David Diao’s Long Search for Painting’s Many Identities


In honor of David Diao’s artwork follow I assumed I should verify the databases of four New York museums to see if any have his operate in their collection. Just after all, he is in his late 70s, has been exhibiting in New York given that 1969, and was provided in the 1973 and 2014 Whitney Biennial. I uncovered that Diao has one painting courting from 1969 in the Whitney Museum of American Art and none in the Museum of Present day Art, Guggenheim Museum, or Metropolitan Museum of Artwork. It seems that the establishments that dwelling a lot of of the functions and artists he has responded to have not embraced his ongoing critique of Western abstraction’s several legacies.

Diao’s invisibility reminded me that, shortly immediately after I moved to New York in 1975 and on into the late 1980s, I would frequently be identified as “David” when I was in Soho on the lookout at art. Once, the dealer Leo Castelli walked previous me on West Broadway and said “Hello David,” in that formal way he experienced. Even individuals who understood me would have lapses and get in touch with me “David” and then glance sheepishly absent and hurry on. Anxious as I was about discovering my possess identity, I ponder if those incidents produced me unwilling to compose about Diao’s work.

Critics who have championed Diao’s career, which began with his 1st solo display at Paula Cooper in 1969, tend to emphasize that his trajectory can neither be characterised nor encapsulated, at minimum in conditions of type or subject matter make any difference. Although this is accurate, such wondering fails to address that Diao has been investigating painting’s identities considering that the outset of his occupation, typically with a critique of the prevailing orthodoxy (i.e., Clement Greenberg and Donald Judd in the late 1960s and ’70s) as an integral element. Diao’s fascination in the id of the thing he investigates, alongside with his resistance to those people imperialist attitudes that characterized American mid-century artwork criticism, testifies to his recognition that he is an outsider by virtue of staying born in Chengdu, China, in 1943, and emigrating from Hong Kong to the United States in 1955 to live with his father (as his mom and two more youthful siblings had been not able to depart China). Sometimes this feeling of remaining an outsider was overt in his art other occasions it was delicate.

David Diao, “Rietveld’s Berlin Chair elements on crimson, yellow, blue” (2021), acrylic on canvas, 45 x 65 inches

Diao combines a unique set of characteristics amid artists engaged with geometric abstraction he is conceptual, uncertain, amusing, autobiographical, racially conscious, terse, biting, coldly satirical, fascinated in sensuous nevertheless subject-of-point surfaces, ready to expose his course of action, contradictory, and resistant to developing a signature style as an aesthetic commodity. I consider the good reasons for this resistance are inextricable from his recognition that he would generally be regarded as a non-native. 

In a 1963 job interview with Gene Swenson, Andy Warhol mentioned: “Somebody mentioned my life has dominated me. […] I preferred that plan.” This is how Hal Foster comprehended Warhol’s Remark in Pop (2005): “If you can’t defeat it, be a part of it additional, if you enter it totally, you could expose it you might expose its enforced automatism by your very own abnormal instance.” Foster’s observation performs if you are a white male artist, but you are unable to be part of a thing that will not have you. 

The artwork globe has hardly ever very recognised what to do with Diao’s exposures, and — as he is aware of and has dealt with with deadpan wit — his occupation is a single that has bumped regularly into a glass ceiling. He is a conceptual painter whose fascination in dates and record, among the substantially else, defines a territory that borders that of the ten years-older artist On Kawara (1932-2014) and the practically two-decade more youthful Byron Kim (born 1961). It appears to be to me that Diao has been the minimum understood of this team of notional painters. This could possibly be partly simply because he has pursued many independent and overlapping strands related to history, race, biography, pop lifestyle, language, art background and its exclusionary beliefs, just to title the most obvious. 

David Diao, “Rietveld’s Berlin Chair parts forming a circle, Green” (2021), acrylic on canvas, 83 x 84 inches

In his present exhibition, David Diao: Berlin Chair in Items, at Postmasters Gallery (January 29-March 12, 2022), Diao’s ostensible subject is the “Berlin” chair, built by Gerrit Rietveld in 1923 and created and painted by Gerard Van de Groenekan. The Berlin Chair, built of eight solid oak panels slash to a specific dimension, with just about every board lacquered in black, grey, or white, is the initially asymmetrical piece of home furnishings that Rietveld created. A copy of the chair is suspended from the gallery ceiling. 

