David Diao

2015.9.19 - 2015.11.15 Great Hall

By UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art

The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) is proud to announce the solo exhibition David Diao, running from 19 September to 15 November, 2015. The retrospective brings together 115 artworks drawn from collections spanning North America, Europe, and Asia, the artist’s largest exhibition to date. Through his symbolic painterly rhetoric, David Diao transforms the formal language of New York abstraction through his personal narrative.

David Diao Installation view 05 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

From the 1960s until the late 70s, Diao sought to build on and break through the complex theoretical foundation laid by his artistic predecessors. Diao looked to the formal language of abstract painting, reflecting on and revising the predominant aesthetic discourses through his work. In works like Wealth of Nations (1972), Diao repurposed cardboard tubes discarded by garment factories as tools to apply paint to the canvas, disempowering superficial notions of the “aura” of the artist’s brushstroke. He would paint over the bilateral canvas again and again until arriving at a satisfactory result—a working method at odds with the Greenbergian painting principles that were taken as consensus at the time. By naming abstract paintings after well-known books and movies in lieu of the standard “Untitled,” Diao referenced objects external to the picture plane, a practice verboten in doctrinaire formalism that would inevitably risk being labeled kitsch.

David Diao Installation view 08 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Morocco (1975) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Wealth of Nations (1972) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Diao took a brief hiatus, partly due to what the artist felt was an unresolvable crisis facing abstraction and formalism. It was at this time that Diao abandoned entirely self-referential artworks, incorporating narrative as a thematic buttress to the painting’s composition. The 1984 work Glissement, which appears in this exhibition, is a landmark piece from this period.

David Diao Installation view 13 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Himself an adroit observer of modernist art, Diao began to see art and the history that surrounds it as a game, as something to be engaged in contest. In the Little Suprematist Prisons, Diao attempts to reconcile the formal styles of Kazimir Malevich and Robert Motherwell in the same compositions, putting the two painters into a putative conversation. Though often considered within the same modernist tradition, Russian abstract art, once at the forefront of European abstract painting, was largely dismissed in Clement Greenberg’s Cold War-tinged narrative of formalism.

David Diao Installation view 11 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

In Glissement, Diao makes his explicit first reference to the history of Modernism, appropriating, abstracting, and redeploying an image that documents one of that history’s key moments. Based on the 1915 photograph of Kazimir Malevich’s first intensely spatial installation of his own Suprematist works in “The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10”—an image included in nearly every history of abstract art—Diao’s painting distills the installation to a collided constellation of flat shapes floating in space, some showing the contours of the paintings rendered in trapezoidal perspective, others showing only the forms present on the canvases without the outline of the stretcher itself. Diao would go on to make many variations of Glissement, alternately reconfiguring it to be hung in a corner like the one depicted in the Malevich photograph, separating and stacking the forms into an assemblage nodding to Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, using newspapers in different languages to represent the canvases, and adding back the Thonet chair which was in the source photo (Black and White with Chair).

Glissement (1984) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Although Diao continues to consider himself an abstract painter, after 1984 he “no longer made paintings that referred only to themselves. Every work has a back story.” He refers to Malevich’s manifesto-like presentation in Petrograd as “the putative Ur moment of abstraction.” The second painting Diao made after a hiatus of several years in the early 1980s, its title refers to the philosophical concept of slippage found in the writings of Lyotard and Derrida, then beginning to be widely read in American universities. The slippage here is multivalent—of one image (the photograph) into the painting, but also of a particular moment in geometric abstraction into the larger history of Modernism. For Diao, this way of working was a breakthrough: “It was liberating Malevich’s
21 paintings from photographic space that allowed me to float them as shapes in space . . . it eventually led me to be able to float almost anything within the frame of the painting.” Henceforth, the history of modernism, as well as the conflicts and contestations that surround it, would become a constant theme in Diao’s work.

Black and White with Chair (1984-1988) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Using the verso of a painting he made while still a student, Diao made The View from Past 50: 1/2 Full, 1/2 Empty, on his fiftieth birthday. The title of the painting is borrowed from the Sidney Tillim article entitled “The View from Past 50,” published in the April 1984 issue of Artforum. According to Diao, “Mostly I just took the title because I like the sound and sense of it.” Conventionally, paintings have an arrow on the verso indicating the proper orientation for hanging, but Diao’s idea here was to indicate that it can hang in either direction. (He later employed the same strategy in BN: Which Way Up?, based on the cover for a brochure published for a twoman show of Newman and DeKooning which can be read from either direction.) In this case, he uses arrows pointing in opposite directions: one associated with the phrase “1/2 full” and one associated with the phrase “1/2 empty” indicating that the painting’s orientation is up to the discretion of the viewer, and that his career may or
may not be considered a success.

