PRINT May 1990


PAINTING, AS A PRIVILEGED EMBLEM of humanism, has been taken as the visual record of the dynamic pulsation between doubt and idealism that has characterized the Modernist period, a vigorously generative oscillation that grew out of, and also stimulated, the often stumbling but powerful modern notion of “progress.” Modernist nonfigurative painting in particular is held to be exemplary, at least partially, I would suggest, because of the two deep ironies contradictorily embedded in it. First, despite the profound doubt (of authenticity, of relevance, of presence itself) that inhabits modern painting, threatening to upset its historical position (despite the ’80s’ audacious attempts to stabilize it by commercial force alone), painting still acts as a measure of the distance to which new art goes. Even when it is abandoned “completely” (by Marcel Duchamp, originally, or by Daniel Buren, Niele Toroni, and other such later on), it is still painting that is spoken of as having been superseded, or undermined, or surpassed (or not), in the necessarily hyperbolic claims for and against the readymade, the photograph, the installation, the video, the performance. As an institution, as a sub-rosa text, as the “cognitive style” of Modernist art per se, as a cryptogram of all that is modern, painting is always both the vernacular and the elitist shorthand version of Modernism itself; always challenged, always troubled, always just about to be overwhelmed, but somehow not yet overcome.

The second, simultaneous irony attaches to a deliberately induced dissent within painting’s own body, a reconstitution of painting’s health through ritual purges of its impurities. Successive reductions of painting constitute a litany of virtual advertisements for its death (Kasimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, Ad Reinhardt, etc.). But despite these “final” cleansings, painting has continued to produce new endings, desperate last-minute moratoriums that hold it in a suspended state of (now) cynical grace. (It might be said that the grid, which issues from perspectival and cartographical models, is the holding pattern of late Modernism.) These qualified petites morts still yearn, ambivalently, for a momentary authority, a fleeting defeat of doubt. Modernist paintings are always part of a succession of mock heroics: obsessively neurotic bodies that tease and seduce but never satisfy even their own desires.1

Inside this rebellion of reaffirmation (the tradition of the “anxious” “new,” to conflate Harold Rosenberg’s two senses of it), then, was always a covert plot, an unwillingness to give up the claim, implicit in painting, for the victory of subjectivity. Paradoxically, this victory is presided over by the failure of the artist’s intention. For it is in fallibility that the idea of subjectivity and individuality is asserted—the faulty, idiosyncratic process of the private quest is finally greater than any idea of abstract perfection that guides it conceptually. Intelligent failure, the inevitable incompleteness of utopian striving, was the contradictory assurance of Modernist painting’s success, of the ability to go on, of the sense of the continuing vitality and necessity of the project itself. Retrospectively, the so-called “failure,” or, more kindly, the uncompleted task of the historical avant-garde now seems built in, a kind of sorrowful predetermination. Modernist painting incorporated, in sublimated form, a theological and medical narrative of redemption, of the desire for self-healing through effort, and, for the painter, of potential apotheosis, even if only temporary, into a transcendent subject. For the painter’s role as subject is scrupulously preserved in painting’s discourse of recurrent deaths. It was this unacknowledged slippage that allowed for the “return” of neo-Expressionism, though abstract painting was no less pleasurably complicit with the therapeutic fulfillment of the Romantic Eye/I.2

