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Artnet Talk - David Diao recalls UCCA’s solo retrospective exhibition: “ I am honest about my jealousness, disappointment and ego.”

Source: Artnet Author: Danyu Xu Sep,2015

On the 18th of September 2015, UCCA hosted one of the biggest shows in its main exhibition space during the end of the year, only for David Diao’s solo retrospective exhibition.

David Diao was born in 1943 in Henry Alleyway in Chengdu; went to Hong Kong after the war and then immigrated to the States with his father. After that, he spent 40 years in New York, where he taught at Hampshire College, Cooper Union and Whitney Independent Study Program.

In the late 1960s, this famous young elite officially joined the art circle in New York; in 1978, David Diao’s artworks became the cover page of Artforum; in 1980, David encountered his period of stagnation and came back after 4 years of “working under embers.”

David Diao’s artworks were exhibited in dOCUMENTA 13. One of his solo shows was presented in Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in 2014. His art-pieces have been collected by Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Whitney Museum of American Art, SFMOMA and MoMA.

This solo retrospective will show 115 art works, collected globally, occupying all periods of David Diao’s career life from early period of Abstract Expressionism to later on exploration in narratology, iconography and texts, and including a specific serious of paintings for his refuge experience in the early 1950s in Hong Kong.


How do you start your art career?

Like Post Structalism, the painting originates when the idea comes. My father is an engineer. To be a good son, I chose the major of Medicine during the college, following my family’s will. During my freshman year, my grades in Chemistry and Mathematics were not well-pleasing. The unsatisfied GPA did not allow me to change my major in my small but excellent college, called Kenyon College in Ohio. Kenyon College had its strong standard that it did not include majors in Art or even Studio of Arts. Luckily, I was liberated especially by Joseph Albers, an artist graduated from Yale University, who taught art related classes in the department of Philosophy. I enrolled in all of his courses, which trained me with a strong foundational base for future creations.

The most important thing to become an artist is the self-confidence that you are confident enough to understand if failures are reasonable. You always need to try something new. Even if you failed, try again with another way. For my perspective, confidence is to be the only one among 500 students in the boy’s school that everyone would only look for you when they need a designer. Anything about designs or creatives was under my charge in my college. Since that, I noticed my self-allowance that I could be an artist.

However, I had to face my family’s incomprehension after the graduation. It was a high pressure so I moved to New York. Fortunately, I got a job in a gallery. Even I was not responsible for the sale. Instead, I was just the boy sleeping in the attic but it helped a lot for my arts’ pursuing. Imagining, it was a well-known gallery (The Kootz Gallery, 1945-1966), representing artworks by famous raising artists at the moment such as Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, William de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, William Baziotes, Ad Reinhardt and so on. Comparing their works and mine, we all faced similar problems that perhaps mine is better, which made me more confident. Before long, my art woks started to be shown in some exhibitions that my self-prediction became true—I couldn’t believe that sometimes you should step out but it was so hard.

Does the gallery still there?

The gallery was called Kootz Gallery (the owner is Samuel Kootz). It was one of first galleries in New York presenting abstract expressionism arts. Kootz was very smart that after the Second World War, he bought an expensive Cadillac as a gift for Picasso. Because of this generous present, Picasso still gave Kootz his new artworks every year, even he was cautious about relationship between the artist and the art agent.  

Do you recognize yourself as a member of an art style/group—among your peers, do you find similarities or commonalities with other creations or aesthetics?

Nobody can deny that we would be attracted to some processes. The art world was smaller before. The same circle, the same topic and the same thing happening around us, resulted in similar art works, exhibitions or critiques for artists.

For example, I used to live in SoHo, where was the first place for pioneering avant-gardes. During that time, the whole area would be dark when all lights in factories were closed. Lights shined from each window. I could directly point to a window and told you whose studio was there. Han Xiangning’s owned one of them.