The View from Past 50: 1/2 Full, 1/2 Empty (1993) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

In the 1980s Diao became deeply interested in the contesting visions and versions of modernism that had flourished throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Of particular attraction to him were schools such as de Stijl, the Bauhaus, and Constructivism, for whom advanced aesthetics were part of a larger social vision. Glancing knowingly at their contrasting, sometimes contesting ideologies, Diao juxtaposed these schools in works such as Let a 100 Flowers Bloom (1988) in which the logos of these movements contend for dominance. For Diao, an affection for these schools and their collective, revolutionary politics was also a way of expressing dissatisfaction with a triumphalist American version of art history in which individual genius reigned supreme.

David Diao Installation view 19 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

David Diao Installation view 23 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Let a 100 Flowers Bloom (1988) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Skating on Thin Ice (1987) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Of 2 Squares (1989) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Russian Constructivism (1987) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

In each of these paintings, the dominant element is the elongated lettering of Rodchenko’s design for the cover of Alexei Gan’s brochure Constructivism (1922), one of the first and most widely circulated treatises to introduce the new movement shortly after the Russian Revolution. Diao puts his own name, first in Cyrillic script exactly where Gan’s had appeared on the original cover, next from a
Chinese seal which he had received from his brother on his first trip back to China in 1979, “behind the bars” of Constructivist mandate. Ironically, Rodchenko’s sketch for Gan’s cover was never used; the published pamphlet features a cover by Gan himself, in which the author’s name looms large over a small seal-like box in which the title is confined.

Seal/Zeal (1987) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Looking to the genealogical diagrams tracing the various branches of modern painting for middlebrow
audiences by artists including Miguel Covarrubias and Ad Reinhardt, and always mindful of Alfred Barr’s famous flowchart, Diao adapted Malevich’s Suprematism (Supremus # 50) into a family tree of his modernist forebears. Joshua Decter writes, “Diao’s favored Malevich composition [is] re-deployed as a symbolic structure tracing the genealogy of canonical names which constitute his cyclical lexicon.” Adding strokes and motifs to the original composition—which itself bears a slight resemblance that Diao has noted to the Chinese character 國(guo, nation)—he inscribes not only the names of painters like Malevich, Newman, Mondrian, and Lissitsky in colors and sizes that are alternatively more and less visible, but also the seal-like graphical logos of figures and groups such as Aleksandr Rodchenko, Piet Zwart, UNOVIS, and the Bauhaus. The result is a parodic genealogy in which clear generational connections among the family members are sacrificed in favor of an overall landscape of influence.

Tree (1988) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Other works address the systems that support art, in particular institutions tasked with critically evaluating artists. Most prominent among these is a series of canvases based on the art of Barnett Newman, one of Diao’s artistic idols. In 1990 Diao read that in his 27-year career, Newman only painted 120 artworks in the style for which he was known. Fascinated by the disparity between Newman’s enormous influence and relative paucity of works, Diao began to research various metrics related to Newman’s output, displaying this information in a series of graphical paintings. These seemingly “abstract” paintings suggest that quantitative measures of an artist’s practice amount to nothing more than trivial bits of information, immaterial to the true value of art. At the time he was making these works, Diao was also over twenty years into his own career, prompting him to consider his life and work with Newman’s as an implicit foil. In Résumé (1991), the artist depicts his complete exhibition history as a series of lists by year; in the same vein, he also began incorporating other aspects of his career—studio floor plans, sales records, positive and negative reviews—into his artworks. The banal realities that underlie the life of the artist are thus transformed into a language of symbols. In doing so he deconstructs the romantic notion of the artist as solitary genius, replacing it with the banal realities of a career with its ups and downs. The exhibition’s Chinese title is in part inspired by the artwork David Diao: A Retrospective (Chinese) (1995), one of a series of paintings of ”invitations” to imaginary exhibitions at major institutions including MoMA and the Centre Pompidou.

