Noah Davis, 2009. Photo: Ed Templeton.
SOME YEARS COUNT AS DOUBLE
On September 17, 2014, I drove from my office in downtown Los Angeles to the Underground Museum. I still didn’t understand what east and west meant in LA, so I ended up somewhere on East Washington Avenue surrounded by train tracks and electrical lines, and I remember thinking either this joint is seriously underground or I am majorly lost. A few minutes and a big U-turn later I arrived at the actual Underground Museum, a storefront space located on a block that was home to a Jamaican lunch spot and a Spanish language evangelical church. It was ninety-six degrees. I had an appointment to meet Kahlil Joseph and see a video that two of my Museum of Contemporary Art colleagues—Emma Reeves and Bennett Simpson—had urged me to see in an exhibition organized by Noah Davis called “The Oracle.” This was how I met Kahlil and his brother Noah for the first time. Everyone who has seen Joseph’s double screen projection video m.A.A.d, 2014, knows that it is nothing short of mesmerizing. I sat through it twice before walking back into a large office behind the galleries where Noah and Kahlil were hanging out; a black cat was being as still as possible on an old sofa upholstered with African or Japanese indigo fabric, and a stunningly beautiful woman, Onye, Kahlil’s wife, was working intently on a laptop. Even though the heat was deadly, we sat around and talked for hours. We talked about film; we talked a lot about Kerry James Marshall, an artist Noah loved. It turned out that Noah had heard some gossip from New York about the show I was working on with Kerry, and we laughed a lot about the ludicrous nature of museum politics. It felt easy and natural, and the connection was filled with the sparks of energy that fly around among people when they meet and realize they mutually love many of the same things: Marshall, David Hammons, Marcel Duchamp, Henry Taylor, art, bookstores, Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room, Black Mountain College. And then there was the irreverence, the shared deployment of humor as a way of navigating the great cruelties of the world. While we were hanging out, another impossibly beautiful woman came in. Karon, Noah’s wife, was breathless, in a rush, with Moses, an angelic little boy of five. When introduced, she flashed me a huge smile, but she had things to do.
I had just had my first studio visit in Los Angeles. I drove back to my office, where I had worked for three weeks, and put Kahlil’s video on the exhibition schedule. I didn’t really know what I was doing, I only knew the video felt utterly and completely NOW and urgent, and we were making a new museum at MoCA, and I wanted it to be the kind of museum that could move fast and show what felt right.
The next time I went to the Underground to hang out, I asked Noah if we could do a studio visit, and he sort of blew me off. Standing outside smoking, he said something like, “This is it, you know, it’s just here. When I make some new work you can see it.” Noah was like that, humble, always deflecting attention away from himself. Because Kahlil’s video was showing at MoCA, I started seeing Noah and Kahlil, either at the Underground, or at MoCA. At the William Pope.L opening, Noah and I stood in awe of Pope.L’s huge, wind-whipped and blowing, frayed flag, and Noah told me he felt a little embarrassed by it because it made him feel like he used to feel when he looked at art. I knew what he meant, but asked him to say more, and he said something like, “It’s like art was before the market killed it, like when art was for the people who really loved art and thought art could really do something.” He thought the piece was unassailable, complete, full, uncompromised. It was one of the most open-ended, hopeful conversations I had had about a work of art in a long time.
Noah Davis, Basic Training 1, 2008, oil and acrylic on canvas, 10 x 10". Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection.
Noah Davis, American Sterile, 2008, oil on canvas, 52 x 60". Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection.
Noah Davis, Painting for My Dad, 2011, oil on canvas, 76 x 91". Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection.
I’m not exactly sure when Noah pitched his dream for the Underground to me. I remain flummoxed by how I can’t remember where we were; what I mostly remember is how nervous I was when I wrote to Philippe Vergne, the new director of MoCA, to tell him that what Noah wanted was to show “museum-quality art” (he always put quotes around that phrase; Noah was so damn funny) at the UM. But I do remember the important question: Noah wanted to know “Would MoCA be willing to lend art to the Underground?” And I know that all I wanted to do was say “YES.” The Underground had started to feel to me like an artwork in and of itself, in the tradition of Katherine S. Dreier, Duchamp and Man Ray’s Société Anonyme, Marcel Broodthaers’s Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, and David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology. I was completely turned on by the hopefulness of it all. No more trying to change things slowly from the inside. Fuck it. The general vibe of the Underground (and of Noah in general) was a tacitly shared “These folks fucked up . . . let’s just make this shit ourselves.” At least that’s what it felt like to me, and I confess I wanted in. And it turned out that Philippe wanted in too. For him it was a way to rethink museum expansion: No big-name architect needed! Let’s move horizontally, not vertically. Los Angeles was starting to work its magic on us.
