The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum’s “David Diao: Front to Back,” on exhibit until Sept. 21, marks the second installment of its 50th anniversary celebration. It does so through a vibrant artistic dialogue between painting and architecture that spans the past 40 years of Diao’s work—an evolving interplay with Modernism and Abstract Expressionism that puns upon associations with the museum, Philip Johnson and the Glass House in New Canaan.
On Sept. 11, Diao visited the Glass House and spoke with architect Christian Bjone, author of Philip Johnson and His Mischief: Appropriation in Art and Architecture (Images Publishing, 2014). As part of this rare event, two of Diao’s works installed in the Glass House’s Painting Gallery served as a springboard for discussion and questions.
The Aldrich exhibit offers a curated window into Diao’s development—particularly in his 2012 work, Double Rejection, a comment on Johnson’s involvement with MoMA and a paradoxical, self-reflexive (non)inclusion of Diao’s own 1972 Triptych within MoMA’s collection. It is also a focused introduction to works within their context at the Glass House.
As Johnson was also a former Trustee at the Aldrich, the connections linking the Glass House and the Aldrich’s founding as a museum of contemporary art are particularly rich and engaging. One of Diao’s works at Johnson’s Painting Gallery is titled, Modern Houses in New Canaan, Connecticut, based on architect’s drawings. New Canaan has long been a building site for modernist architecture, and Diao’s time spent at the Glass House shows the degree to which his appropriation of architectural movements saturates his oeuvre. It also offers a précis of the artist’s own development—and humor—on display in the Aldrich’s exhibition.
“I didn’t start (as an artist) when I was little,” he said, prior to the lecture. “I had to change careers. … Half the time, I’m just sitting there, chewing on my ideas, and, you’re moseying along, and you just wake up and realize that you’ve just been doing it for 40 or 50 years.”
During those “40 or 50 years,” Diao’s work has operated in tension with the academy and (sometimes) thumbed its nose at it. Born in China, the artist came to the U.S. at age 11, and his first paintings bore the influence of the geometric abstractions of Malevich. Through his career, Diao’s works reflected and refracted trends in the art world, according to the Aldrich’s exhibition curator Richard Klein. Diao moved from minimalism and abstract painting early on to neo-expressionism and autobiographical, text-inscribed works that investigated his Chinese-American identity during the 1980s.
Diao’s 1991 work, Résumé, stretches across the Aldrich’s right entrance wall, and museumgoers literally walk into the exhibition room through the artist’s list of accomplishments—and lean years. Diao said he was pleased that visitors come to “Front to Back” by “walking through my CV” since, as Klein noted, much of the artist’s painting takes his own career as its subject matter. Playing upon inclusion and exclusion—front to back—the exhibition title consciously conjures the idea of a book: something adumbrated in 1995’s Slanted MoMA, also on view.
As text is essential here, so is the works’ critical tilt, of Diao viewing the art world with a cocked eyebrow, as in 1991’s Mean Things and 1993’s Synechdoche. As Klein noted, a degree of idealism inheres also, with Double Rejection, which works in a modernist geometric format, and yet shows how Diao “always wanted his paintings to be beautiful.”
Certainly, in Diao’s use of color that is evident. And, surely, visitors to the Glass House will never complain of a lack of fascination, for all the properties’ seeming simplicities, especially when one sees Diao’s 2004 Sitting in Perfect Arrangement in the Glass House gallery.
Nightly, until November, at 6:10, the house is also “fogged,” and a “living sculpture,” showing the wind’s motion, reveals its contours. In the Painting Gallery, in which Diao spoke with Bijone, sometimes parrying loaded questions, a sense that the National Landmark house, uninhabited now, is more full of life than ever prevailed, thanks especially to the Aldrich’s stunning exhibition.
David Diao’s “Front to Back” is on exhibit until Sept. 21 at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum; for more information, click here. The Aldrich’s third installment celebrating its 50th anniversary is from 2-5 p.m., on Oct. 19, and is free of charge. Philip Johnson’s Glass House is open until Nov. 30 daily, except Tuesdays and Wednesdays; for more information, click here.
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