Of course, I belong to a part of the art circle. But is does not mean a specific art movement because art movements are defined by outsiders, which help them feel more convenient to determine a certain art style. People usually categorize artists using red paints as “ The Red” without caring about why choose the color red. No artists would like to be categorized. To reject the concept that “artists are geniuses” was not initially proposed by me, but I embrace it into my creations.

Since overwhelming of Instagram with the concept of highlighting hashtag, do you mind being tagged as American born Chinese artist?

The place where I was born and the place where I lived, are obviously telling that I am just an American born Chinese artist. There are lots of American born Chinese artist, such as the water-painting artist-Dong Kingman who is not familiar by the public. Dong Kingman is the example of conventional understating for a classic American born Chinse artist who paints from the street and the peak of his career life of painting for the movie The World of Suzie Wong, which tells the sexualized, erotic and exotic story about a Hong Kong prostitute. That is not what I want. I want to become an artist like De Kooning, Rothko and Pollock. Among American born Chinese artists, there are some others become famous like Dong Kingman. The standard about quality of artworks does not exist. It’s all about lucks. I was lucky for receiving lots of helps when I was young that I never experienced “30 years of dormancy.” However, it is not like that when you get the ticket of the fast train, you can keep it forever. I don’t like it and I use it as the inspiration for creation. I totally understand it is the abstain but it is also the reason why I use it. When people say you can’t use it for anything, fuck that. I just want to do it.

Why Barnett Newman is important to you? What’s his specialty in your opinion?

Barnett Newman has not received appropriate comments and treatments for a long time among his peers. I just want to prove that they are wrong. In my perspective, his way to use the color, pattern and texts to tell the story is a great invention and a great contribution for arts.

I was hired as a temporary part-time labor for exhibition works by the Guggenheim Museum because of my previous work experience in the gallery(Barnett Newman: The Stations od the Cross: lema sabachthani.)I was so admired of his artworks at that time. As a young labor, all I should do was following the order to set up the exhibition space. We didn’t communicate a lot during this exhibition. Meanwhile, I was also a bartender at a restaurant where Barnett went to once and I served him with a drink. That was the only time for our small chat. He died so young at the age of 65 on the July 4th, 1970. I was teaching summer courses during that time and I made an art-piece to commemorate him. After that, he became one of my important series in art creations. According to my research, there are only survived among 100 art-pieces made by him. Such limited amount makes my creation possible. Because from 1944 to 1970, Barnett only made 4 to 5 pieces each year and he destroyed all his artworks, made before 1944, which he thought were not perfect.

Are all your artworks closely connected to personal feelings?

For my retrospective in Centre Pompidou, instead of using my own image, I preferred to use a public face. Therefore, I used Bruce Lee’s image with a mask to project how Asian men hide themselves. I respected Bruce Lee as a great hero as Jackson Pollock. Hence, I put these two images together and made an art-piece called Two Dragon.

As an artist, you never know what are audience’s true feelings. They are superficially polite. I am so curious why people could suddenly be interesting in one artwork. If I can figure out that 30 years earlier even though I could not control everything, a certain template for an artwork could sparkle the topic in the field (including gossips, critiques and so on).

I have not figured it out yet. It is not necessary for me anymore. Just let it be a mystery.

However, I don’t like the so-called “mysteriousness”. I am honest about my jealousness, disappointment and ego. My negative feelings and my darkness, open and expose myself. They are not only objectively presenting myself, but also specifically reflecting macro-social issues.

Among important moments in your life, how do you recognize your identity?

Everyone’s identity is not simplex. It changes. According to my research in philosophy, the society need education to stabilize it. One part of it need the church or institutions to consummate it. This value could be naturally and reasonably presented, but in facts, it has strong hierarchy system which is one of the most important things I learned from philosophy.  

You have been separated with your mother and siblings for 30 years since your birth in 1943 in Henry Alleyway in Chengdu. You haven’t returned to your homeland before 1979. That story only be memorized in your artworks until 2007, including the story in the 1950s for your refuge period in Hong Kong, which only started to be written down in 2011. I am curious how you handling these things in your mind and how they become parts of your creations?

