David Diao 刁德谦

She Was a Neighbor, David Diao, 2014

David Diao’s exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, running from 19 September 2015 to 15 November 2015, is the first major retrospective of the artist’s paintings.  The exhibition is representative of the artist’s work over the past 50 years, undertaking to show work from “all periods and subjects” and includes over 90 works gathered from private collections and institutions in North America, Europe and Asia. 

Diao’s paintings are rich with multifaceted references to the intellectual history of art - Modernism and the lineage of Abstract Expressionism, process, originality, authorship and identity have all formed the subject matter of Diao’s work.   The influential American art critic Clement Greenberg attempted to define Modernism as “the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence” and whilst Greenberg later came to revise his definition of modernism, Diao’s paintings have been a persistent critical presence within the art system to which he belongs.

Diao was born in 1943 in Chengdu.  In October 1949, Diao was taken to Hong Kong by his grandparents, unexpectedly separating him from his mother and siblings for 30 years.  After five years in Hong Kong, he joined his father who was working as a structural engineer in the United States.  Diao studied philosophy at Kenyon College in Ohio, a liberal arts college, after initially gaining a scholarship to study pre-med.  After graduating in 1964, Diao took up a variety of part-time jobs in restaurants, bars, and as a gofer on movies, to allow him the time to work in the studio. He first worked as a “sweeper-upper” at the Kootz gallery, one of the first galleries to show Abstract Expressionist work.  When the gallery closed, Diao went to work at the Guggenheim Museum  helping to install exhibitions, and worked at the Richard Feigen  Gallery for a short time.  As a result, he was able to view the work of other artists and saw that his own studio work was not less ambitious.  These experiences  gave him access to the New York art world and “confidence that I was doing something possibly as interesting as the work of some of the people I admired”. (interview with Matthew Deleget, Bomb Magazine, Fall 2015)

Diao has exhibited extensively in the United States and Europe, and his work has been shown in a small number of exhibitions in Asia, notably in Hong Kong, Taipei and Beijing.  The Ullens show came about after a visit to Diao’s New York studio by Philip Tinari, director of the UCCA, in the autumn of 2013 who had known his work since the 2nd Guangdong Triennial of 2004.  This major survey of his work will give audiences the opportunity to see the full spectrum of the artist’s work across five decades, from the artist’s early “squeegee” paintings from the early 1970s right through to canvases executed specially for the Ullens show which reference the years that Diao spent as a child in Hong Kong.

The baseline for the artist’s large, meticulously executed canvases, are the highly worked surfaces created by pressing and smoothing paint into the grain of the fabric with a palette knife.  Working with large-scale canvases was something that his expansive Tribeca studio enabled him to do, with Diao describing the over-sized paintings that many artists were making at the time as the “unconscious legacy coming from Abstract Expressionism” (Deleget, Bomb Magazine, Fall 2015)

Double Rejection, 2012, references one of Diao’s early abstract works Triptych, 1972 which had never been exhibited publicly until an exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in 2014.  In the late 1960s, Diao had sought to increase the scale of his works, but his attempts had resulted in an increase in the size but not the scale of the paintings.  His solution was to increase the size of the marks - the gestures of the artist’s hand, that he was making on the painting to create a “one-to-one” relationship between the mark and the canvas, rather than cropping his paintings in order to find the final work, as artists were advised to do by Greenberg.  Triptych, 1972 was painted using discarded cardboard tubes used for rolls of fabric found close to where he lived, scraping, rolling or dragging repeated layers of paint across the canvas.  It was also a painting that had been considered but ultimately rejected for acquisition by the board of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA).  Both the board’s decision and the destruction of the 1951 Philip Johnson-designed boardroom where the meeting had been held became the subject of Double Rejection, 2012.

Black and White with Chair, 1984-8 and Glissement, 1984, use a photograph of Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 exhibition 0:10 The Last Futurist Exhibition where Malevich exhibited his first Black Square, as a template. Noting the ubiquitous reproduction of the installation photograph in art books to pin point the beginning of abstraction, Diao has remarked that the image itself has almost come to “stand for some putative ur-moment of abstraction” (from Radical geometry: artists reflections on Kazimir Malevich, Maryam Omidi, Calvert Journal, July 2014).  In Diao’s works, the photograph is distilled to leave only the outlines and the geometric shapes created by Malevich. 

