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Noah Davis is gone; His paintings continue to hypnotize
Noah Davis, Untitled, 2015 © The Estate of Noah Davis. Courtesy The Estate of Noah Davis.

by Roberta Smith

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Art history is full of artists whose careers, cut short by early death, haunt us with their unfulfilled promise. The 20th century is pocked with many such examples, a mere handful of which include Paula Modersohn-Becker (who died at 31); Egon Schiele (28); Bob Thompson (28); Eva Hesse (34); and Jean-Michel Basquiat (27).

The 21st century has painter Noah Davis, now the subject of a big, beautiful exhibition at David Zwirner in Manhattan. He died of a rare cancer in Ojai, California, in August 2015, just three months after turning 32.

Talented and charismatic, with a knack for rallying people, Davis was inclusive in his art and his life. He gathered his family and friends around him and refused to commit to a single figurative style or to use photographic images in a formulaic way. Nearly every canvas here is different, and most have an interpretive and painterly openness. Your eyes and mind enter them easily and roam through the different layers of brushwork and narrative suggestion. There’s an unexpected optimism to all this. The paintings also dwell in silence, slow us down and hypnotize.

Davis was born in Seattle in 1983, and, according to his older brother, filmmaker and video artist Kahlil Joseph, he had a painting studio by the time he was 17. He attended the Cooper Union School of Art but left before graduating, and by 2004 had moved to Los Angeles, where he exhibited his paintings as early as 2007. Solo gallery shows in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere followed.

In 2012, he founded the Underground Museum with his wife, sculptor Karon Davis, his brother and his sister-in-law, film producer Onye Anyanwu, in Arlington Heights, a historically working-class African American and Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles. They wanted to bring museum-quality art “within walking distance,” as he put it, to a community that had no access to it.

Although the Underground mounted its first show in 2013, established museums paid no attention until an agreement was reached in the summer of 2015 with the Museum of Contemporary Art under the aegis of Helen Molesworth, then its chief curator. The first collaborative show was “Journey to the Moon,” a multipart video installation by South African artist William Kentridge, which opened a month after Davis died. Davis left plans for 18 more exhibitions, of which four have been executed. (Today Karon Davis, Joseph and Molesworth manage the Underground Museum, and Megan Steinman is its director.)

At Zwirner, two of Davis’ dreamlike paintings from 2014 seem to symbolize the presence of high culture in an underserved community. Under slate-violet skies, “Pueblo del Rio: Concerto” and “Pueblo del Rio: Arabesque” place a man playing a grand piano and six ballet dancers in tutus on a street or sidewalk in Pueblo del Rio, a large housing project built in Los Angeles in 1942 with design input from the architects Richard Neutra and Paul Williams.

The show itself is something of a family affair. It includes examples of Karon Davis’ sculpture, and two models of the Underground Museum installed with the miniature artworks of different shows. You can sit in Shelby George furniture designed by Noah Davis’ mother, Faith Childs-Davis, and watch “BLKNWS®,” a powerful two-channel video by Kahlil that uses a newscast format. It encompasses a great deal of African American — and therefore American — life and invites a full spectrum of emotional responses. (It also attracted attention at last summer’s Venice Biennale.)

Davis once said he preferred to think of himself as a painter rather than an artist, and the 27 canvases here — which Molesworth selected and installed according to palette — back him up. He was immersed in the medium, its materials and its history, and although his work was ostensibly traditional, it was also subtly pushing at the envelopes of subject matter, psychological expression and painting technique.

Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans, Peter Doig and Kerry James Marshall are frequently cited as precedents for his work, yet here we also see nods to Hughie Lee-Smith and Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko and Degas, and in unusual combinations. Degas’ paintings of women in interiors are evoked by an untitled painting from 2015, which shows two women napping together on a big sofa in a cushy white-on-white room. And over the sofa hangs a reasonable facsimile of a Rothko whose dripping rivulets of pink touch the women’s heads like the veil of sleep. It is among Davis’ masterpieces.

One of Davis’ stated goals was to “show black people in normal scenarios,” untroubled by guns or drugs. He did this often. In the first gallery, where tones of black and white dominate, it is hard, especially for a woman, not to identify with the physical unease and shyness evoked in “The Casting Call” (2008): Standing on a checkered floor, a group of women wearing white bathing suits and heels, raise their hands above their heads. In another gallery, where red is the connecting color, “Delusions of Grandeur” (2007) depicts a child peering up from the bottom of a staircase with red carpet and orange-ish woodwork. At the top, a half-open door emits a cloud of sparkly dust motes or tiny stars that may at first escape your notice. Is the child home alone feeling dread, enchantment, or both? Haven’t we all?

“Mary Jane” (2008) is more specific regarding race: A small black girl wearing Mary Janes stands before a wall covered with a scrolling, leaflike pattern of greens, grays and whites against black. Perhaps it’s wallpaper or perhaps — a connection that would probably not occur if the girl were white — it’s a cotton field or a photo mural of one.

Another aspect of “Mary Jane” emerges up close. The entire background pattern is rendered in thick, roiled paint — a hallucinatory expanse of vines or waves — and the child’s white shirt and socks are striated from the back end of the brush. The intensity is somehow slightly freakish, especially as it contrasts with the girl’s fine skin and self-possessed expression; Mary Jane might be Alice in Wonderland about to enter the rabbit hole.

There are many wonderful paintings here and many levels on which to engage with them. Don’t miss “Untitled (Birch Trees),” a 2010 work with a pale, washy background, and its trees, defined with short, thick strokes of white, and nourished by a black spring that may also be someone in a black suit.

One of the most touching components of Davis’ work is his sustained sensitivity toward women, which is especially tender in “Isis” (2009). Here, a prepubescent girl with a body not unlike Degas’ little dancer, is shown clothed in and surrounded by gold, standing in the dusty yard of a decrepit house. Perhaps she is about to take part in a parade, perhaps she’s a new butterfly — or a young Egyptian goddess — about to take flight.

There’s another more hidden motif barely visible in the shadowy black of the window: the faint sphere of the large head of a boy that almost fills the frame — a ghost, a memory or part of an earlier painting. Whichever, it is one more layer of touch, time and meaning.

Noah Davis

Through Feb. 22 at David Zwirner, 525 and 533 W. 19th St., Manhattan;

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