David Diao’s career as a painter started from a position unabashedly implicated in the Modernist rhetoric of the autonomous artwork, the rhetoric most famously mythologized in North America through the writings of Clement Greenberg. Diao’s early work, from the late ’60s, is virtually a synoptic crystallization of Modernist painting (although somewhat chronologically skewed) as perceived through didactic Greenbergian formalism. He began with organic abstract canvases that addressed the materials, the means, and the structures of painting, broaching questions of integrating drawing and painting, of how the paint gets onto the surface, of the introduction of arbitrary decision-making, of values varying with choices of facture, of “museum” scale—those “painterly” issues inspired by the examples of what Diao calls the “intellectual wing” of Abstract Expressionism (Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Reinhardt). Continuing to work within the ever-narrowing and always explicit formalist discourse, Diao’s procedures led him to process paintings that allowed the viewer to demystify the moves of their maker by reconstructing his working scenario. These methods, which emphasized the phenomenological context of the work, were characterized by an ever greater reductivism. Diao’s self-imposed asceticism became more and more subtle: one series of works is limited to the diptych form, with the two panels’ physical equality a metaphor for reducing the authority of individuality. Another uses plaster and Sheetrock as a ground, and the works are hardly distinguishable from the walls on which they hang, creating the most melancholic, barely visible experience without resorting to the romantic (in Modernist terms) schema of the monochrome. This kind of reduction—a monkishness encouraged by one extreme of Modernist lore—and his genuine intellectual discipline brought Diao eventually to a close study of European Modernist traditions, which had been successively nullified by an earlier, jingoistic American discourse (in Greenberg, for example, or in Donald Judd’s protective dismissal of European “relationalism”).3 In recuperating this earlier history, Diao introduced a sharply colored, hard-edged geometry as a signal of his distance from the “aura” of the self-governing work, although, contradictorily, he still clung to the idea that such nonobjective work was somehow “a higher kind of representation.”4 His use of shrill color, for instance, could be seen as an attempt to reinstate the symbolism, however loose and relative, of an elevated signifier.

In 1980, however, having reproduced many of the moments of abstract Modernist painting in a condensed fifteen-year period of intense “revisionist” productivity, in which Diao himself had moved back and forth between doubt and idealism (and had been moved between wunderkind fame and marginalization), he was as exhausted as the form itself appeared to be. The project of idealist or humanist painting that had begun with Renaissance perspective seemed to have literally disappeared into its own (single) vanishing point, pulling the horizon of vision on which it was based into the black hole of its own voyeuristic hermeticism. Diao expressed it like this: “My earlier internalized thinking . . . turned on the baggage of the privileging of vision begun in the Renaissance, which [Greenberg] reproduced as an ideology. But I came to distrust it, and gradually I built up a dissatisfaction with ‘pure’ vision and ‘pure’ opticality, which avoided history and materialism of whatever sort. I came to see that as a kind of lie—a blanketing out.” To continue to paint under these conditions required a trick equated with theater—the “suspension of disbelief.”5 And at the same time, not only were debates about the nature of the post-Modern “break” heated and seemingly relevant but, simultaneously, a neoconservatism in both politics (Reagan) and the art world (the corporatizing of both museums and commercial galleries) had installed itself with a vengeance.6 What followed for Diao was a two-year break with painting as a possibility for cultural and esthetic intervention. Reaching the point of perfectly saturated doubt, he lived out one of painting’s deaths.

Diao’s career as I have described it may appear the conventional textbook case or worse—an oeuvre that is merely academic in its unrelenting rigor and in its involvement in the theoretical and conceptual speculations that culminated in the Modernist cul de sacs described above. But to view Diao’s production this way would miss the important differences between his interpretation of the langue, the discourse, of the environment he was in and his own parole (the individual works) as he acted it out in painting. A close look at Diao’s production from the late ’60s to the early ’80s reveals certain inconsistencies or flexibilities that already registered a resistance to Modernist idealism. The unified space to which formalists adhered so strictly is actually undermined in those of Diao’s paintings where arbitrary diagonals subtend the space. The diptychs present an inner, literary reference to the verso and recto of book pages, and punning or referential titles introduce language elliptically into the “visual” space; textured paint denies full flatness, and industrial, “working-class” materials strain against the painting’s aura of exclusivity; both the brush and the hand—signifiers of the artist’s “touch,” and thus of subjectivity—are avoided; when forms are geometric, visceral psychic decisions override systemic coherence. All of which is to say, simply, that Diao pursued pure Modernism impurely from the very beginning. He had a reluctant disinclination to obey the rules completely, and struggled to break the code at the same time that he acknowledged it. His heterogeneity (not surprisingly) finally outweighed the regulatory flow of discourse in which he swam.

