintings aligned Davis with a growing number of figurative artists of color depicting ordinary black lives, among them Kerry James Marshall, Amy Sherald, the late Barkley Hendricks, Mickalene Thomas, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Henry Taylor. Since the most moving tributes to Bryant last week came from his friends, let me close with the words of Taylor, who was not only Davis’s friend but an abiding inspiration.
“Noah was constantly growing,” Taylor told the website Hyperallergic in 2015. “When I see [his progress] now, I realize he was consummate. . . . His work was becoming more powerful and essential. Less is more. The backgrounds had become less nebulous, more monochromatic and geometric, but they were not empty feeling. His paintings were spatial. His figures embraced a solemn background, like people inside Rothko paintings . . . alone in a big world.”
“Noah Davis,” through Feb. 22 at David Zwirner, 525 & 533 West 19th Street, New York. davidzwirner.com.