Breaking taboos, Diao has also controversially used his own career in his works.  Considering how one might document or review the life of an artist, Diao created a series of paintings including Resumé, 1991 organising data relating to his own career as a chart spanning 22 feet, and Sales, 1991, illustrating the artist’s sales record year by year by using a red dot magnified to monumental proportions.  After putting his sales history on public display, Diao turned to creating invitation cards to exhibitions in museums which he believed would never show his work such as MoMA.  Based on another invitation card originally designed for an exhibition of the work of Joseph Beuys, Carton d’invitation, 1994 is a large-scale painting of an invitation card to a fictitious exhibition of Diao’s work at the Centre Pompidou, Paris.  Standing in for Diao is an image of Chinese American actor Bruce Lee.  Despite warnings from friends that his intentions would be misread, the work was generally well received.  “I employed fantasies of what I would like to happen rather than what actually happened.  …As long as I still held out hope that MoMA would come knocking, I don’t think I could have so openly revealed my desire to be embraced by them.” (Interview with David Diao from Fractured Fairy Tales 1996, Lisa Pasquariello, republished in David Diao & Zhao Gang, Hanart  TZ Gallery, 2005).

When asked for his views on the first major retrospective of his work being held in Beijing, he says that the event has given him a sense of homecoming, although he has no deep attachment to being Chinese.  “From the few instances of showing in Asia, I never felt that the local audience really responded to the work.  As my subjects mostly relate to Modernism in the West and New York painting, I did not expect the viewer in Taiwan, China or Hong Kong to be as engaged”.  For his show at the Courtyard Gallery in Beijing in 2008, Diao decided to tackle a subject that he had carried with him for 50 years, the loss of his childhood home.   “In order to meet [Asian viewers] half way, I finally took up the subject of my demolished first home in Chengdu.  It had festered in the recesses of my consciousness for over 50 years but I resisted dealing with it because I thought it was too personal.  But here is a subject that a Chinese person might share as we all lived through the same turbulent half century.”

In the absence of any photographs of the house, the Da Hen Li House series, named after the family home, reconstruct the house and its history from fragments of memory recalled by older relatives, anecdotes, sketches and documents.  Painted against a green background, recalling the green grass of a tennis court, or the green of a blackboard in a classroom, the text from I lived there until I was 6, 2008 forms a candid and eloquent starting point for the series:

“I lived there until I was 6.  When I returned to Chengdu 30 years later, it had just been demolished.  There are no photographs.  The only certain scale to rub up against my memories was the tennis court.  I have since uncovered ciphers of its having been”.

For the Ullens exhibition, Diao has created new works based on his years spent in Hong Kong from 1949 to 1955, a period which holds few memories for him “I actually don’t remember much from those years other than the very limited horizon of a child”.  One painting that is not in the exhibition Three Points a Line show the geographical boundaries of Diao’s world as a child, marking his home, church and school on a map of Tsim Sha Tsui, all located within a few blocks.  The painting She was a neighbor, 2014 uses a photograph of Diao as a child and a cover of a magazine called The Rambler depicting singer and movie star Li Lihua, who starred in Hong Kong’s first colour film, Blood Will Tell (1955) and subsequently worked in Hollywood for a short time.  Li Lihua lived in the same apartment block as the Diao family.  Recalling the reduced circumstances of their home in Hong Kong, Diao remembers walking past the open door of her apartment - “In contrast with our squalor, her place would have perfume wafting out, servants paddling around in white uniforms, polished wood...” (Deleget, Bomb Magazine, Fall 2015).  In She was a neighbor, 2014 the photographs are placed against a sky blue background traced with an outline of Hong Kong, a yellow dot marking where Diao used to live.  In the photograph, Diao wears a Red Ryder t-shirt based on the popular American cowboy comic strip in symmetry with Li Lihua’s jaunty cowgirl costume, reinforcing the link between Hong Kong and America “that painting of me and Li Lihua entitled She was a neighbor could also be called Dreaming of America.  It led me to compare and contrast the two locales, Kowloon and Lower Manhattan”. 

 The works reference both Hong Kong and the United States, juxtaposing maps of the Kowloon Peninsula as it was in the 1950s and Manhattan Island in Kowloon/Lower Manhattan, 2014Chatham Rd to Franklin St, 2014 bears the addresses of Diao’s homes in Kowloon and New York painted against a horizontal expanse of smooth green canvas. On his use of green, Diao has spoken of his attraction to green blackboards in classrooms, where information is disseminated, erased or reformulated (interview with Andrew Russeth, 2014 Whitney Biennial).  By analogy, Diao sees painting as a place to focus one’s attention.  Through uncompromising observation and analysis, Diao draws attention to the art system and the mechanism of how art history is written using the trajectory of his own career and the legacies of artists and architects such as Kasimir Malevich, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Philip Johnson and more recently Konstantin Melnikov as his subjects.  The landmark Ullens retrospective offers viewers access to Diao’s work on an unprecedented scale and we are all the richer for it.

Davina Lee

Davina Lee © 2015

This article was first published in Chinese in Vogue China, November 2015 issue.