In the past six years Diao has painted again, evidence of his renewed interest in and cautious commitment to painting as a tool of social memory and collective authorship. Significant moments within his earlier oeuvre are reconstituted now in a new context, and their engagement today is possible only because Diao was so deeply, already ex-centrically, engaged earlier on. If, in Thierry de Duve’s words, “The switch to abstract painting [in 1912-13] comprised the crucial step in the recognition of painting’s demise as craft and its instant rebirth as idea,”7 then Diao’s earlier work can be seen as innocently participating in painting as idea, as he systematically worked his way through abstractions—process/conceptual, expressionist/geometric, and finally the fullest abstraction possible, the making of nothing at all. By 1984, self-educatively, maturely, and I’m sure somewhat painfully, he could participate in the rebirth (again) of painting as critical theory, as archaeology, as meta-idea, as representation of representations, as a discussion about its own discourse, including all the institutionalized forms that bear on painting and that painting, in turn, informs.

Diao is so steeped in the contradictions at the core of Modernist concerns, however, that his vision of this rebirth could not involve what is in the end a parody of painting—Julian Schnabel’s postured angst, for example, or Achille Bonita Oliva’s stretched concept of the “Trans-avantgarde.” Instead, Diao was forced to find a way beyond the simple dialectic of doubt and idealism (or of the idealism of doubt, or the doubt of idealism) that recirculates within the discourse of Modernist painting—the essentialist chorus of humanism itself. Diao required a third term, a “mutant” term to “disarticulate meaning” (to appropriate the vocabulary of Roland Barthes8). He had to proceed through the dual ironies—an abandonment of painting, and its reinscription as an acknowledged sign system disassociated from its paternity, and an announcement of its life, its history as and in collective memory. The third term, of course, was history,9 or, more defensibly, historical inquiry, and in obeying this knowledge Diao effected a return to painting as ex-centric history painter par excellence. In doing so, he was recognizing that all works of art are socially produced; they are the products of a discourse that is always as historically situated as it is (unevenly) a personal trace. As Janet Woolf writes, “An overemphasis on the individual artist as unique creator of a work is misleading, because it writes out of the account the numerous other people involved in the production of any work, and also draws attention away from the various social constituting and determining processes . . . . the traditional concept of the artist as creator depends on an unexamined view of the subject, which fails to see the manner in which subjects are themselves constituted in social and ideological processes.”10

Diao’s new painting would be less devout, more promiscuous, and, more important, would aim a critical arrow at the heart of the discourse itself. If Modernist painting always points to itself, then it also seemed that it could be made to index not only its own lexicon of formal matters but also the code under which it performs. If painting is, in fact, always in an “infinite relation” to words (or to institutions of wordliness such as museums and exhibitions, art journals, catalogues, magazines, discussions, titles, gossip, etc.), then the acknowledgment of that relation—of art’s contextual messiness—could become its explicit content;11 and Diao’s latter body of work would address the deep structure that surrounds and dominates painting. Conceptualist and alternate-media productions of the past three decades, of course, had previously addressed aspects of the contexts for art, and the paintings of some neo-Expressionists and “neo-geoists” make extrinsic references fundamental to their ironic concerns. However, to frame art’s exterior conditions is now simply a technical mannerism, already expected and absorbed in both museum and mass-media culture’s appropriation of avant-garde modes. The situation demands a more subtle and directly implicated critical stance, one that rejects the pretense to total knowledge which attended the historical avant-gardes. Thus Diao would again concentrate on abstract painting, though his new work, like Ronald Jones’ earlier pieces, would situate itself in the interstice between abstraction and representation. Instead of vengefully rejecting his background, he would turn to the history and styles that formed him, understanding that the very tension in Modernism that he had intuited earlier could now provide him with a proper critical distance. Diao’s intent is not to revive particular bodies of abstraction for another pale attempt at life, but to give them a necessary autopsy, to understand their “death” more fully. He seeks to find the roots of abstract painting’s unhealthy unconscious—the uncanny effects released by a discourse of idealism that was as totalizing as it was liberating, as marginalizing as it was modernizing, and that, today, is a painful pleasure to face.

