In and Out

New York artist David Diao '64 finds a career that is socially relevant

It's not unusual for young artists to emerge from college feeling like outsiders as they struggle to establish their professional careers. David Diao '64 was no different, but he did have some experience adapting to unfamiliar surroundings at that point in his life.

Diao emigrated to the United States from China in 1955. He joined his father, a graduate student who was already in the United States, but his mother and two siblings remained in China. "You have to understand, a lot of my trajectory has to do with being an immigrant," he says. "How was I going to divest myself of everything that made me foreign?"

Today, Diao could well be described as an art-world insider. He was honored as one of "three bold newcomers" in a 1972 Time magazine article by Robert Hughes, who cited "a peculiar density and resonance" in Diao's work, "always controlled just this side of visual cacophony." He has been awarded several major grants - a Guggenheim in 1973 and three National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1980, 1985, and 1990. Reflecting on Diao's more recent work, New York painter Michael Brennan wrote, "Diao's conceptual approach is important, but I think that his deep knowledge of painting is what makes these works most interesting."

Diao began acquiring this deep knowledge at Kenyon, but not immediately. His father, trained as a civil engineer, had preferred a similarly "practical" career for his son. "He said, 'You can always make art, as long as you're doing something substantial'" for work. So Diao began studying medicine, but with disastrous results. "I spent the next three years of my college career just repairing the damage of that first year," he admits.

Diao credits the College, and instructors Joseph Slate in art and Virgil Aldrich and Cyrus Banning in philosophy, for giving him the time and space to grow up. Slate in particular, he says, helped him get "the start of a volition ... that one could make art in a way that's not just an avocation."

After graduation, Kenyon classmate Jeff Way helped Diao land a job at a gallery working as a handyman and "jack of all trades." It wasn't exactly the toughest job in the world. "I had time to read every art magazine in the world going back to 1935," Diao remembers.

And it wasn't exactly a run-of-the-mill gallery, either. Diao worked at the Sam Kootz Gallery, which was one of two outlets in America for the work of Pablo Picasso and one of the first to feature abstract expressionists of the New York School.

"I was actually working in one of the most important galleries in the art world," Diao says. "I had a day-to-day relationship with real art, art considered of the first rank. And I looked at it and said, 'Well, that's not that much better than the art I'm talking about and trying to do.' I realized what I was doing can be considered serious."

Diao's portfolio on leaving Kenyon was similar to many young artists', with "each painting trying to do each movement in the history of art." So his first task was to assemble a coherent and consistent body of work.

"I came up with a group of paintings that learned from the most advanced art of the time and hoped in some way to further stretch it," he says. "You have to understand that the art world was much smaller then, so whenever anybody did something, everybody knew about it."

Diao describes his paintings at that time as emerging from a pure formalism to include cultural "pointers and directions." The works themselves were still entirely abstract. One of his principal methods was to spread paint using a long cardboard tube, "mechanizing the artist's touch" while maintaining a lush texture.

"People have this unconscious notion that something clean-edged and evenly painted has to do with rationality, and something loosely painted implies expression," he explains. "Well, this tries to blow that apart."

At the same time, he points to the paintings' titles as an indicator of his interest in connecting his works to their cultural context.

A hallmark of abstraction at the time "was that it was totally sufficient and autonomous to itself," even to the extent that abstract paintings should not have titles. Diao, however, named his paintings after prominent books or films: The Wealth of Nations, Tiger's Eye, The Triumph of American Painting. Yet they remained ambiguous in intent and raised intriguing questions. Did The Wealth of Nations refer to Adam Smith or to art as a society's cultural wealth? Was The Triumph of American Painting a reference to an influential work on abstract expressionism, or was it, as Diao asks, "arrogating to myself this title?" By balancing that ambiguity, the titles heightened the works' social relevance.

"At the time, painting was trying to be about nothing but painting," Diao notes. "I never thought of anything I did as unique to myself. Whatever I do, if it has any value at all, participates in bigger issues than David Diao the painter."

He began to see the limitations of formalism as he was influenced by Russian avant garde artists like Rodchenko and Malevich, who "never saw what they did as outside of materialism." The Russians worked in both the so-called "high" art of painting as well as the "low" arts of advertising and book design, and in that way also influenced Diao.

Diao's paintings evolved to include overtly representational elements, and recent works incorporate photographic images silk-screened onto painted canvases. The first was a still of Bruce Lee, and another featured a self-portrait posed in front of one of Jackson Pollock's signature paintings.

These works continue to reflect Diao's beginnings as an abstract impressionist in their attention to the nuances of color layered on top of color, as well as in their scale - a typical canvas might be six feet by ten feet. And they continue to transgress boundaries between high and low art, between abstraction and the material world, between the very earnest approach Diao takes to philosophy and theories of art, and his equal willingness to find amusement in it - a kind of seriousness that hasn't forgotten delight.

When Diao's not putting this approach into practice, he's passing it along to students, including those participating in the Whitney Museum of American Art's independent study program. "If I hadn't been involved in teaching I would have been a more solipsistic artist," Diao says. "Since I've been teaching, I've had to live in the world. I've had to come up with the language to describe what I do. It brings me to the present - otherwise I might have been stuck in 1968."

In one sense, though, Diao is still an outsider. He admits he has the "luxury" of being in the tiny minority of those who actually earn a living making art and have the freedom to devote their full attention to their work. "I really love being immersed in that blue that I've been working on the last few days," he says, pointing in the direction of his studio. "It's not there - it's getting there - I need to be swimming in it."

-Christopher Hammett '88

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