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Issue 210

Noah Davis’s Celebratory Vision of Black Family Life

At David Zwirner, New York, the late painter’s work speaks frankly to a black audience without distracting appeals to white art audiences

BY Erica N. Cardwell in Reviews , US Reviews | 21 FEB 20

This luminous exhibition at David Zwirner, the largest ever presentation of work by the late Noah Davis, makes me wish I could have spent time with the artist’s brilliant mind. Absent of that possibility, the 20 paintings on display here demonstrate not only Davis’s technical skill but his lifelong dedication to black art and artists.

Curated by Helen Molesworth, the exhibition includes an ambitious installation replicating the offices of The Underground Museum, the Los Angeles arts institution Davis founded in 2012. For its first exhibition, Davis filled the museum’s storefront space, in the working-class African-American and Latinx neighbourhood of Arlington Heights, with meticulous reproductions of modernist masterpieces that several museums had refused to lend him. In 2015, shortly after Davis’s death from cancer at the age of just 32, Molesworth – then chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) – brokered a multiyear programme that lent some of those same works from MOCA’s collection to The Underground Museum, while some of Davis’s reproductions went on view at MOCA. At David Zwirner, Molesworth has again worked closely with Davis’s Underground Museum co-founders – his wife, sculptor Karon Davis, and his brother, artist Kahlil Joseph – to craft a thoughtful display of the artist’s prolific career and process.

Bad Boy for Life (2007), rendered in acrylic, gouache and Conté crayon, depicts a young boy receiving a spanking from his mother. She gazes out towards the viewer, her mouth deliberately unfinished, her arm raised and ready to strike. The scene is intimate and familiar; Davis paints it without pretence. On the conjoining wall, in Single Mother with Father out of the Picture (2007–08), we encounter another mother and child, their eyes cast beyond the frame to the right, as if waiting for someone to arrive.

Noah Davis, Single Mother with Father Out of the Picture, oil, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 102 × 77 cm, 2007-2008. Courtesy and © the artist and The Estate of Noah Davis

In his depictions of black subjects, Davis eschews a sense of otherness. His simplicity is instructive: small details of everyday life speak frankly to a black audience without distracting appeals to white art audiences. In Pueblo del Rio: Stain Glass Pants (2014), for instance, a mother’s vibrant leggings match her daughter’s hoodie; the two hold hands as they prepare to cross the street. Davis uses this quotidian moment, seen as if from the window of a passing car, to explore colour theory within an exacting network of black lines. Pueblo del Rio: Arabesque (2014), depicts six dancers holding graceful poses in front of a sombre apartment block. Davis renders ballet a commonplace in the Pueblo del Rio public housing project in South Los Angeles, upending stereotypes of race and class. His vision of the world is one defined by the humanity of blackness – a vision that continues to drive The Underground Museum.

Davis committed his life to dismantling racial barriers in arts institutions. As a black woman, I might be seen as an outsider at a white cube gallery; when I entered The Underground Museum installation, however, I felt suddenly displaced by the wafting aroma of incense. Embroidered chairs, designed by the artist’s mother Faith Childs-Davis, sat alongside a sculpture by Karon Davis; on the wall, Joseph’s 2019 film BLKNWS screened on a loop. Two scale models of exhibitions Davis curated served to remind us that the work he began continues still. The works on the walls, compiled from the Zwirner collection, are an assemblage of Davis’s inspirations, from Marlene Dumas to Kerry James Marshall. As I took a seat beside a shelf adorned with his books and family photos, I spotted a well-worn paperback of The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955) by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes, Davis’s personal copy. The artist felt near to me in that moment, the much-loved work of his forebears replicating the tender intimacy of his own paintings.

‘Noah Davis’ runs at David Zwirner, New York, until 22 Febuary 2020. 

Main Image: ‘Noah Davis’ , 2020, installation view, David Zwirner, New York. Courtesy: the artist, The Estate of Noah Davis and David Zwirner, Paris /New York/ London/ Hong Kong

Erica N. Cardwell is a writer, critic, and educator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, The Believer, Hyperallergic, Brooklyn Rail and elsewhere. She teaches writing and social justice at The New School.