The first new piece Diao titled, arousingly, On Our Land. The right-hand side of this small diptych (about 28 inches high) contains an inverted black pyramidal shape intersected by incomplete, horizontally inclined linear vectors. Below it is a “red square”—both a geometric shape and a pun on the 20th-century metonym for Russia. In short, we have a Modernist image, literally so, in fact, since the panel is a copy of a Suprematist drawing by Malevich. On the left side is a painterly red inverted triangle inserted dynamically from the top into three evenly spaced verticals, one green, one white, one black—a rendering of the tricolor flag of Palestine. To whose “our” does the title refer? At least two, the Israelis’ and the Palestinians’, a reference encouraged by the division of the work into two parts; perhaps more, if American and Soviet interests are counted. The Suprematist reference is an “our” as well—the “our” of a Russian Modernist (art) history; also the “our” of the Modernists who took account of that history, or the “our” of contemporary artists’ history in general. There is also the “our” of the right and the “our” of the left. So abstractions act as representations, icons are translatable as idealisms, colors are graphically formulated as triangular, square, and linear “propositions,” and a whole set of contradictions and elaborations are introduced from both inside and outside the frame’s edge (and the edges within the frame). Images invade language and language insinuates itself into image. World by word and word by world, this 1984 painting (the Orwellian date is not insignificant) boldly claims its own dependence, quickly admitting its vulnerability to culture, its mistrust of fixity and autonomy, its social bearing.12

On Our Land announces a return to a painting not just about painting (something unavoidable anyhow) but about the knowledge that painting is complicit with and deeply immersed in a larger system of meanings, a compound discourse into which it sinks (or swims). This acknowledgment of painting’s debt to its “exhibition value” (Walter Benjamin’s term13), and of the implicit, modest condition of being just one signifier in an (endless) chain of historical discursive formations, is even more explicitly addressed in Diao’s next painting, Glissement (Slippage, 1984). If On Our Land could still cater to a formalist viewer (and perhaps, coyly, even still encourage an “innocent” audience) whose interests included none of the references above, Glissement—ironically, given the title—actually forecloses lapses toward pure-Modernist autonomy in favor of locating the painting as an always hybridized moment of meaning. It is a painting whose condition is that of photography. It is informed by photography—an insatiably reproduced photograph of Malevich’s Petrograd exhibit of 1915, “The Last Futurist Exhibition of Pictures,” is the template for this arrangement of quadrilaterals on a dark brushy ground—and its black, white and gray coloring (with little red squares) almost aspires to the condition of photography. Moreover, it directs attention to photography as a prime mediator or memory of the Modernist code. In his disavowal of the Modernist program, Diao also subverts the dialectical opposition to that program, the medium that would traditionally be an “alternative.” As one of the reproductive arts that include the printed word, photography, not exclusively but powerfully, often performs the function of joining painting to the world, of dispersing and proliferating its meanings, of making it unstable in its relation to and fondness for “truth.” As Allan Sekula writes, following Benjamin, “Just as money is the universal gauge of exchange value, uniting all the world goods in a single system of transactions, so photographs are imagined to reduce all sights to relations of formal equivalence. Here, I think, lies one major aspect of the origins of the pervasive formalism that haunts the visual arts of the bourgeois epoch. Formalism collects all the world’s images in a single aesthetic emporium, tearing them from all contingencies of origin, meaning, and use.”14 By interrogating photography (more precisely, photography’s complicity in creating the exchange value of art), or, later, exhibition installations, or the initials of artists or avant-garde groups, Diao gives painting an active role that is critical: by turning metamirror, painting becomes constructive deconstructively. It might be said that rather than out-thinking Modernism (which is the role of alternatives) Diao is rethinking it (within painting). Just as he had earlier revisioned a subjectivist discourse by tying it (loosely) to a hard-edge geometrical painting (which, finally, undid it), this new venture ties painting internally to its own cultural history (which is also Diao’s subjective history) in an effort to dislodge its now comfortable position as a luxury object of financial fascination and to renew its critical bonds to culture.