The initial operate that I encountered in this exhibition of 13 paintings was “Rietveld’s Berlin Chair parts on red, yellow, blue” (2021). Towards a floor divided into a few equivalent locations of crimson, yellow, and blue, Diao has overlaid the eight separate elements, each and every painted monochromatically in black, gray, and white, and aligned vertically like a column in a chart. What arrives across 1st is the enjoyment of the portray. Its floor is a limited, palpable skin of acrylic that has been laid down in layers by a palette knife. This blend of tactility, sensuality, and the non-gestural is also genuine of Rietveld’s chairs, as perfectly as Barnett Newman’s collectively titled series of substantial paintings, Who’s Fearful of Purple, Yellow and Blue, in which he labored asymmetrically for the to start with time, and paintings built by Brice Marden in the 1970s that referred to Newman. In truth, one particular of the several pleasures of “Rietveld’s Berlin Chair areas on red, yellow, blue” is its mixture of European and American sources, suggesting they are not as independent as a lot of have claimed.  

One critical to understanding Diao’s art is that he has long worked with a reductive geometric vocabulary, even though generally pushing back in opposition to any of postmodernism’s reductive narratives, denying subjectivity. Diao is engaged with what Marcel Duchamp named the retinal, even as he is dedicated to embracing the intellectual and “[putting] painting after all over again at the services of the intellect.” This is how Duchamp set it in an interview with James Johnson Sweeney: “There was no assumed of anything at all over and above the physical side of painting. No notion of freedom was taught. No philosophical outlook was launched.”

David Diao, “Rietveld drives BMW” (2021), acrylic on canvas, 72 x 72 inches

What last but not least distinguishes Diao from other conceptual artists is that he under no circumstances claimed to be literal or purely goal. Like an sick-behaved visitor, he muddied the circumstance anywhere he went, significantly by continuously implicating himself in his art, which contradicts as well as critiques conceptual art’s declare to objectivity.

The elegance of this exhibition is how significantly Diao does and evokes with a restricted vocabulary of eight proscribed, rectangular, black, grey, and white shapes arranged versus summary grounds that go from monochrome to checkerboard. In “Rietveld’s Berlin Chair sections forming a circle, Green” (2021), his placement of the various rectangles invitations viewers to see the circumference of the circle in their mind’s eye. This interplay in between the seen and invisible is not a territory affiliated with geometric abstraction or conceptual painting. 

In “Rietveld’s Berlin Chair parts describing a sq.-magenta” (2021), he goes a move more by arranging the 8 bands in four kitty-corner pairings to describe the edges of a square, causing our focus to oscillate among the bands and the area they enclose. That creative playfulness with constrained implies is 1 of the items that sets Diao apart from other artists partaking with modernism’s utopian, purist legacy, particularly because he does not anchor his operates to a supporting narrative. The other compelling matter about these paintings is the seamless merging of sensual surfaces with rich colour, these kinds of as magenta. Immediately after Diao is pleased with the floor, he attracts in pencil where by the bands will go and then fills in the shade, working with a palette knife to use paint and tape to hold the edges straight. When he peels off the tape, just one can still see the pencil lines, bringing to thoughts Harold Rosenberg’s description of an “Action Painting”: “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an occasion.” 

David Diao, “Rietveld’s Berlin Chair elements in Katsura 2-blue and yellow” (2021), acrylic on canvas, 77 x 60 inches

This I feel is Diao’s actual achievement. For all their seeming simplicity and visible pleasure, there is a large amount to unpack in these paintings. The moment you begin unpacking them, you hardly ever know wherever you may well conclude up. Acquire Rietveld’s unassembled, not comfortable, asymmetrical chair, for illustration. Did Diao pick it only since of its geometric vocabulary? Or was it also, as I commenced to imagine, a indicator that the artwork world’s institutions have in no way invited him inside of? 

David Diao: Berlin Chair in Pieces continues at Postmasters (54 Franklin Avenue, Tribeca, Manhattan) via March 12.

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