Noah Davis - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 17, 2023 | Phillips

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  • The young woman in Noah Davis’ Untitled, 2010, is in a state of near undress: she wears only a matching yellow headband, shorts, and a pair of high-heeled shoes. It is as if she has just taken off a fancy dress, and, exhausted from a celebration, collapsed into sleep. Her long limbs splay across the canvas, rendered in tender, warm brown tones. Though she is topless, Davis does not arrange her figure for the viewer’s pleasure—with her cheek pressed into the white, fluffy, oversized teddy bear, she is fast asleep, floating away on a cloud of dreams. Untitled is “modest in scale while being emotionally ambitious,” exactly what curator Helen Molesworth, the artist’s collaborator and friend, describes as the crux of Davis’ practice.i


    Davis, who tragically passed away in 2015, was an icon of the Los Angeles arts scene who co-founded The Underground Museum in Arlington Heights, a working-class Black and Latinx neighborhood of LA, with his wife, Karon, in 2012. This location was deliberately removed from the city’s extant arts institutions; Davis wanted to create a museum that sidestepped the rigidity and formality of larger collections, and instead brought art directly to the doorstep of historically excluded groups.ii As Imogen Greenhalgh writes, “The Underground Museum was established in the same spirit as these formal and aesthetic concerns in Davis’ painting, working both with and against art historical tradition and its codified ways of doing things.”iii In Untitled, for instance, Davis takes the traditional pose of the reclining nude, a historic site of female objectification, and reinterprets it from a loving, Black perspective.


    George Hendrik Breitner, Reclining Nude, c. 1887. Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Image: HIP / Art Resource, NY 

    “Davis’ paintings are a crucial part of the story of the rise of figurative and representational painting in the first two decades of the 21st century.”
    —Helen Molesworth

    Davis felt that his career as a museum worker served as his training as a painter, as he encountered artworks in galleries and museums, and navigated his relationship to them in institutional space.iv Davis preferred to paint solitary figures like the young woman in Untitled, reminiscent of those of Luc Tuymans and Marlene Dumas, with a rich, astute sense of color.v For Molesworth, Davis’ painterly skill crystalized in his unique ability to express love through painting, which paralleled the loving act of founding the Underground Museum; “the emotional quality of [his work] is deeply searching.”vi Untitled professes this love through Davis’ tender application of paint—the warm sienna, umber, and peach tones of the young woman’s skin, the butter yellow of the background. Davis’ sitter is, lovingly, at rest, on a huge teddy bear that symbolizes childhood and comfort, and so negates any sexualized or voyeuristic gaze. She is not posing or performing for anyone.


    The blissful repose of the young woman in Untitled presages a radical return to rest for people of marginalized identities, activated in the late 2010s. For Black people in particular, especially those who are descended from enslaved people, their ancestors never had the opportunity to rest.vii Books such as Tricia Hersey’s Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto, 2020, and artworks like Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa’s Black Power Naps, 2018-present, call out the racially unjust distribution of rest in the United States.viii As Acosta and Sosa write in the artists’ statement for their work, reparations must come as “the redistribution of rest, relaxation, and down times."ix


    Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa, Black Power Naps, installation view, Performance Space, New York, Jan. 2019.


    Today, Black Power Naps is installed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where it, like Davis’ Underground Museum, interrogates our preconceptions about arts institutions.x While Acosta and Sosa’s Black Power Naps postdates Davis’ Untitled, the present work certainly shares the same spirit. By tending to his subjects with love, Davis imbues each work with his passion for equity as an artist and curator; as his widow Karon explains, each one of his works puts into the world what “was missing from the canon – Black people as subjects; our stories and expressions.”xi



    i Helen Molesworth, “Noah Davis,” The Underground Museum, 2022, online.

    ii Imogen Greenhalgh, “A Deeply Personal Account of the Life and Work of Painter Noah Davis,” Elephant magazine, Nov. 8, 2020, online.

    iii Ibid.

    iv Noah Davis, quoted in Lauren Haynes, “3Qs: Noah Davis,” Studio Museum Harlem, n.d., online.

    v Molesworth, “Noah Davis.”

    vi Molesworth, “Passages: Noah Davis (1983-2015),” Artforum, Oct. 6, 2015, online; Molesworth, quoted in Emily Dinsdale, “Noah Davis’ poignant paintings depict the everyday lives of Black Americans,” DAZED, Oct. 12, 2021, online.

    vii Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa, “Black Power Naps,” (artists’ statement), n.d., online.

    viii Melonyce McAfee, “The Nap Bishop is Spreading the Good Word: Rest,” The New York Times, Oct 13., 2022, online.

    ix Acosta and Sosa.

    x “Black Power Naps: La Biblioteca Is Open,” (exhibition description), MoMA, n.d. online.

    xi Karon Davis, quoted in Dinsdale.

    • Provenance

      Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles
      Private Collection
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

Property of a Prominent Private Collector



signed and dated "Noah Davis 10'" on the overlap
oil on linen
10 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. (25.7 x 35.9 cm)
Painted in 2010.

Full Cataloguing

$100,000 - 150,000 

Sold for $990,600

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Mayer
Associate Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 17 May 2023