Artist and Curator Noah Davis Dies at Age 32 of Rare Cancer

He achieved a huge amount during his life.

Noah Davis. Photo by Ed Templeton. Courtesy of the Underground Museum.

Noah Davis, artist and founder of Los Angeles’s Underground Museum, has died due to complications from a rare cancer at the age of 32.

The Los Angeles painter and installation artist, who exhibited with Kara Walker, David Hammons, and Carrie Mae Weems, died on the day his exhibition “Imitations of Wealth” was installed at the Museum of Modern Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA), according to the Los Angeles Times.

“I’m so honored we got to do the work we got to do together for the past year,” said MOCA chief curator Helen Molesworth in an interview shortly before Davis’s 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.”

Davis, born in Seattle on June 3, 1983, started painting in earnest during his teens.

Noah Davis,<i> Painting For My Dad</i> (2011). Courtesy of the Frye Art Museum, Seattle.

Noah Davis, Painting For My Dad (2011). Courtesy of the Frye Art Museum, Seattle.

“By the time he was 17, he was a full-on artist,” his brother Khalil Joseph told the L.A Times. “He had his own studio at 17. He was making paintings by then.”

He then went on to study at Cooper Union in New York and began attracting the attention of the art world with his isolated, melancholic portraits of black figures.

“If I’m making any statement,” he told Dazed Digital  in 2010, “it’s to just show black people in normal scenarios, where drugs and guns are nothing to do with it.” Describing his work as, “instances where black aesthetics and modernist aesthetics collide.”

Davis left New York in 2004, and started working at the bookshop at MOCA, but was encouraged to continue painting by friends and fellow artists, including Dash Snow and Ed Templeton.

In 2012, Davis, self-represented at the time of his death, founded the not-for-profit space the Underground Museum.

"William Kentridge: Journey to the Moon" at the Underground Museum. Photo courtesy of the Underground Museum.

“William Kentridge: Journey to the Moon” at the Underground Museum. Photo courtesy of the Underground Museum.

Earlier this year, the Underground Museum was the subject of a show at the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s University Gallery (BHQFUG), which opened to critical acclaim.

“You’ll be hearing a lot about $400 million museums next week thanks to the opening of the new Whitney,” wrote Christian Viveros-Fauné in the Village Voice. “But you won’t see anything nearly as surprising or as radical as Noah Davis and his Underground Museum.”

In June of this year, the Underground Museum opened the first of a series of exhibitions drawing from the permanent collection at MOCA, curated by Davis, “William Kentridge at the Underground Museum.”

Leading up to his death, Davis was able to leave plans for the space, which will be run by MOCA’s Helen Molesworth, and his brother Kahlil Jospeh, a video artist who has worked with Kendrick Lamar and also exhibited at MOCA.

“He got Los Angeles,” said Molesworth, expressing the loss to the city. “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.”

He is survived by his brother, his mother, his wife artist Karon Davis, and his five-year-old son Moses.

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