David Diao Installation view 14 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

As he approached his fiftieth birthday, Diao—a quintessential insider of the New York scene whose career had nonetheless experienced multiple ups and downs—began to think in his work about his position and its relation to the larger dynamics of the art world and its politics. Using strategies of data visualization not yet prevalent, he gave direct form to information not generally discussed in polite company: his sales records, studio floorplans, visits from curators and collectors, and even his curriculum vitae. He followed this with a series of invitations to imaginary exhibitions that he felt he deserved but knew he would never get—retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, Centre Pompidou, and an unspecified location in China. In Synecdoche (1993), Diao even goes so far as to edit a catalogue essay on the German painter Gerhard Richter by the art historian Benjamin Buchloh so that all mentions and images of Richter’s work are replaced with his own. Diao’s personal reflections contain a hint of the universal, encapsulating the distinct psychology of the (somewhat) “successful” artist in the face of the ever-expanding machinery of the global art world.

David Diao Installation view 09 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Studio (1991) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Sales 2 (1991) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

In the article “David Diao: Front to Back,” critic Richard Klein writes, “Synecdoche is a print consisting of five panels that uses a 1985 essay on German painter Gerhard Richter by art historian Benjamin Buchloh as its basis. Diao came across the essay (“Gerhard Richter,” Marian Goodman Gallery, 1985) and realized that if he changed certain facts (such as names and dates) and inserted images of his own early abstract works, the essay was clearly about what he was doing some years before Richter started to make his own “squeegeed” abstract paintings. Diao’s rewriting of Buchloh’s scholarship is not just based on the essay, however.

David Diao Installation view 15 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

In 1973 both Diao and Richter were included in the exhibition “Prospect 73: Maler, Painters, Peintres”, which was presented at the Städtische Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf. The exhibition included Diao’s work Untitled, Colombe d’Or, which the artist has incorporated in the opening panel of Synecdoche, pointedly overlaid on an image of a painting from 1984 by Richter. In Synecdoche, Diao is suggesting something more basic than criticism: correction—a simple correction of the facts. Richter was exposed to Diao’s abstract painting in the Düsseldorf exhibition at a time when he was still primarily a realist painter, and in the ensuing years Richter moved towards a conceptual form of abstraction in which the mark, while superficially “emotive,” was really about the mark standing in for all marks; in other words, a synecdoche of painterly expression. This position was arrived at in the early 1970s by Diao, a situation that led to his abandoning the gestural mark in his work and clearing the way for his monochrome and text-based works of the 1980s.

Synecdoche (1993) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Pardon Me, Your Chinoiserie is Showing (1993) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Having honored himself with fictional retrospectives in New York and Paris, Diao considered in Retrospective (in Chinese) what it might be like to have a homecoming retrospective in China. For the invitation, he invited the noted calligrapher Wucius Wong to write “Diao De Chien: Retrospective” in Chinese characters on rice paper. (In French, Diao’s full Chinese name rendered in Wade-Giles romanization reads as “Diao the Dog.”) Taking a lead from the practice of mounting Chinese paintings on silk, he glued the rice paper directly onto the painted surface, also evoking the modernist tradition of collage. Not wanting to privilege any particular Chinese region or city, he does not include the name of a venue or locale.

Retrospective (in Chinese) (1995) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

The invitation to this fictional exhibition borrowed the graphical treatment from the posthumous retrospective “Joseph Beuys” curated by Harald Szeemann at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1994. Not wanting to use his own image in place of the iconic portrait of Beuys in his hat that appeared on the original, Diao chose as a stand in for himself a still of Bruce Lee from the film Enter the Dragon. Lee is arguably the most recognizable Asian man in the American popular imagination. This work was included in the exhibition “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” at Postmasters Gallery in 1995, which brought together a group of paintings on the subject of Diao’s artistic autobiography.

Carton d'Invitation (1994) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Slanted MoMA (1995) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Having been educated in the United States since age twelve, Diao has always worked within a Western art historical lineage. Indeed, “Chineseness” was never an outright subject or context in Diao’s painting. And yet as discourses of globalization and multiculturalism became ascendant in the 1990s, and as “contemporary Chinese art” gained international visibility, Diao was increasingly forced to reckon with the perception of himself as a Chinese artist. In one particular instance, a well-known French curator remarked after meeting Diao in Paris that “You are not really a Chinese artist”—ironic to Diao as he had never really seen himself as one to begin with. In further works from this period, Diao contemplated his own relation to his ethnicity, sometimes using the image of Bruce Lee, perhaps the most recognized Asian man in the mainstream American consciousness, as his surrogate on the canvas. By confronting racism directly, Diao was continuing the same project of self-understanding that underlies his autobiographical works. He was also responding to a much larger conversation in the United States about how race, class, and gender inform aesthetic values and art-historical hierarchies.

