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Inside the mind of artist David Diao

Updated: 2015-09-29 18:06:06

( chinadaily.com.cn )

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From hanging paintings at the Guggenheim Museum and gathering large cardboard tubes for what would be used to roll paint on canvases in New York City, to having his own solo exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, David Diao has lived it all.

Diao, 72, was born in Chengdu, China, but moved to New York City at a very young age. He attended Kenyon College in Ohio and studied philosophy, but soon found the academic world just wasn’t for him. Instead of class, Diao spent most of his time in Ohio working at a printing shop. It was there where he fell in love with art. Diao’s took his passion for arts back to New York, where he landed a part-time job at the Samuel Kootz Gallery hanging paintings and sweeping the floors. From there, a friend who was working at the Guggenheim Museum referred Diao to pick a few odd jobs at the Guggenheim. It was there that he would work on his idol Barnett Newman’s exhibition, The Stations of the Cross.

Diao frequently ran into Newman while working as a bartender at Max’s Kansas City, a Park Avenue South bar known as the unofficial graduate school for New York artists.

"I had frequent encounters with Barney (Newman) but I was too shy to engage in any type of conversation," Diaosaid.

Diao would go on to become one of the most underrated contemporary artists of his time. Like Newman, Diao has a limited number of solo exhibitions on his resume. And like Newman, Diao was never really understood by art critics. He was a rebel with a cause, in a satirical way.

Whether he’s creating painting about the career of his idol Barnet Newman, or about the 30-year hiatus from his motherland, Diao at the age of 72 continues to be - if nothing else - a man of deep thoughts and understanding on the subject of art.

Carrying forth those who came before him never became more evident than the time he returned to China in 1979 after a 30-year hiatus.

"I came back to visit my mother and family. I knew so little about my mother and her side of the family. When I did come I heard a lot stories and factual information about her father, her side of the family. Unlike my fathers side of the family, which was very westward looking, my mother’s side of the family was very traditional," he said.

Walk through the large space at UCCA and pass Diao's large-scale paintings and you will find yourself at the end of his exhibition, the final room. This room is dedicated to works inspired by his return to China.

When talking with Diao, you notice right away that he is a New Yorker at heart. But everyone is from somewhere. And for Diao, that somewhere is China. Being an artist in New York during the early 1970s was no easy task. But being a Chinese-American artist made it nearly impossible.

As seen in one of his works, What Ever Happened To Hedda Sterne? (1993), Diao felt gratitude towards Sterne, an Romanian painter who was in the circle of first generation New York contemporary artists but never received much attention. Many say Sterne was left out because she was a woman in a male- dominated industry. Diao was in the circle of second-generation New York contemporary artists but like Sterne, didn’t receive much attention from the big galleries. While he admits that his Chinese-American identity might have had something to do with it, he says he never used that as a direct excuse.

Diao is in the final stretch of his career. At 72 years old, the exhibition at UCCA, which features over 100 of his works, can be signified as his induction to the art hall-of-fame.

More than any other contemporary artist, Diao is contemporary in a classical way, or maybe vice versa. If there were a written legacy to Diao’s career, it would be that he did things his way. He didn’t try to be someone he isn’t. He didn’t choose influences based on the trends of contemporary art. He saw what he saw. He liked what he liked. He did what he did.

Diao recalls seeing Jackson Pollock at Max’s Kansas City bar, getting into drunken fights when he was frustrated with how he was being perceived. While Diao thought about following suit, it finally settled in that he isn’t Jackson Pollock.

"I thought about taking the Pollock approach but decided it wasn’t the correct thing to do," says Diao.

David Diao did it his way.

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