The entirety of MoCA’s storied permanent collection exists in picture form in three massive three-ring binders in my office. I refer to these volumes as the bible. I leaf through them almost daily, and when we agreed that MoCA would lend works to the UM we decided to give Noah a copy of the bible and let him start looking at what we had. The plan was to let the Underground take the lead: He would choose, and we would follow. Around this time, Noah’s cancer returned, and he called to let me know he was going to have to miss a meeting because he had to check into the hospital for a few days. Me being me, I didn’t want to lose momentum so I just drove the bible over to the hospital. Watching Noah flip through its pages was exhilarating. His excitement was off the charts. We went deep, we laughed, and then he started making up shows—just like that, in a hospital bed. It turns out, on top of everything else, he was a curator too. Over the next months, Noah made lists of artists he wanted to show, lists of exhibitions he wanted to do. He had fundraising ideas. And he had the most enviable titles EVER, like “Water and Power” for a show with Olafur Eliasson, Hans Haacke, and James Turrell. That was Noah; he made it look simple—three great art objects and one title that spun them around into a new formation. Boom! All my synapses would fire up, and to top it off I would usually be laughing.
He kept drafting exhibition ideas. We decided to start with a William Kentridge installation, a modest first step to see what it felt like. The Underground got all kinds of folks to volunteer to paint the walls and work on the show, and the staff at MoCA just leapt into the void; it was all about making things happen. The energy felt good. The press was off the hook (we were inventing a new model!). But the truth was Noah was getting sicker. The trips to the hospital were more frequent. It was clear he was in pain. I selfishly grabbed whatever time with him I could. I was always trying to get a little more out of him—a few more ideas about shows, a few more funny quips about art, a little more gossip. One day, en route to Palm Springs to check myself into a hotel to write a catalogue essay for my upcoming Kerry James Marshall show, I visited with him and Karon in the hospital. I started to tell them how nervous I was about writing the essay and Noah said, “Oh man, Kerry James Marshall: That work speaks for itself.” I laughed all the way from Santa Monica to the desert thinking about what a funny a thing that was to say to someone who was about to write an essay on Kerry James Marshall. Noah had a way of placing people’s egos in check. It still cracks me up whenever I think of it.
Art and death and love are inextricably linked to one another. Art is what is left behind; art is the trace of our brief time on the planet. It is a privilege to leave such traces, and it is an honor to tend to them. Love is the engine that makes the production and preservation of art possible. Love is the energy that allows us to connect equally with an art object made thousands of years ago or yesterday. Love—particularly love’s capacity for the infinite—is what allows us to be open to the experience of the other. It is love that enables the profound encounter with the ideas and vision and passion and feelings of another person. Such encounters form the very core of our engagement with art. It’s no mistake that Noah’s paintings are filled with figures that are touching each other. It’s also no mistake that Noah’s paintings are filled with solitary figures fully occupying the existential state of loneliness. For me, the Underground Museum is Noah’s magnum opus, a complete and total artwork, dedicated to creating a space for others, committed to making room for different encounters, inspired by the deep truth about art . . . that what it’s for is to pull individuals into fellowship—if only temporarily. Art helps us find the members of our infinitely dispersed tribe, art helps to bind us to one another. This is the great gift that Noah Davis left us, and the Underground is a reminder that setting out on a new path often means a return to the basics.
Noah passed on August 29, 2015. I was fortunate enough to know him for almost a year, but I will tend to his work and memory for much longer, because that is what curators do: They care for works of art. No bells and whistles, just back to basics. “Oh man, Noah Davis: That work speaks for itself.”
Helen Molesworth is the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
February 1988. Lucas Samaras. Ingrid Sischy’s last cover as editor.
Ingrid Sischy and Sandra Brant at the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children’s Inaugural Gala for Child Protection, 2015. Photo: Clint Spaulding/PatrickMcMullan.com via AP Images.
WHAT I REMEMBER most about Ingrid is her voice. It was, as they say, an excellent instrument, low and honeyed, which could easily turn into a growl or a purr. Her use of it totally depended on what her goal was: getting someone out of her face, drawing someone closer, closing the topic down, opening a golden door. She would have made a great, rampaging Auntie Mame. I can see her climbing that stairway to paradise, arm extended, voice rising like an alto sax, exhorting “Live! Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”
Richard Flood is the director of special projects and curator at large at the New Museum in New York. He was managing editor of Artforum in 1980, and books editor in 1982-83.
