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MOCA curator on artist Noah Davis: 'A little window is closed'




The MOCA storefront installation
The MOCA storefront installation "Noah Davis: Imitation of Wealth," which opened Saturday, the same day Davis died, at 32. The work features imitations of work by artists like Jeff Koons; the title is a play on the movie "Imitation of Life," in which a black person passes for white.
John Rabe
The MOCA storefront installation
KPCC's John Rabe and MOCA chief curator Helen Molesworth at the MOCA storefront installation "Noah Davis: Imitation of Wealth," which opened Saturday, the same day Davis died, at 32.
John Rabe


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The late Noah Davis' brother Kahlil Joseph told the L.A. Times Davis had his own studio when he was a teenager. "By the time he was 17, he was a full-on artist. He was making paintings by then." Later, he opened The Underground Museum.

Davis died Saturday of a rare cancer, at just 32, and MOCA's chief curator fought back tears as she talked with me about him.

Helen Molesworth says, "In losing Noah Davis at this juncture, we lose a possibility, and I think we all know that, and that's what's so devastating about the loss. We know Noah made impossible things possible, and when you lose someone like that, you know a little window has closed somewhere, a light flickers. You've lost a potential." It's much different, she says, than when an old artist with a full life and career goes gently.

But although Davis died too young, he had already accomplished more than many artists who live and work much longer. "When I look at the output of paintings," says Molesworth, "I always forget that he's 32. That's on par with someone in their mid-50's. and by that I mean both the quantity and also the complexity. Noah had a preternatural talent and sensibility."

Davis opened The Underground Museum in L.A.'s Arlington Heights neighborhood to bring the arts to a sort of arts desert, and Molesworth says when he couldn't get major institutions to lend him art, he made his own imitations of famous works, including Marcel Duchamp, On Kawara, and Jeff Koons.

This became his "Imitation of Wealth" exhibit at the Underground Museum, now recreated on MOCA's plaza. "This is a show about desire and what you can't have," she says. "And 'Imitation of Wealth' is of course an allusion to Douglas Sirk's movie 'Imitation of Life,' in which the protagonist is a young woman who leaves her African-American family to go into the white world."