Noah Davis - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | Phillips

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  • Executed in 2010, Untitled (Boy with Glasses) serves as a poignant testament to Noah Davis’ mastery in capturing the essence of everyday life while infusing it with profound emotional resonance. This intimate portrait, executed with Davis’ characteristic blend of realism and introspection, encourages close looking. His small-scale paintings stand out as some of the artist’s most powerful works. As Helen Molesworth extolled, “Davis’ paintings are a crucial part of the rise of figurative and representational painting in the first two decades of the twenty-first century... His pictures can be slightly deceptive; they are modest in scale yet emotionally ambitious.”i Davis, recognizing the potency of his craft, intricately layers his painting—both in substance and concept. Employing a distinct dry paint application, he skillfully depicts a timeless portrayal of a single figure, in the tradition of classical portraiture masters such as Rembrandt and Velázquez, while also drawing inspiration from contemporary figurative artists like Lucian Freud and Alice Neel. There is a tenderness in the mundane and something familiar, imbued with an elusive, almost mystical aura.

    “My paintings just have a very personal relationship with the figures in them. They’re about the people around me. I want people to read them like this whilst taking a meaning of their own from each work.”
    —Noah Davis
    At first glance, the composition appears straightforward—a young boy, rendered in meticulous detail, gazes directly at the viewer through oversized spectacles. His expression, a delicate interplay of curiosity and vulnerability, invites contemplation, drawing us into his inner world. The scene is spare, and the palette subdued, leaving the viewer nowhere to look but into the boy’s eyes. Davis constructs a viewing experience that is intimate and without pretense. Yet, beneath the surface simplicity lies a subcurrent of narrative potential, as Davis deftly imbues each careful brushstroke with layers of meaning. Using a mostly dry paintbrush, Davis allows the texture of the canvas to push through, creating a soft and deeply atmospheric effect. This technique imbues the figure with a gossamer-like lightness that makes them seem as if they are not so much painted on the canvas as emerging from within its fibers. 


    Alice Neel, A Spanish Boy, 1955. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Artwork: © Estate of Alice Neel

    The boy's glasses, the focal point of the composition, serve as a metaphorical lens through which Davis explores themes of perception and introspection. Through these lenses, the boy observes with apprehension and the hint of a smile, as if the looking goes both ways. Davis's nuanced handling of light and shadow further heightens the sense of intimacy, casting subtle nuances of emotion across the boy's features. In the quiet contemplation and understated elegance of the present work, Davis demonstrates his unparalleled ability to infuse the ordinary with a sense of profound significance. Through his masterful use of composition and color, he transforms a seemingly prosaic subject into a poignant meditation on youth, identity, and the human experience. 

    “[Davis’s] paintings are both figurative and abstract, realistic and dreamlike; they are about blackness and the history of Western painting, drawn from photographs and from life; they are exuberant and doleful in their palette… They tend toward the ravishing.”
    —Helen Molesworth ii

    Marlene Dumas, Cupid, 1994. Sammlung Moderne Kunst, Munich. Artwork: © Marlene Dumas

    While Davis' subject remains anonymous, the idea for the painting was inspired by a high school yearbook photograph that achieved moderate viral acclaim. Davis has subtly altered the boy's clothing and youthful expression, making it challenging to recognize the early visage of Jonathan H. Smith before he became better known by his stage name, Lil Jon. This portrayal captures a less recognized phase of the now flamboyant American music producer and rapper, evoking a sense of personal history and transformation. Davis' canvases often depict Black figures in everyday scenes, drawing inspiration from family photographs, conversations with friends, pop culture, and literary sources. Despite these specific references, in paintings such as Untitled (Boy with Glasses), Davis intentionally leaves the sitter's identity open-ended, which is perhaps the very point; even in anonymity, the boy draws you in. Davis celebrates Black culture and creative legacy both close to home and in the public eye, underscoring that even before fame, the subject was worthy of the spotlight.


    Davis worked mostly from photographs, in the vein of artists such as Luc Tuymans and Marlene Dumas, reminding the viewer that images aren’t unequivocal. The painting intentionally muddies the source material, demanding it’s autonomy. In series like 1975, for instance, he drew from photographs taken by his mother, Faith Childs-Davis, during her teenage years on Chicago’s South Side in the 1970s.iii Other paintings reflect images of life in Los Angeles as captured by his wife, sculptor Karon Davis.iv Asked if his paintings are autobiographical, Davis responded, “They’re not necessarily from my life. They are a mix of things like an old painting I might like and something I’m obsessed with at the moment…Things will really come to me—a family member will come and give me a photo, or I’ll turn a page and just riff on something I see.”v


    Davis has described his works as “instances where black aesthetics and modernist aesthetics collide,” and indeed, the present painting is rooted in traditional formal considerations such as line, color, and scale. However, while the anonymity of the subject and the lack of visual context imbue a permanence that allows them to exist outside of time and place, there is something decidedly contemporary in Davis' attention to materiality and the psychological resonance with which he infuses the Black figure. As writer Camila McHugh argues, “Davis’s paintings combine immediacy…with a timelessness—more precisely, a sense of being unstuck in time—that derives in part from his transtemporal source material.”vi

