The starting point of my work has been a certain devotion to the lineage of abstraction as developed in high modernism. But unlike the formalist use of abstraction, I employ these forms to the specific tasks of troubling the history of modernism itself, and also my own personal history over forty years as an artist. …. This, and my observations of the art world, led me into analyzing the mechanism of how art history is written and value consigned. But this is done by painting as I am a painter and not anything else. —Davis Diao, December 2014
Diao was born in China in 1943, moved to New York in 1953, and began painting in 1964. Arriving during the height of modernism, Diao’s work critiques its history, especially as it relates to his own outsider status as a Chinese immigrant, by appropriating the work of its artists and art historians.
In Barr Talk, Diao reproduces one of the many hand-drawn schemas explaining the creation and evolution of modern art by the Museum of Modern Art’s founding Director, Alfred H. Barr Jr. (1902-1981)—first utilized in the catalogue accompanying the 1936 MoMA exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art. Barr, previously an art history professor at Wellesley College, argues for the inevitability of the major movements in modernism. He created a rigid set of categorizations and abandoned artists who did not fall neatly into the predetermined categories, classifying non-Western art as the necessarily lesser and primitive forbearer of high modernism.
From the exhibition: Affinity Atlas (September 5, 2015 – January 3, 2016)
This dissection of modern painting was originally sketched by Alfred Barr, the art historian and founding director of the Museum of Modern Art. However, one can also interpret the title as conversation in a pub. Viewed in this light, tracing the lineage of modern painting on a chalkboard is as productive as blabbing away under the influence.
One may scrutinize the spawn of art movement after art movement, but just as the viewer’s eyes move in endless circles around the piece, so do the theories of art in one’s mind. Presenting the spectator with a painting of Barr’s chalkboard displays the many philosophies of contemporary art in a facetious light. By painting a diagram of the lineage of modern art, Diao comments on the intense application of theory in contemporary painting and the pressure artists face to become part of an “ism.”
–Jay Lombardi, Skidmore College ’04
From the exhibition: About Painting (June 26 – September 26, 2004)