Diao has gone on to disfigure the historical episteme of painting with a virtual dictionary of methods of cross-reference that allow it to be openly permeated by the world. These overlappings, retracings, evacuations, re-collectings, and graftings preserve the heterogeneity originally native to Modernism (and unknowingly at the core of Diao’s own, varied earlier work) while simultaneously opposing the fetishism of formalism. Painting from photographs of canvases that distort their perspective, Diao produces disconcerting arrays of trapezoids, alluding to the works’ condition of exhibition and photographic consumption and to the ideology of the perspectival view. He divides the Malevich exhibition photo into sections, then fragments the Malevich works themselves into separate parts, pointing up the incompleteness of the originals and of their photographic copies—their defective and flawed ability to cohere. He mounts paintings on the wall in a pyramid or sets three square works one above another to form a column that allows for both difference (diagonals of single-color blocks, red, yellow and blue, within each frame) and similarity (the same map of China is the “undercoat” to all three); they register together in a “bad” gestalt that is visually and conceptually already disrupted. He drops out the frames of the Malevich paintings to silhouette their interior geometries, making an absence as significant as a presence once would have been, and including a chair, silhouetted and silk-screened, to refer to the historical author, the dislodged human figure. He paints four crosses on individual panels, then installs the panels so that another cross is formed in the negative space between them. And he turns the Suprematist cross, a repressed apparition of Russian religiosity, into a decorative predella within a pair of Newman “zips”; or sets echoes of Dan Flavin, Jean-Luc Godard, and Malevich into the same “Newman” format as a series of decorative registers.

In some cases one painting will act as a virtual codex for many others, although it will not circumscribe all of their possible relations. Such a painting is 1915-1984: For a Close Reading, 1985, a seventy-year history compressed into one visual experience. The ground is Gitane blue, a signifier for things “French,” and the shapes of the paintings in the Malevich show (in a mirror image, referring obliquely to the philosophy of reflection in general and to Michel Foucault’s discussion of Velazquez’s Las Meninas in particular) are rendered by newspapers collaged in a stylized echo of Cubism. But the newspapers are the Chinese People’s Daily, the New York Times (a copy containing a photo of the Malevich paintings reinstalled at yet another museum location), a TV Guide, and a couple of issues of Libération devoted to articles on the occasion of Foucault’s death. Diao recognized that the Malevich exhibition photo (the show, not incidentally, took place after Malevich had holed up secretly for a year) had the same place for him as a paradigm for Modern painting that Las Meninas had for Foucault in his discussion of the ordering of the viewer’s place in “classical” representation. This “mirror” image, already cloned by reproductive techniques to the point of being a mirage, also recalls book pages, public billboards, and the modern Chinese tradition of the “liberty wall” full of posters, which then evokes the act of reading in directions other than the Western left to right, just as the work’s title recalls the New Criticism’s dedication to a “close reading” as a path for critical intervention. The painting can take on this mise en abîme of split and continuing relations precisely because it is constructed to act as a kind of multimatrix.

Diao has devised a number of further methods for his project, and it would be possible to go on listing them through all their variations in his canvases since 1986. The art and design sides of Constructivism, De Stijl, the Bauhaus, and other historical avant-gardes besides Suprematism all make their appearances; the educational and commercial impulses behind early Modernist activity are addressed. And Diao’s own history is put in play: Untitled/Yellow, 1987, juxtaposes one of his own installations with a set of vertical bars taken from a typical price-coding schema. His own name is intercut with Modernist abstraction, appearing as a Chinese chop-mark in Seal/Zeal, 1987, and translated into the Cyrillic alphabet in Russian Constructivism, 1987. (As might be expected, Diao’s relation to his Sino-American roots is complex.) But to go further would be to risk an excess of description, the most concealed ideology of criticism itself, and to partake in ascription of specific meanings (a temptation I am already barely containing). Better a revisioning by an audience of viewers, an event of articulation, however mediated, however already supplemented.