David Diao Installation view 26 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Other works from the 1990s engage directly with then-current conversations around multiculturalism and identity politics. In pieces such as Twin Dragons (1999) and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1994), Diao mobilizes imagery including film stills of Bruce Lee (considered by Diao “the most famous Asian man in American culture”) and the Swedish actor Nils Asther playing a Shanghai warlord in a 1933 Hollywood film. In Pardon Me, Your Chinoiserie is Showing (1993), he makes a textual image from a riposte to a leading French curator’s misguided comment during a meeting that “you’re not really a Chinese artist.”

David Diao Installation view 24 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1994) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

“I came to deploy Malevich’s Supremus 50 as a stamped out figure. For me it bore a resemblance to the unabbreviated Chinese character for country or nation which couldn’t have possibly entered Malevich’s mind,” explained Diao. “Franz Kline’s Cardinal (1950) hung in my loft on Canal Street (which Diao inhabited 1965–69) for several years when I was warehousing artworks for the Poindexter Gallery.” The composition juxtaposes these unlikely visual cognates, coming from two vastly different
traditions of abstraction, comparing them to the absent, for most viewers unknown, referent of Chinese script. The irony is heightened by the fact that the character to which both supposedly allude was further simplified in the early years of China’s Communist period. Kline’s work, Diao notes, “is often wrongly referenced to Chinese calligraphy. Writing with a brush is about breath: one would never stop a stroke mid-breath; whereas Kline was all about stop-and-go, but somehow these misreadings
are related.”

Cardinal Rule: Beware of False Friends (1988) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Twin Dragons (1999) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Lying 1 (2000) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

David Diao is perhaps above all a New York artist, and as such has a great fondness for the intricacies of the artists, and the art histories, that the city has produced. He reserves a great combination of respect and trepidation for the genealogy of modern art put forth by MoMA’s founding director Alfred Barr, a provisional flowchart of influence that hardened into orthodoxy. He regards fondly the overwhelming critical influence once held by the dueling critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, a tension he makes clear in the painting Push / Pull. He retains an abashed fondness for the Abstract Expressionists and the mythologies surrounding them, driving artists of his own later generation to purchase plots in the cemetery where many of them rest.

David Diao Installation view 27 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Geo and Non-Geo (1990) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Diao’s ongoing passion for modernist architecture led him to create a group of works around the greatest American icon of the genre, Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Johnson (1906-2005), a disciple of Mies van der Rohe and the founding curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, designed and built the house as a retreat in the upscale suburb of New Canaan, Connecticut in 1949. He died there in his sleep a few months before his 99th birthday in 2005.

David Diao Installation view 33 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

In one painting, Diao lounges in the living room as if he owns the house; others make reference to Johnson’s exacting arrangement for the furniture—which he compared to the details of the medieval cathedral at Chartres—in light of the fact that the white wool rug shrinks with each washing, altering the proportions. Diao remains fascinated both by Johnson’s supremely elegant and exacting vision, and by the ways in which entropy always interrupts such visions.

David Diao Installation view 34 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

In 1973, John Elderfield, the newly appointed curator of painting at the Museum of Modern Art, asked for Diao’s Triptych to be sent the museum to be presented at an acquisition committee meeting. Diao re-stretched the fivemeter long painting on the floor of the Trustees’ Room—designed by Philip Johnson in 1951—in preparation for the meeting that would decide whether his work would enter MoMA’s collection. Ultimately the painting was not acquired, and Diao’s work has still not been collected by MoMA. In 1984, the room where this rejection happened was itself “rejected,” demolished as part of César Pelli’s redesign of the Museum. In 2012 Diao silkscreened a rare photo of the iconic room onto the canvas, then placed the image of the rejected painting in scale, exactly where it would have hung during the ill-fated meeting.

Double Rejection 1 (2012) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Asked if he would ever change the arrangement of the furniture in the Glass House, Philip Johnson supposedly once replied, “Would you change anything in Chartres?” Taken with this attempted perfection, Diao once asked the estate manager of the Glass House how they kept the white wool rug so clean; he replied that they keep a clean one in reserve, but also let on that the rugs shrink with each washing. “I know from the literature that Philip Johnson had detailed drawings as to the exact distance between furniture from each other and the edge of the rug. I thought at some point the measurement couldn’t match up with the furniture placement and exaggerated the shrinkage to demonstrate entropy at work.” Diao made a series of paintings based on this “reverse pangaea” composition, which diagrams the coming together of the various pieces of furniture at still precise
intervals as the rug on which they once “sat in perfect arrangement” shrinks.