It is so dramatical about my story leaving China. Someone tell me that I have been talking about it 40 years earlier but I haven’t painted it before. I always say I am lack of imaginations that all my inspirations are from books or from others.

I was lived on the top floor of an apartment in Tsim Sha Tsui with my grandparents in Hong Kong after fleeing from Chnegdu. We were so poor that we lost everything and my grandfather smoked everyday. I was just six years old. All I remember was climbing stairs when I could see the window on the second floor was open, which was must belonged to a rich family with rugs on the floor and servants in uniforms. I could imagine they wearing perfumes. Actually, that apartment was belonged to a famous Chinese actress, called Li Lihua, who went to Hollywood later on.

Afterwards, I saw a photo of my grandmother and me in a jeans T-shirt, which my father shipped to me from America. He went to the States since 1945 for his doctor degree. I usually received his packages from the States couple months. One of these packages have a photo of Li Lihua shot in the Hollywood wearing in jeans, which was fashionable for girls during that decade.

Then, I have been thinking how to describe these five-year in Hong Kong. I was so young that I never went to bars or stayed out late. So I find a map of that time, which shows the geographic location of Tsim Sha Tsui. Now, when I go back to the old location of that apartment, everything has changed. The sea in the front has been land reclamated where was the Kowloon Canton railway, used to be the only pathway connecting to mainland China. I record my memories in the school and in the church. Finally, I find the three important coordinate points in my life. I mark them down in the map and line them up called Three Points In A Line, which recalls the memory of a small-big world in my childhood.  


Why choose this moment to do the retrospective? How important it is to look back to review your previous artworks?

Artists want their art creations to move further, at same time want others to know what they have done before. That is contradictory. I am glad to show my artworks from different periods. Ed Ruscha once did a retrospective in California, called I Don’t Want No Retrospective: The Works of Ed Ruscha. The title directly shows how artists feel about retrospective with strong love-hate relationship.

Are you willing to talk about the auction story and the artwork made for this mistake?

In 2005, couple collectors from Taiwan commissioned Christie’s to sell two of my artworks. It was so stupid that they did not set up the reserve price. (Reserve price is the minimum amount that the owner of an item up for auction will accept as the winning bid in the auction. The reserve price prevents the auction from being won by a bidder who offers a price lower than the item's owner will accept.) Upon that, some galleries in New York canceled reservations of my artworks. I did some researches that because of this auction sell, two of my artworks have been underpriced and only sold at 7000 USD, which should be worth between 40000 to 70000 USD. This issue influenced my reputation and forced my artworks into lower prices. Other 5 to 6 artworks collected by these Taiwan collectors have been influenced too. I condemned to Christie’s about this but they never respond. However, they still rent some of my artworks for this exhibition.  

Because of this, I did not successfully sell any piece in the following 10 years. I decided to make this event into an art-piece instead of being angry. In private, I re-made a catalogue, which usually records biding prices. You can see that my estimated price is among 40000 to 70000 USD with my marks of “the hammered price is 7000 USD!” on the side at the page of my artwork entry. That is a really interesting comparison.

This artwork is called Hammered Black and Blue, which shows my protest. I did a show in New York called TMI(Too much information.)Some people saw this artwork. I did a research later and noticed that this painting was going to be sold in an auction in Hong Kong three days later. Therefore, I decided to buy it out this time.

For the auction house, the artwork was estimated among 15000 to 30000 USD because of last time underprice. Finally, I bought out this piece through phone calls at the price of 15500 USD. It was back to me and gave me a chance to re-create.

I put four similar drawings together. I write down information of its first time in exhibition and collection under the first one; the first time of auction under the second one; the second time of auction under the third one and the last one with information of reunion. This artwork got great feedbacks from last year exhibition in Whitney Museum. Since that, the price of my arts increased again. This one is more than 250000 USD right now. Collecting these works is not just collecting pieces of drawings. Instead, it is collecting stories.

Related Artists:
DAVID DIAO 刁德谦
Related Exhibitions:
David Diao
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