This review of David Diao: Front to Back (as well as discussion between the artist and curator Richard Klein) at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT is a draft that will not ever be complete. I took to heart Diao’s discussion of crossed out type as a way to present text as there but no longer there. This draft will never be a final draft.
Ad Reinhardt separated his satire of the art world from his work as a painter. The iron curtain drawn between them was an old-fashioned notion that to be a critic/satirist, one must do these things outside of the studio. David Diao may not have begun as an artist/satirist/historian but it is the world he now inhabits. Diao’s show entitled Front to Back at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum is a history lesson. Starting with the work here and ending in dusty books and dissertations, one could learn the history of modernism, from Malevich to the persistent gossip of the Cedar Tavern. His dialogue with other art and the idiosyncratic life of art objects, makes reading his work like reading a scholarly article packed with footnotes. Favorite topics include, but are not limited to Modernism, Architecture, Typography, Archives and Race. Diao stands at the intersection of creative authorship and critical response. No painting is only one of these things.
His inclusion in the 2014 Whitney Biennial may have been duly deserved, but also landed him in the critical discourse surrounding the archivist/artist practice. In short, David Diao is no ones favorite artist because everyone is stealing from David Diao. It’s no small trick of the market that Postmasters gallery, who has dutifully shown his work for nearly 30 years, shows William Powhida’s work that rants against the same machine. Diao has been the unloved child of various markets since the late 60’s. His strong start with Paula Cooper and Leo Castelli granted him early exposure to success and notoriety. Diao taught at Hampshire College while I was there (I was not his student). He showed at the Aldrich while I was a docent there. I have Diao on my brain for the last few years since seeing is excellent Postmasters show TMI as well as the 2010 Paula Cooper show that paired him with his single friend from his year teaching at Hampshire, Walid Raad.
At the Aldrich, Double Rejection, 2012 is a moment of historical reenactment. Though this term is usually saved for men in costume playing war, the artist has played out an impossible scene. A reenactment is a revision, no matter how authentic the battle cry seems. An image of a painting of his from 40 years ago hangs in a space in MoMA which no longer exists. The effigy of this past painting has been placed in a lemon monochrome field on the right and the Philip Johnson conference room at the Museum (demolished in 1979) on the left. The artist had this past painting within a painting considered for acquisition by MoMA in the early 1970’s. It was rejected. Diao imagines it hanging in a place that once existed, yet now only in archival documents. This doubled painting isn’t the reason for the title though, it is the rejection by MoMA of the painting as well as the room it is in. It’s a reminder of that phrase occasionally offered by law men and wronged people in a movie, “lock him up and throw away the cell”. Diao’s imagined space is austere, though the painting within the floating field of yellow is jubilant. The monochrome of the original image is all grays like a plate in a book. Whatever truth was, it no longer is.
The flashy stand out work here is from 1971-1973. Diao made paintings with one stroke. Poured paint was smoothed by industrial cardboard tubes, and if the result was desired, the painting was either kept or additional paint was added. Rather than Richter’s fussily scarred and spread paintings, like so much technicolor cathode ray TV screen fuzz, Diao’s make you think Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko but the lack of painted line is obvious. Neither poured nor dripped, the dragged paint evokes impossible fields and sunsets, as though Hunter S. Thompson was prepared to spend his mescaline days frolicking there. Yellows with saffron-orange tendency abut deep pre-star shine, moonless blues in From the Wings, 1972.
Diao waited many years to address a revision that he had felt ought to be made with Synecdoche (1993). After reading a catalog essay addressing Gerhard Richter, Diao decided to take Buchloch’s essay, blow it up, and revise it with crossed out text and his own images applied over Richter’s. The cross out or strikethrough serves the purpose of leaving the thing it is altering, like fingerprint evidence of a crime. His professorial red pen takes objection to an espoused history and the result is challenging. Its a substantial display of personal history taking charge of the larger practice.
Diao spent many of these years exploring his personal history. Resume (1991) is very much this same idea. A visual exploration of his exhibition history, Resume boldly, but not brightly, displays Diao’s storied past and quieter mid-career resume. The palette knife-made matte blue surface is a monochrome that would do Reinhardt’s Black paintings proud. Dates from 1969 to 1989 read left to right at the top of the multi-panel painting. Over top of the blue, laid out beneath each date, a graphite-colored cut vinyl application states the location and works displayed at exhibitions within that year. Though opacity or contrast could have been employed for clarity, Diao chose to make it less legible with two dark colors and the gloss of the vinyl. Though opacity or contrast could have been employed, Diao chose to make it less legible by employing two dark colors and the gloss of dark vinyl rather than flat screenprinted text, which certainly could have served the same function.
At the exhibition opening, Klein and Diao discussed the intervention made to Resume for the Aldrich entry space. Klein decided that to show the piece at the proper eye level height, they could split the panels on either side of the entrance door so entrants would walk into the artists resume to enter his show. Diao thought this was a stroke of genius. Both Diao and I think this was a stroke of genius. This tableau is a tombstone, a writ record in dark colors in memoriam of a career, maybe thought stillborn but far from it.
Diao and Klein hashed out race (Diao using an image of Bruce Lee over an image of himself), of influence (Lions of the New York School) and of the market (Diao described some of his recent auction records as tragic). With great humility and humor Diao said “I don’t usually have any ideas.” The context for this was the anecdote of landing in the middle of an outburst that pitted Reinhardt against Barnett Newman. The impact was of that of an artist as scholar, waiting for a great or amusing topic to float up like cream, ripe for skimming. In reality Diao plumbs the depths of our recent art history for the stories beneath. Like a true muckraker, he disturbs the order of the mainstream.
In a last bit of kind verbiage in his catalog essay, Richard Klein states that “Diao’s deadpan composure when portraying the vagaries of the art world casts him as a Buster Keaton-like figure, perhaps downtrodden, but never pitied.” Maybe Reinhardt would have loved the comparison and given us a proper sketch of the two together, Diao with his Bruce Lee karate chop stance and Keaton, eyes wide, skimmer being slowly removed and placed atop Diao’s head.
– Jeff Bergman, July 2014