The Rug, It Shrank! (2004-2005) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Salon 2 (2010) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Of all the modern masters with whom Diao has conversed in his work, none has captivated him more deeply than the painter Barnett Newman (1905-1970), whom he considers “the most intellectual of the Abstract Expressionists.” As a young painter in New York, Diao helped to install Newman’s most important exhibition, “Stations of the Cross,” at the Guggenheim in 1966. Years later, as he started taking stock of his own career, Diao realized that Newman’s god-like reputation had been built from only 120 paintings.

David Diao Installation view 30 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

“Measured against his enormous influence on me and others, it certainly puts into question the convention that great artists are prolific. I wanted to make my astonishment visible and chose a Newmanesque scale and format to do so,” he has said. Diao thus went about visualizing Newman’s output in lists, as icons, as explorations of particularly productive or unproductive years.

David Diao Installation view 32 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

In using the canvas to address and convey such detailed factual information, Diao sought “a way to escape grand universalist claims often made for abstract painting,” even as he created powerful abstractions of his own.

David Diao Installation view 31 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Diao made this painting based on a map of modernist houses by Landis Gores, Philip Johnson’s first
architectural partner who preceded him in moving to New Canaan, Connecticut, where Johnson would
eventually build his Glass House. The map was later removed from circulation by the Historical Society to prevent tourists from visiting unannounced in this famously exclusive suburb. Gores’s widow Pamela gave Diao permission to use the map, of which he owned a rare copy, blowing it up and updating it by marking houses that had subsequently been demolished and others that were at risk. The painting was later shown as part of the Second Guangzhou Triennial (2005), Diao’s first exhibition in mainland China, on the theme of urban and architectural transformation in the Pearl River Delta area. In Guangdong as in Connecticut, any particular vision of the new is only ever fleeting.

Endangered Species 3 (2004) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Although a major figure in Abstract Expressionism, Barnett Newman made only 120 paintings in the
mode for which he is known. (Newman painted more conventionally before 1944, but later destroyed these works.) Impressed by the efficiency of Newman’s oeuvre and the impact he had on art history with so few total works, and perhaps inspired by Stephen Prina’s Exquisite Corpse: The Complete Paintings of Manet (1989), which images that artist’s complete oeuvre of 556 paintings to scale, Diao here decided to render all existing Newman paintings, relationally scaled to each other, on a single
canvas. Further works would go on to image the Newman paintings by title: BN: Chronology of Work (Red) (1990); BN: The Paintings in Scale (Blue) (1991); Barnett Newman 2 (The Paintings–Yellow) (1992), and to look specifically at Newman’s least and most “productive” periods (BN: His Gap Years, 2011; BN: His Banner Year, 2011), and finally at Newman’s four unfinished works (BN: The Unfinished Paintings, 2014). The history of this painting from exhibition to sale and auctions, in turn, becomes the basis for a later work, Home Again (2013).

The Paintings in Scale (Blue) (1991) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

The Unfinished Paintings 2 (2014) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Home Again chronicles the journey of Diao’s painting BN: The Paintings in Scale from when it was first shown in New York and sold to a Taiwanese collection, to the two instances it came up for auction in Hong Kong, and its final return to the artist’s studio in New York. At the first of these two auctions in 2005 the painting was knocked down for one-tenth its high estimated value, as its owner had failed to post a reserve. Diao found out about the second auction just in time to purchase his work back at low estimate in 2013. The painting thus documents a particular moment in a particular art world and market, when Diao’s paintings were being acquired by newly active collectors in Greater China, only to be subjected to the same sort of “flipping” for which that system has become known. The curious fate of Diao’s painting becomes all the more poignant when seen as a stand-in for the possibility of reception of his work (or of a nuanced understanding of modernism and abstraction more generally) in his putative homeland up to that point. As critic Stephane Mroczkowski wrote, “With Home Again there is less cool and more truth, the kind of truth associated with investigation and the kind of feeling one might experience when a loved one returns from afar after a long absence . . . but please, no pathos.”

Home Again (2013) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Diao’s recurring fascination with Constructivism and architecture led him to Konstantin Melnikov, who, after having been one of the most active figures in the twenties avant-garde circles of Russia, refused to yield to Stalin’s mandate to build uniform structures and had his license taken away in the 1930s. Melnikov is best known for his own house in Moscow, consisting of two intersecting cylinders with hexagonal windows and built between 1926 and 1929.

