Painting the conceptual: David Diao’s major retrospective at UCCA in Beijing – interview
David Diao’s personal narrative takes on New York abstraction.
Art Radar speaks to the acclaimed New York-based artist as his major solo exhibition opens at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, presenting the most complete collection of the artist’s work to date.
A major solo exhibition of works by David Diao opened this month at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing (18 September – 15 November 2015). The retrospective speaks to the great interest currently surrounding this New York-based artist, from his participation in the Whitney Biennial 2014 to “David Diao: Front to Back”, a solo exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.
David Diao was born in Chengdu in 1943. He left China with his grandparents for Hong Kong at the age of six and a few years later, in 1955, joined his father in the United States. Entering the New York art world in the late 1960s, in the aftermath of abstract expressionism and its accompanying critical debates, his work moved from pure abstraction to a more conceptual working method with which he tackled many themes, including the varied histories of modernism, issues of racial identity as well as his family’s own history.
Art Radar speaks to Diao about his current show in Beijing, his fascination with modernism and identity politics – and what it’s like to have a second homecoming.
Congratulations on the opening of your show at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. This is not the first time that you exhibit your work in mainland China, however the current show is a major retrospective with more than 115 works spanning 50 years. Did you ever imagine that you would have a show of such a comprehensive scale staged here?
Absolutely not! The show took me entirely by surprise. I had no expectations of a show of this scale and scope. Philip Tinari, the director [of UCCA] came to visit me two years ago. I thought it was just a social call because we had met each other in 2004 or 2005 – and he had written the introductory essay of the show I had in Beijing in 2008. I have enormous respect for his scholarship and intelligence, and that is why I asked him to write the essay… and lo and behold, he came and the first thing out of his mouth was that he wanted to make this very comprehensive retrospective for me.
My first response was: why? Mostly because I did not feel the Chinese audience had a particular interest in my work and in fact, it was doubly my attitude that they might not be interested because the 2008 show – which was around the subject of my first lost home in Chengdu – was my attempt to create work that might appeal to a Chinese audience. And when in 2008 they did not give me the kind of attention or interest, I thought, it is useless so why Philip would you even want to do this show?
Even a cursory glance at your oeuvre will reveal your fascination with European and American modernist artists and architects such as Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Kazimir Malevich, Konstantin Melnikov and Alexander Rodchenko. In Lying 1 (2000) you are seen lounging on a chair with Pollock’s Number 32 (1950) in the background. Why this fascination with quoting historical works? Does this quoting of artists always denote an homage or does it sometimes also constitute a critique?
As I am thinking of these interviews over the past few days, people seem to be interested in my Chinese identity or identity as a question. I came to this notion that I am actually very Chinese in the sense that my art is so citational; it acknowledges the past and what is interesting is that some of the people I reference from the Western canon such as Malevich and Newman, are perfect examples of Western avant-garde thinking of destroying the past: that you don’t move ahead unless you begin at ground zero. The idea of beginning at ground zero is a kind of utopic impossibility. In my case, I am part of, came before or… I move forward on the shoulders of those who came before me.
And the last part of your question, does it denote an homage or constitute a critique… well, both. If I didn’t think enough of the person I wouldn’t bother citing them, but at the same time I want to differentiate and move beyond what they have done. I think that is clear in the work perhaps. Almost everything I do, I think you can always either right there or in retrospect see it as related to other work being done by other people. I don’t for a minute think that what I do is unique; I think what I do is part of a discussion that is ongoing.
I’d like to talk about the series Little Suprematist Prison (1986), which comprises 30 paintings of which 19 are showing at the UCCA. What are you trying to express with this series?
As a young artist, all of European modern art of the 20s and 30s were pretty much debased by the critical thinking of a lot of the people I learnt from. European art was considered too compositional, too pre-planned, and that they were somehow overtaken by abstract expressionism in its attempt to be non-compositional. On my own, I decided to make a study of them – but by doing so, I felt that I was going further and further away from the work that I was very interested in, and I had already been taught to believe the triumph of American painting.
I had already done quite a few works based on the canonical photograph of Malevich’s first showing of suprematism in 1915 and other works related to constructivism, to the geometrical art of the 20s, to the Russians. To heal that distance was to come back to something within the New York situation.
I came upon a painting by Robert Motherwell called The Little Spanish Prison, which is basically some vertical stripes with somewhere in the upper left corner a horizontal stripe that crosses over some of the vertical stripes. This painting seemed as canonical and of major import as suprematism’s square or cross. In my attempt to heal the rift that I had created in my own study of things between the American avant-garde and the European avant-garde, I decided to bring these two moments together. And it began with one that had just some black verticals and red peaking out, and it was not before three or four into the series that I made a painting that could be considered the key to the whole group – the one with ochre ground with a small Motherwell-looking Spanish Prison painting on the left and a suprematist cross painting on the right. Before I knew it, I ended up with 30 of them.