February 1982. Issey Miyake, 1982 Spring-Summer Collection, rattan bodice and nylon polyester skirt. The rattan is split, colored, and polished. It has been formed to follow the line of the body and bamboo has been woven in to hold the curve in place, and prevent the rattan from separating. Produced with the collaboration of the bamboo artist Kosuge Shochikudo. Photo: Eiichiro Sakata.
Summer 1984. Cover question: Mirós, Mirós, on the wall, which is not by Joan at all? Answer: Top right is Sherrie Levine, After Joan Miró, 1984, watercolor on paper, 14 x 11“. All reproductions except top right: Joan Miró, Blue II, 1961, oil on canvas, 8' 10 1/2” x 11' 8“. From page 87 of Miró: Selected Paintings, catalogue for exhibition at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., March 20–June 8 1980; 10 x 9”. Courtesy of Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York. This is the source for top right.
Summer 1985. Lucas Samaras, Draw, 1975/85. About the cover: The relief, made out of painted plaster on wire mesh, is dated 1975 and measures 13 x 11¼ x ½”. The original hologram of the “A” in the word “Draw” was produced in May 1985 through the cooperative efforts of Lucas Samaras, the Museum of Holography in New York, New York Holographic Laboratories, and Polaroid Corporation. The hologram that appears on the cover is a precise replica made by the Polaform process recently developed at Polaroid's Research Laboratories. Polaroid® Polaform™
December 1985. Solenevich, illustration for James Blish, A Life for the Stars (1962), last in “Cities in Flight” cycle. From Analog: Science Fact Science Fiction magazine, New York, September 1962. Inside Artforum logo: detail of illustration from Jules Verne, Robur le Conquérant (Robur the conquerer), 1886.
For tributes to Ingrid Sischy by Julian Schnabel, Barbara Kruger, and Laurie Anderson, see Artforum’s October print issue.
Ray Learsy and Melva Bucksbaum at the Granary in Sharon, Connecticut, 2013. Photo: Brian Wilcox.
IN 2013, Melva Bucksbaum curated “The Distaff Side” at the Granary, the private gallery and open art-storage space she shared with her husband, Ray Learsy. The exhibition’s title refers to the maternal line in a family and is appropriate for a show comprising only works by women artists. This exhibition—like her life in art—was about womanhood, and it served as a living will of sorts, a testimony to her belief in the power of contemporary art and the power of women in art. And the works included in the exhibition—by artists ranging from Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin, and Ana Mendieta, to Barbara Kruger, Kara Walker, and Laurie Simmons, as well as younger artists such as Dana Schutz, Isca Greenfield-Sanders, and Tauba Auerbach—exemplify this commitment.
Initially, Melva considered titling the exhibition “The Women,” as curator and friend Joan Simon wrote in an essay for the catalogue. Indeed, I believe so much of Melva’s attraction to and involvement in the art world had to do with her conviction that it was a place where she could act effectively as a woman and on behalf of women. In fact, she played a key role in the appointment of Simon as interim director of the Des Moines Art Center. Simon became a major force in the art world as an editor of Art in America, curator, and writer. She went on to curate exhibitions and/or write on artists Jenny Holzer, Lorna Simpson, Susan Rothenberg, and Joan Jonas, among others. Melva always admired Simon’s work and took great pride in her accomplishments. Melva saw herself as part of growing and influential network of women in the art world.
When Melva joined the Whitney Museum of American Art’s board in 1996, she was well aware that the museum was unique in its founding by a woman artist, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Inspired by Mrs. Whitney’s steadfast belief in artists, Melva acted definitively in support of the Museum’s mission to support the artists of our time. As chairman of the Painting and Sculpture Acquisition Committee, she helped acquire dozens of works to build the Whitney’s collection. And when we were short of funds to purchase a work, she regularly gave more herself and challenged others to do the same to make an acquisition possible. She and Ray donated numerous works over the years. One of her last acts on behalf of the Whitney was to donate Eric Fischl’s 9/11-inspired sculpture Tumbling Woman, 2002, because she wanted it to be downtown near where it had been conceived. Her establishment of the Bucksbaum Award at the Whitney in 2000 was intended not merely to recognize what artists had accomplished but to spur them on in taking risks in future work. Whether she had a particular interest in artists’ work at the time of their selection didn’t matter; she kept tabs on each and took pride in their successive accomplishments.
Eric Fischl, Tumbling Woman, 2002, bronze, 38 x 72 x 48". Photo: Brian Wilcox.