Bruce W. Ferguson is a freelance critic and curator who lives in New York. He is the adjunct curator of the Winnipeg Art Gallery.



1. For an influential review of why painting is present even when left behind, see Thierry de Duve, “The Readymade and the Tube of Paint,”Artforum XXIV no. 9, May 1986, p. 110-121. For an analysis thoroughly Derridean in its emphasis on “lost objects” or “corpses,” see Yve-Alain Bois, “Painting: the Task of Mourning,” Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture, exhibition catalogue, Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1986, p. 29-49. Here, Bois rehearses the “death instinct” at the center of Modernist painting’s tireless revivals within a “game” metaphor that owes much to Wittgenstein and later systems theorists. For my own, less dramatic description of this process see “Paradoxical Images and Oxymoronic Procedures,” Questions in Abstraction, exhibition catalogue, Sarasota: John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 1988. On his return to painting in 1984, after a two-year hiatus, David Diao said, “After a few years of not working, the reason I decided to come back to painting is that given this society, painting is still the privileged site of what art is. It seemed a more meaningful way to be critical was to be implicated yourself.” Quoted in Michael Jenkins, “Interview with David Diao,” Art Papers 12 no. 3, Atlanta, May/June 1988, p. 33.

2. It should be noted that the avant-garde’s “tradition of the new,” as Harold Rosenberg called it, unconsciously mimics the capitalist process of creating new markets and new demands, creating a social climate around art that allows and even encourages the appropriation of art directly into the mainstream economy.

3. See Serge Guilbault, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Guilbault traces this protectionism to the post-World War II imperial polities of the United States. Diao has spoken to me about the historical erasure that occurred in American painting, referring specifically to Barnett Newman’s posturing away from Europe, as in the painting The Euclidean Abyss, 1946-47, intended to “zip” up Mondrian. A late visit to Europe allowed Newman to modify his defensiveness.

4. Jack Bankowsky has noted that Diao’s relation to American painterly field abstraction was tenuous, pointing to Diao’s disinclination to be included in the 1970 Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition “Lyrical Abstraction” as an index. See Bankowsky, “Iconoclasms: The Styles of David Diao,” exhibition catalogue, New York: Postmasters Gallery, March 1988.

5. Diao, interview with the author, May 1989. For a related response to these issues see Jürgen Harten on Gerhard Richter: “In order to be able to paint despite all this, he had to pretend he was not painting; to be able to perform his exit into and with the picture he had to adapt his work to the reality that required his exit.” Gerhard Richter: Painting 1962-1985, exhibition catalogue, Cologne: Dumont Buchverlag, p. 18.

6. Diana Crane, in The Transformation of the Avant-Garde: The New York Art World, 1940-1985, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987, writes, “With the Neo-Expressionists, the conception that the artist’s insights were superior to those of other image-makers in American society disappeared. These artists saw themselves as entertainers, using visual imagery to amuse and provoke the public, rather than as aesthetic innovators contributing to an artistic tradition or as social rebels using visual imagery to attack a political elite” (p. 141). Diao has said of his personal disillusionment, “I came to see that geometry is no more pure than any other system of representation; it too is determined by its own history and already existing readings. It became untenable to proceed using geometry as if it were self-contained and nonreferential. I wasn’t ready to abandon the load of pleasure I get from working with the coherence and the order of geometry, yet I didn’t know what to do with the meanings that geometry entailed, for example, notions of progress and rationality.” Quoted in Jenkins, p. 30.

