Noah Davis, the Los Angeles–based painter of surreal, post-racial images and the founder of the nonprofit space the Underground Museum, has died at 32. Davis’s cause of death has not been announced, but he was sick with a rare cancer, according to a Los Angeles Times article published earlier this summer.
Davis is best known for his paintings of African Americans that have a dreamy, unreal quality to them, despite their muted color palettes and touches of realist detail. Although some of the figures that Davis painted were black, he didn’t consider his works political. “If I’m making any statement,” he told Dazed in 2010, “it’s to just show black people in normal scenarios, where drugs and guns are nothing to do with it.” Davis instead chose to describe his works as “instances where black aesthetics and modernist aesthetics collide.”
In 2012, for a show at James Harris Gallery, in Seattle, Davis did a series of paintings about reality television, titled “Savage Wilds.” (Davis, who had also shown with Roberts & Tilton, had shown at the Los Angeles gallery Papillion.) The works, like many others by Davis, play on the division, or lack thereof, between life and art, and between true personalities and performed ones. In one work, Jerry Springer is shown cautiously picking up a torn-off weave. Because Davis distorts Springer’s face, it becomes hard to tell whether the act is genuine or just for show. In other works in the series, television logos are painted onto the bottom to make clear that what we are seeing are stills.
Davis’s inspirations ranged from Leon Golub to Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Trouble with Harry. Many of Davis’s diverse references can be traced to his time working at MOCA LA’s bookstore after he left New York City. (“I left school because it wasn’t teaching me anything,” Davis said of his time at Cooper Union, where he studied between 2001 and 2004.) His time working at the museum brought him into art history of all kinds, though it was not as if he didn’t have art-world connections of his own—Davis was also friends with Dash Snow and Ed Templeton, who encouraged him to continue painting.
Davis also later founded the Underground Museum in 2012. The nonprofit space, in Los Angeles’s Arlington Heights, is in a space that used to be several storefronts, a pupusería, and a church. Davis ran the space, which became a notable cultural center in Los Angeles, with his brother the video artist Kahlil Joseph, who has worked with Kendrick Lamar and others. They knocked down all three of the original buildings and built a new one that allowed for shows and film screenings, and had a garden and a library.
Davis had several shows there and had plans to curate several more over the coming three years. In 2013, Davis created Imitation of Wealth, an installation in which Davis redid work by blue-chip artists, usually with low-cost materials. A sculpture from Jeff Koons’s “The New” series, for example, was remade using a $70 Hoover vacuum that Davis found on Craigslist. The installation has been restaged and is currently showing at storefront:, a space across the street from MOCA.
The Underground Museum was most recently the subject of the inaugural show at the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s University Gallery (BHQFUG), in New York. That exhibition looked at the way that the Underground Museum could be considered a work unto itself—how Davis’s space was just as much a way of mediating between life and art as any of his paintings, sculptures, or installations. “You’ll be hearing a lot about $400 million museums next week thanks to the opening of the new Whitney,” Christian Viveros-Fauné wrote in the Village Voice when the BHQFUG show opened. “But you won’t see anything nearly as surprising or as radical as Noah Davis and his Underground Museum.”
Davis’s late father was the lawyer Keven Davis, who worked with tennis players Venus and Serena Williams, helping to arrange a $40 million, five year contract with Reebok for Venus in 2000; he died of a brain tumor in 2012.
“I knew him and I know his brother,” Aleim Johnson, the Los Angeles-based publisher of Aleim magazine, told ARTnews of Noah Davis. “He was at dinner parties with me. He was so smart and had such a great sense of humor. He came to visit me recently with his wife. He was sick, but still we spent hours laughing. He was one of the most important young painters of his time.”
“When Noah spoke,” Johnson recalled, “he would often speak with imagery. He would describe something with specificity and detail and you could visualize what he was saying as if it were on a canvas. His words flowed as if he were painting.”
“I own a drawing he did of Venus Williams,” Johnson continued. “It’s in my living room in Los Angeles. It’s my favorite piece.”
Additional reporting by Sarah Douglas.
CORRECTION 08/30/2015, 6:14 p.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that MOCA LA chief curator Helen Molesworth helped Davis launch the Underground Museum. Molesworth worked with Davis on the 2015 restaging of Imitation of Wealth, but had nothing to do with the founding of the Underground Museum. The post has been updated to reflect this.