Melva understood the complexity of museums and the importance of a strong staff, and her support of women extended beyond artists, to those who worked in the arts—not just curators but across the institution—and in particular those at the Whitney. She was so pleased when Donna DeSalvo was appointed the first chief curator in the Whitney’s history and was a great fan of Elisabeth Sussman, with whom she shared a passion for particular artists such as Elaine Reichek. When Alexandra Wheeler returned to the Whitney from Exit Art to lead the Museum’s development team, Melva was delighted. She was moved to tears when she learned that her beloved daughter, Mary Bucksbaum Scanlan, endowed Carol Mancusi-Ungaro’s position of associate director for conservation and research in her mother’s name.
Knowing that the person most responsible for shaping a museum is the director (something she learned from her mentor, James T. Demetrion, the former director of the Des Moines Art Center and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, where she also served on the board), Melva was thrilled when Lisa Phillips, a Whitney curator, was selected as director of the New Museum in 1999 and when Thelma Golden, also a Whitney curator, was chosen as director of the Studio Museum in 2005; enthusiastically, she and Ray continued to support them in their new posts in the city. And although she was delighted when I became director, at the time, I detected that she was a tad let down that a woman had not been selected.
If she was disappointed, she more than made up for it with her commitment to my efforts on behalf of the museum. I will always be grateful to Melva, because she was one of the first to champion the notion of a downtown Whitney. When concern was raised about leaving the museum’s Upper East Side home, Melva—a downtown resident—was one of the few trustees who reassured others that we could have a great future in another location; accordingly, she was quick to make a major commitment and was appointed cochair of the Whitney’s capital campaign. Sadly, Melva was too ill to attend the opening dinner that she had talked about for months if not years. She was devastated, as we were. Melva emailed me a photograph of the dress she had picked out to wear—the one she had proudly worn to meet Queen Elizabeth II. One of the last times I saw her was but weeks ago. She was seated in a wheelchair, looking gaunt but gorgeous, eyes aglow with a huge grin, on a tour of the inaugural exhibition at the Whitney. As I leaned down to greet her with a kiss, she warded me off for fear of germs, but whispered triumphantly: “We did it!”
In the catalogue that accompanied “The Distaff Side,” Melva included Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman”; a few lines follow.
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
That was her.
Adam D. Weinberg is the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
James Gowan, 2004. Photo: John Goto.
You cannot overestimate James Gowan’s effect on his field as a teacher. The list of his students is formidable: Michael Hopkins, Peter Cook, Richard Rogers, and among the present generation of British architects Alex de Rijke and Stephen Bates. My encounter with him was as a final-year student in the Architectural Association School of Architecture in 1972. James was intellectually and creatively scrupulous and generous to a fault. This was very different from most other teachers at the school, who offered mostly rhetoric and a simplifying sense of certainty rather than actual intellectual guidance. His attitude toward students was one of high tolerance; he was open to whatever they brought to him. This was not laxity but a very Duchampian view of the value and possibilities of chance. He said that if a student brought him a scheme about white rabbits (and that would not have been unusual in the AA at the time), he would be able to turn it into architecture. And this was entirely believable, because his intellectual and imaginative skills had produced a number of exceptional and distinctly surreal built works, such as the famous Round House in St. David’s and the Schreiber house in London—the mute, abstract form of the latter juxtaposed against a circular, half-buried swimming pool. His intellectual fearlessness created space for creativity and originality within the orthodoxies of the AA and the other schools where he taught.
Indeed, no one should underestimate James’s value as an architect, either. In the 1970s, the University of Leicester’s engineering building he coauthored with James Stirling, completed in 1963, was widely regarded as a great work of architecture. Though today the building is remembered primarily as Stirling’s work, over the years I have increasingly seen the fundamental contribution that James made to the building, a contribution that was echoed in the invaluable lessons offered by his work and teaching after the breakup of his partnership with Stirling. Like Asplund and Lewerentz, Stirling had the ability to project his architecture, to sell it to the world, while Gowan’s mind was always on the architecture itself. Looking at his work now, you can see how perplexingly direct and fine his buildings are. In the Schreiber House, typical London brick fenestrated architecture has been reformulated into an abstract play of solid and void, bringing exceptionally fine daylight to the interiors and a measured degree of visibility to the outside world. Rectangular figures on the exterior spread through the interior of the house as precast elements in the ceiling, plaster paneling of the wall, furniture, and modeled handrails, with these resonances giving the entire composition repose and dignity. The house combines the coherence of eighteenth-century architecture with the existential sensitivity of the present time. Yet its cerebral visuality and cultural sophistication is unlikely to appeal to the consumerist bourgeoisie, professional architectural critics, or academic theorists. It is something else: a contribution to the inner workings of practice, and architecture is the better for it.