    “The references are to things that are approachable and familiar, but the inferences are frequently quite mysterious. The images and figures are often familiar but unattainable, akin to futile attempts to recall a dream after waking.”
    —Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes 

    In 2016, Untitled (Boy with Glasses) was displayed at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle as part of Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, The Underground Museum—a two-person exhibition that placed Davis’ work in the context of an extended visual dialogue with his elder brother, artist and filmmaker, Kahlil Joseph. The title "Young Blood" originates from a name given to Davis by Joseph, serving as both an endearing term and a recognition of their shared beginning. The exhibition showcased the largest selection of their work ever displayed in a museum, spanning various mediums such as painting, sculpture, film, and installation. It delved into themes central to Davis's discourse, including access, class, and the establishment of independent art spaces.


    The present work installed in Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, The Underground Museum, Frye Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, April 16 – June 19, 2016. Image: Mark Wood, Artwork: © Estate of Noah Davis

    “Next to portraits of Charles and Emma Frye, and surrounded by a multitude of canvases of real and imagined worlds, is Davis’s painting Untitled (Boy with Glasses)… It faces Imitation of Wealth and The Underground Museum that would be founded in honor of Keven Davis.”
    —Helen Molesworth

    Davis passed away in 2015 at the young age of 32. He played a pivotal role in the founding of The Underground Museum in Los Angeles, a groundbreaking cultural institution that has left an indelible mark on the city's art scene. In 2012, alongside his wife Karon, Noah envisioned a black-owned-and-operated art space that would transcend traditional gallery settings, providing a platform for underrepresented artists and fostering community engagement. “I like the idea of bringing a high-end gallery into a place that has no cultural outlets within walking distance,” he told the magazine Art in America the following year.vii With a commitment to showcasing museum-quality artwork in an African American and Latinx neighborhood, The Underground Museum became a beacon of inclusivity and creativity under the Davis’ visionary leadership, offering a vibrant space for artistic expression and dialogue. Through his dedication to democratizing access to art and culture, Davis' legacy lives on as an inspiration to artists and art enthusiasts alike, and works such as Untitled (Boy with Glasses) stand as a testament to the power of his vision.

    Collector’s Digest


    • In 2022, a selection of the artist's work was presented at the 59th Venice Biennale.

    • Davis also featured in historic exhibitions such as 30 Americans, organized by the Rubell Family Collection, Miami, which traveled extensively from 2008-2022, and Fore, the fourth in a series of emerging artist exhibitions presented by the Studio Museum, Harlem.

    • His paintings are included in numerous permanent collections, including the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

    • In September 2024, a retrospective of Davis’s work will be on view at DAS MINSK Kunsthaus, Potsdam, Germany.viii


    i Helen Molesworth, “Noah Davis: Press Release,” David Zwirner Gallery, New York, 2020, online.

    ii Helen Molesworth, “Noah Davis, An Introduction,” in Noah Davis. Exh. cat., New York, 2020, p. 7.

    iii Exhibition text, “Noah Davis,” David Zwirner Gallery, London, October 8—November 17, 2021, online

    iv Camila McHugh, “Noah Davis: David Zwirner, London,” Artforum, February 2022, online.

    v Noah Davis, quoted in Ed Templeton, “Noah Davis,” ANP Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 12-13, online

    vi Camila McHugh, “Noah Davis: David Zwirner, London,” Artforum, February 2022, online

    vii Noah Davis, quoted in Yael Lipschutz, “Links: Q+A with Noah Davis,” Art in America, March 7, 2013, online

    viii “Noah Davis: Biography,” David Zwirner Gallery, New York, Accessed April 12, 2024, online

    • Provenance

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

    • Exhibited

      Seattle, Frye Art Museum, Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, The Underground Museum, April 16–June 19, 2016, pp. 7, 15, 127-128, 130 (illustrated, p. 15; installation view illustrated, p. 127)

    • Literature

      “After an Untimely Death, an Artist's Legacy Lives On in the Museum He Founded,” HuffPost, May 1, 2016, online
      Jeannie Yandel, “Why you should go see 'Young Blood' at the Frye (Hint: Beyonce),” KUOW, May 4, 2016, online (Frye Art Museum, Seattle, 2016, installation view illustrated)
      Noah Davis, exh. cat., David Zwirner, New York, pp. 78-79, 173 (illustrated, p. 79)

Property from a Prestigious Collection, California


Untitled (Boy with Glasses)

signed “Noah Davis” on the reverse
oil on canvas
10 x 10 in. (25.4 x 25.4 cm)
Painted in 2010.

Full Cataloguing

$150,000 - 200,000 

Sold for $279,400

Contact Specialist

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

Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 May 2024