In 1989 you started to create paintings based on Alfred Barr’s 1936 flow chart showing the historical influences that formed modernism from 1890-1935 such as More Painters if Possible (1989), Geo and Non-Geo (1990) and What is Modern Painting? (1994). We see new materials and techniques enter your works such as the layering of vinyl text and screenprinted images onto monochrome fields of burnished acrylic paint. These works are different because they can be seen as a move away from your preoccupation with modernism as well as posit a critique of the theory of modern art as proposed by Barr. How is David Diao’s chart different from Alfred Barr’s?
Part of approaching the Alfred Barr chart is its ubiquity. It is almost the textbook idea of the formation of abstract art, because it happens to be a chart that was on the cover of the catalogue for the show he did in 1936 “Cubism and Abstract Art”. My first approach to that story is that I made a green blackboard with chalk, redoing more or less his chart. I meant to propose that his chart may now be seen as the canonical development of cubism and abstract art but in fact if you were writing it on a chalkboard it could be erased and other lines of development and names take the place.
So as I focus in on Alfred Barr and his chart, some other ideas came up, one of which is to notice the fact that he had bifurcated the history of cubism and abstract art into two branches, geometric and non-geometric. So I made a diptych. On one side I featured it as non-geometric space, with hand scrawls, curvilinear lines, freely drawn. On the other panel, it became straight edge ruled lines.
With another work I just did the lines with no names with the implication that other names, other movements can be put in. That painting was one of the first instances of me using vinyl, because I am not patient enough to go in and hand paint the letters and forms. It also indicates that my interest as a painter is in that burnished surface that you referred to. That, for me, is the painting part and other parts can be supplied by other means. By putting something mechanical and machine-made – the vinyl – I am actually drawing more attention to the handmade part as being handmade.
You continued this preoccupation with “statistical analysis” of information that one would usually expect to see on a spreadsheet, in your paintings overlaid with diagrams, charts, dates and figures. Several works in this vein solely relate to Barnett Newman, for example BN: The Paintings in Scale (Blue) (1991) and a more recent example BN: His Banner Year (By Shape) (2011). Would you say this ordering of information on the canvas has been a recurring theme for you throughout these years?
A lot of my works have the look of charts and diagrams and maps and so forth, and part of that is a deliberate attempt to counter a very common conventional idea of paintings being like by the great, great genius painter with painterly touch. By making work with specific information, diagrams, charts I mean to take away that supposed grandeur in that this is just stuff anyone can do.
And why do I pick Barnett Newman? I am very interested in Barnett Newman. I happened to see a catalogue from the Baltimore Museum, which lists the number of works he did by year and by medium. I noted that he made only about 120 paintings in 27 years. Which surprised me; this is an artist I consider important! This is an artist that has enormous influence on later art and he made so few works?
So at some point, I decided to image that in some way. I took the information from the chart [book] and blew it up. Of course, I also did it using formal elements from his work. For example, the colour refers directly to Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue [1966 and 1970]. That’s why the first three of them are red, yellow and blue, [and] also internally, in that first painting the zips being red, yellow, blue and the dates becoming a colour that refers to the zips.
I wonder if I could ask about your own identity. In 1979, after an absence of 30 years you returned to your birthplace Chengdu. You mentioned that you saw your mother and two younger siblings for the first time since you had left China. How was that experience? How did that trip affect you on a personal level and how did it affect your art making?
The family was split for 30 years. And it was very traumatic for me when I arrived [in Chengdu]. I experienced survivor’s guilt. Maybe that is the beginning of me looking for some Chinese connection because until 1979, I was 36. Until that age I was in the West, as a teenager and college age I wanted to be as American as I could possibly be.
So that trip affected your art making?
It also contributed to me stop making art for a few years. Part of it had to do with seeing the abject poverty in which my mother was living. I could not believe that my mother who grew up in a very comfortable household, was living in horrible, abject conditions. And that definitely contributed to me thinking why am I making these bourgeois objects – paintings – when my family has suffered so much?
As your work progressed, you started to employ humour when tackling the delicate issue of ‘otherness’. You made invitations to fictional exhibitions such as Carton d’invitation (1994) where instead of your own portrait photo you used a poster of Bruce Lee, and in another fictional invitation Slanted MoMA (1995) you use letters to make a face with ‘slanted eyes’. How has the climate changed in New York from when you first started exhibiting as an artist of Chinese descent in the 60s to now?
Well, first off, I used the Bruce Lee image because I did not want to use my own image. I thought, he is an icon of the Asian man, in a kind of more positive stance rather than the other stereotypical representation of Chinese men.
How has the climate changed since I first started as an artist in the 60s? Well, there were very few artists of Chinese descent that had any visibility. So I was very lucky to have had some visibility. All of us abstract artists were very fearful of being decorative, most of the colours we used were very muted, tertiary colours that were not readable as red, yellow, blue. They were often in-between colours. I was doing these works that happen to have vertical divisions that came from the paint rubbing against the support behind, built up into vertical lines. One critic wrote about them as if they were Chinese screens. I was quite offended by that, because at that point I did not want my work to be seen as “oriental” and actually it affected my work. After that I sought out a much higher intensity [of] colour. And now, of course, we have a lot more Asian artists and the world has become smaller in that sense.