Noah Davis, a Los Angeles painter and installation artist known for tension-filled scenes of isolated figures and for establishing the Underground Museum, an important artist-run space in Arlington Heights, has died. He was 32.
The artist, who became a significant art world presence over a short career — his work has appeared in institutional collections, and the Underground Museum recently established a unique curatorial partnership with L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art — died Saturday at home in Ojai, according to Sarah Stifler, a MOCA representative.
FOR THE RECORD
Aug. 31, 12:13 p.m.: An earlier version of this obituary reported that Davis died in Los Angeles. He died at his home in Ojai. The article also reported that the MOCA programming at the Underground Museum going forward will be managed by MOCA curator Helen Molesworth and Davis’ brother, Kahlil Joseph. Karon Davis, the artist’s wife, who co-founded the Underground, will also be involved.
His death from complications related to a rare cancer occurred on the same day that an installation of his work, "Imitation of Wealth," opened at the museum.
"I'm so honored we got to do the work we got to do together for the past year," MOCA chief curator Helen Molesworth said in an interview shortly before Davis' death. "Noah is an important artist because he occupies the term 'artist' in the largest possible way: an incredibly accomplished painter, he is also a profound visionary — dreaming up the idea of the Underground Museum and then physically enacting that dream against all odds."
Born in Seattle on June 3, 1983, Davis was the youngest son of Keven Davis, a lawyer, and Faith Childs-Davis, an educator. His older brother, Kahlil Joseph, is a noted filmmaker and video artist who has also shown work at MOCA.
"By the time he was 17, he was a full-on artist," Joseph said. "He had his own studio at 17. He was making paintings by then."
Davis began to establish a reputation as a painter in his early 20s. After attending Cooper Union in New York, he moved to Los Angeles, where he became known for his melancholic portrayals of blurred black figures against barren or shadowy landscapes — paintings that often teetered precariously into the unreal.
In 2007, Davis came to the attention of Culver City gallery owner Bennett Roberts, of Roberts & Tilton, after his work was featured in a group show organized by curator Lindsay Charlwood at the gallery.
"There was a profound honesty to his work," Roberts said. "His touch had a real pulse. He had this thing that cannot be taught."
Roberts represented the artist for five years, during which time his work was acquired by numerous institutions, including the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Nasher Museum in North Carolina. His work also landed in important private collections, including the Rubell Family Collection in Miami. The Rubells acquired eight of his pieces, the last of which, "Painting for My Dad," from 2011, was created in the wake of Davis' father's death.
"He managed with very few gestures to express emotional content and weave a story," Mera Rubell recalled. "The painting about his dad, it was the figure of his father carrying a lantern into this very dark cave. It captured this fading-away, into a place that no one could follow. It was a beautiful, poetic piece."
The Rubells included Davis in "30 Americans," a traveling exhibition launched in 2008 that gathered works by important African American artists.
Davis was the youngest artist in the show, which included renowned figures such as Kara Walker, David Hammons and Carrie Mae Weems. The Obamas saw the exhibition when it landed at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. This October, it will go to the Detroit Institute of Arts.
In recent years, Davis moved beyond painting, establishing the Underground Museum in a series of interconnected storefronts in working-class Arlington Heights. There, he staged a series of exhibitions and installations that attracted the attention of critics and curators. They also drew fellow artists such as painter Henry Taylor and conceptualists William Pope L. and David Hammons.
In 2013, Davis staged an exhibition in which he re-created important works of blue-chip art by figures such as Jeff Koons to display in the storefront space.
"I bought a vintage Hoover vacuum cleaner off Craigslist for $70 that was the exact design of the Jeff Koons," Davis told Art in America. "At that time there had been a string of shows in New York and Los Angeles that took the premise to destroy big high-end galleries and create crack dens or whatever.... I liked the idea of bringing a high-end gallery into a place that has no cultural outlets within walking distance."
That installation is now on view at MOCA.
The piece ultimately would be a harbinger. In June, the Underground Museum launched the first of a series of exhibitions, curated by Davis, that drew on objects from MOCA's permanent collection. The program will continue despite the artist's death. He left plans for future exhibitions, which will be managed by Molesworth, his wife Karon (who co-founded the Underground Museum), and Davis' brother, Joseph, who maintains an office there.
Molesworth said Davis' death represents a loss for the city.
"He got Los Angeles," she said. "He got that you could do impossible things here. That this was a brown city, a black city."
"Lots of artists do just one thing in their lifetimes," she added. "Noah has done so much more."
Davis is survived by his wife, his mother, his brother and his 5-year-old son, Moses.