Essays

Remembering Artist Noah Davis (1983–2015)

Noah Davis, "Pueblo del Rio: Conductor" (2014), oil on canvas, 69 x 76 in (image courtesy Papillion Art)
Noah Davis, “Pueblo del Rio: Conductor” (2014), oil on canvas, 69 x 76 in (image courtesy Papillion)

Editor’s note: We asked the artist Henry Taylor to share some reflections on his friend and colleague Noah Davis, who died on August 29 at the age of 32. These are his thoughts, as told to Hyperallergic Weekend contributor Jennifer Samet.

Noah Davis was a badass, but a smart badass. A lot of people think they are bad, but Noah backed his talk up. A few years back, he had beef with his gallery, like a brother with a record that he wants expunged. His gallerist would even talk shit, and I’d tell them they really didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about. Because Noah was not only educated, he had a father who was a lawyer.

I think this made Noah take his shit to court. He turned a negative into a positive, and found others to rep him, like Michelle Papillion. He eventually founded his own shit: the Underground Museum. Secession! Sometimes you got do it yourself. He didn’t have a pool, so he bought an ocean.

He had a Miles Davis or a Chuck Berry attitude, and enough sense to not get screwed like so many artists of color. He wasn’t passive at all; he was animated, passionate, and always spoke intelligently and with enthusiasm about art and artists. He even put me up on game. He would talk to me about things I never thought about — like the market, primary and secondary — when my only concern was to show work. I realize that I’m less naïve because of him, and that was coming from someone 20 years my junior.

I like what Theaster Gates is doing and what Mark Bradford is doing, and I love what Noah Davis did, because he did it while forces were trying to put him down. Nobody really gave him anything, although he was shown at the early age of 25, and he was included in the Rubell Family Collection’s 30 Americans exhibition. But that was it; he did all the rest on his own, without major galleries.

Installation view of 'storefront: Imitation of Wealth,' August 29, 2015–February, 22, 2016, at MOCA Grand Avenue (photo by Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles)
Installation view of ‘storefront: Imitation of Wealth,’ August 29, 2015–February, 22, 2016, at MOCA Grand Avenue (photo by Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles)

Noah Davis was a visionary, and an artist who kept pushing. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, established a partnership with the Underground Museum and re-created the first show he organized there: The Imitation of Wealth. In that show is Noah’s remake of a Jeff Koons vacuum-cleaner piece. The Broad — the new Eli and Edythe Broad Museum in Los Angeles — just opened with a major collection of work by Koons. That is the kind of irony I love.

As a painter, Noah was constantly growing. I wasn’t always aware of the progress he was making, mainly because he moved a lot, but when I see it now, I realize he was consummate. When I visited Noah’s Ojai studio prior to his passing, I noticed that he seemed to know exactly what colors he wanted to use. He was working on four or five paintings, and his palette was a piece of cardboard, one or two colors, and a tube of paint. I feel that one only does this as a result of experience and efficiency.

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.

One of Noah Davis's last paintings (photo by Henry Taylor)
One of Davis’s last paintings (photo by Henry Taylor)
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