7. De Duve, p. 111. What I have called here (in a qualified manner) a dialectic between “doubt” and “idealism” de Duve argues as a dialectic between “melancholy” and “enthusiasm.” The sets of terms probably convey a similar spirit, but I would argue that doubt itself can be either melancholic or enthusiastic, allowing for a split motivation. See also Barbara Novak, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969. Of American Pop and Minimalism, Novak writes, “For this kind of art, the inventing, constructing sensibility of the American tradition provides ample precedent. It does not need the European constructivist pedigrees that have been provided for it. American artists have always been makers. The artist now stands behind, as generating idea, his aim to have technology render his idea concrete and tangible. As in luminist classicism, the idea becomes the palpable thing.” And, further, “It is tempting to accept this conceptualism as our point of exit from (he investigation of a tradition that began with the ideographs of the limners, contemporary with the first colonization of the American landscape” (p. 288).

8. Beginning with Nietzsche, many have argued for a position beyond the dialectic of reversals. But it is well stated by Roland Barthes: “Destruction of discourse is not a dialectic term but a semantic term: it docilely takes its place within the great semiological versus myth (white versus black); whence the destruction of art is doomed to only paradoxical formulae (those which proceed literally against the doxa): both sides of the paradigm are glued together in an untimely complicitous fashion: there is structural agreement between the contesting and contested forms.” The Pleasure of the Text, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1975, pp. 54-55. Although I agree with much of what Barthes writes regarding the “subtle subversion” of the “third term,” I do not think he accomplished it in his own writings. See my “The Eiffel Tower, Only Morceaux,” C Magazine, Toronto, Spring 1989, pp. 12-34.

9. I use the term “history” in the sense discussed by Hayden White. “It may well be that the most difficult task which the current generation of historians will be called upon to perform is to expose the historically conditioned character of the historical discipline, to preside over the dissolution of history’s claim to autonomy among the disciplines, and to aid in the assimilation of history to a higher kind of intellectual inquiry which, because it is founded on an awareness of the similarities between art and science, rather than their differences, can be properly designated as neither.” In White, “The Burden of History,” Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978, p. 29.

10. Janet Woolf, The Social Production of Art, London: Macmillan, 1981, p. 137. Woolf also writes, “In a society where artistic production is highly ritualised, leaving little room for innovation of form or introduction of new or radical content, then the potential effectivity of art is obviously severely restricted. In a society where culture is restricted to a very small minority, or to the dominant group, then again its transformative power is extremely limited, whatever the aesthetic conventions prevailing” (p. 85). In today’s neoconservative climate, these conclusions have real import for artists such as Diao. Outlining the always-present social parameters of the power available for transformation, Woolf implies an understanding quite different from Barthes’ hopeful neo-Kantian suggestions for “pleasure” within the bourgeois text, or Jean-Francois Lyotard’s for petits récits, moves of “weak thought” within a game theory of art.

11. Michel Foucault writes, “But the relation of language to painting is an infinite relation. It is not that words are imperfect, or that, when confronted by the visible, they prove insuperably inadequate. Neither can be reduced to the other’s terms: it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say. . . . But if one wishes to keep the relation of language to vision open, if one wishes to treat their incompatibility as a starting-point for speech instead of as an obstacle to be avoided, so as to stay as close as possible to both, then one must erase those proper names and preserve the infinity of the task” (my emphasis). In The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences, New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1973, pp. 9-10. It was this preservation of the conflict between verbal and visual representations that Diao engaged in 1984. He has stated it simply to me: “What animates my thinking is not just paintings but books and catalogues and magazines and I wanted to say that directly, to admit that existence.”

12. The idea that post-Modernism itself is signaled by the introduction of the “language paradigm” deeply into art is put forward by Craig Owens in relation to the work of Robert Smithson, “Earthwords,” October 10, Cambridge: MIT Press, Fali 1979, pp. 120-30.

13. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1969, p. 225.

14. Allan Sekula, “The Traffic in Photographs,” in Modernism and Modernity, ed. Benjamin H. Buchloh, Guilbault, and David Solkin, Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1983, p. 148.