Noah Davis, an artist in the Nasher’s collection, passed away late this summer at the age of 32. In reading about him, his own words and others’, two things become clear: he knew the context of his art and he was driven.
He was keenly aware of the art that interested and inspired him. In his interviews he always brings up disparate artists – in one interview with Art in America he pulls in Sol Lewitt, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Alfred Hitchcock, Eduard Manet, Giorgio de Chirico, R.B. Kitaj, Odilon Redon, Leon Golub, Noah Purifoy Jeff Koons, Samuel Mockbee, and Theaster Gates – who his paintings navigate. While I didn’t initially notice all of those references looking at his work, they fit, and looking again with them in mind adds another layer.
Davis very deliberately situated himself as a Black artist. He felt an obligation to bring that identity into his work, to amend and expand the historical lack of Black subjects, Black artists, and Black recognition. While he took pride in being a Black artist, he didn’t like how it was defined from the outside. One of his primary concerns was pushing at those boundaries, resisting the idea that Black art must be tied to social issues.
Tied in with all this was his resolve. When all of his friends stopped making art, when he failed classes at Cooper Union, Davis continued his painting. Leaving college didn’t phase him; he just took on new jobs and continued working. In 2012 he and his wife, Karon, started the Underground Museum in LA’s Arlington Heights with the goal of having a high-end exhibition space in an area devoid of other cultural institutions. When no one would lend him the quality of art he wanted to show, he created his own installation, Imitation of Wealth, which simultaneously mimicked and mocked iconic modern and contemporary art. Now, Underground Museum is showing a William Kentridge installation and Davis’s inaugural show is on display at the LA Museum of Contemporary Art. Besides the Nasher, his paintings have also been collected by the Studio Museum in Harlem and private collectors including the Rubell family.
Davis’s painting Black Widow with Brothers Fighting is on view in the exhibition “Reality of My Surroundings.” His paintings are often described as tense, spare, and confusing, as critical but with a glimpse of humor, and this one is no exception.