David Diao Installation view 41 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

In this group of works Diao explores the unique properties of this building, which began life as a utopian manifesto but ultimately became a prison for its owner. Playing on the shared initials of Melnikov and Malevich, he also looks for other similarities between their lives and works–from their similar predicaments under the Soviet system, right down to the recurring element of a Thonet chair that appears in both the photograph on which Diao’s painting Glissement (1984) is based and a photograph of the Melnikov house interior.

David Diao Installation view 07 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

M&M (Malevich & Matisse) (2010) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Invited in 2007 to make his first exhibition in mainland China, Diao sought a method to “meet halfway” an audience who would not be familiar with the modernist references of his usual work.

David Diao Installation view 36 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

He settled upon the idea of his childhood home, the Da Hen Li House in the center of Chengdu, which he left when he fled China in 1949 at age six and never saw again. Shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic, the house was converted to the headquarters of the Sichuan Daily. It was demolished shortly before Diao returned to China for the first time in 1979. No photographs or plans remained.

David Diao Installation view 40 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

In Map - Red, Yellow, Blue, Diao transposed subject matter into a strictly compositional space, using a map of China as the base grid. Using gouache painted on paper of red, yellow, and blue squares, he made collages by setting the squares on different diagonals for each of the three images. Since the squares increase four-fold in area with each successive iteration, they progress quickly from small to large, covering the map in only four moves. The primary colors implicitly refer to Aleksandr Rodchenko’s 1921 monochrome triptych Pure Color Red, Pure Color Yellow, and Pure Color Blue, while the axial pattern comes directly from Theo van Doesburg’s 1929–30 Arithmetic Composition. Diao thus puts the two great socially and politically engaged abstract painting movements of Constructivism and de Stijl into forced conversation against the identical background of a standard issue map of China, which, like van Doesburg’s painting, is itself a square and features a border. The surplus information provided by the map raises further questions: “The geography of China is always somewhat visible, because each version covers a different part of the map. Taken together one could have a good sense of what China looks like.”

Map-Red, Yellow, Blue (1985) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

All That I Remember (2013) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Open: Surrender and Mourn (2011) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

After fleeing Chengdu with his paternal grandparents, Diao spent five and a half years living as a refugee in Hong Kong before moving to join his father in New York in 1955. In the leadup to this exhibition, Diao began to reflect on this hitherto unexplored period in his own life. These paintings map the area where he lived—the tip of the Kowloon peninsula—in relation to the China he had left behind and the Manhattan he would come to inhabit.

David Diao Installation view 39 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

During the five plus years Diao spent in Hong Kong, he and his relatives inhabited a basic unit on the top floor of an apartment building on Chatham Road, the famous actress Li Lihua lived in what Diao recalls as “polished splendor” a few floors below. Looking back on this time, he remembers “perfume and sandalwood wafting into the stairwell when her door was ajar.” Despite the disparities in income and glamor between their situations, both Diao and Li had left home, were dreaming of new lives elsewhere, and were already coming into contact with an American popular culture beginning to make global inroads after the Second World War. In this painting, a yellow dot marks their shared building, while the paired images of Li and Diao—she as a cowgirl in a 1958 pictorial for the Hong Kong movie magazine The Rambler (its Chinese title translates ironically as “Free Speech”) taken while she was shooting her first and last film in Hollywood, he in a tee shirt sent from America and featuring the comic-strip cowboy Red Ryder—speak to a shared dream of escape and “freedom.”

She Was a Neighbor (2014) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Chatham Rd to Franklin St. (2014) by David DiaoUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Born in Chengdu in 1943, David Diao left mainland China for Hong Kong in 1949, later settling in America where he has lived for nearly six decades. His early work is profoundly influenced by the New York School of abstract painting. Starting from this exceptional moment in art history, he gradually transformed this authoritative aesthetic tradition by extending its language to individual experience. The painterly narratives that underpin his work—reflections on how we evaluate the modern masters, systems of artistic production, identity, and memories of his family and his ancestral home—have come to characterize a unique mode of symbolic signification.

David Diao Installation view 04 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

He graduated from Kenyon College in 1964 and has taught at Hampshire College, The Cooper Union, and the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Diao has a long history of notable exhibitions, most recently including the Whitney Biennial 2014 and a solo exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. His works have been collected by the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art, Hirshhorn Museum, and M+, Hong Kong. In 2014, the University of Strasbourg hosted a seminar focused on his work.

David Diao Installation view 01 (2015)UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

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