New York

Stuart Diamond

David McKee Gallery

How much should one's knowledge of the artist's life affect one's evaluation of his work? I used to think the two should be entirely separate, and that still seems like a good rule of thumb when dealing with Morris Louis, Frank Stella or Kenneth Noland––artists who make very formal work. But with more idiosyncratic work, knowledge of the person may shed light on the work.

The seven wildly painted constructions in Stuart Diamond’s recent show trace their art historical ancestry directly to Schwitters’ Merz constructions of the early ’20s. Like Schwitters, Diamond collects pieces of wood, broken toys, fragments of perforated board, wire mesh, fabric, metal, all sorts of cast-off objects from the streets and brings them back to his studio. These objects and fragments, other people’s discards, are the raw materials for Diamond’s work, and indeed some of them do eventually find their way into his constructions. But at this point Diamond must have enough raw material in his studio to make about ten thousand paintings, and it seems to me that while much of this scavenging finally serves the purpose of art, Diamond would most likely be doing it even if he wasn’t making art out of the debris. He collects for the sheer joy of collecting.

Why Diamond collects this stuff is beside the point. The point is that Diamond isn’t making constructed paintings just because flatness is out and 3D is in vogue these days (e.g. the “Constructs” show a year ago and “The Planar Dimension: Europe, 1912–1932,” which just closed at the Guggenheim). He has to. Looking at the street-finds piled almost to the ceiling of his studio recently, I thought, “My God, if he doesn’t put some of this garbage into his work and get it out of there he’ll be buried under it.” The fact that Diamond’s work springs directly out of a personal eccentricity gives it a depth and genuineness often found in superior art and almost always lacking in mediocre work. Diamond’s work has the force not just of conviction, but of necessity. There’s nothing meditative or cool or considered about it. This is hot art.

Diamond makes these paintings, as he prefers to call them, by nailing and gluing together pieces of wood and other materials. The basic construction is done quickly and, I think, intuitively: he says that when he starts a work he has no idea what it will finally look like. The process is entirely additive: if a piece doesn’t quite work, Diamond adds to it rather than subtracts. This results in some of the most visually dense work I can remember seeing. You can look at Enmeshed, 1978, for half an hour before you notice the toy airplane nailed to the surface in the upper right. This is somewhat less true of the more open paintings, such as Lake’s End, 1978-79, and the earlier Above and Below, 1976, which allow the wall to show through in places and give some relief, but even these paintings are dense compared with anything other than Diamond’s other work.

Corinne Robins has described Diamond’s color as “a dissonant kind of jazz that usually involves variations on yellow and blue or blue and red.” Diamond seems to use all colors in each painting, rather than let one color or range of colors determine the overall tonality of the work. In these latest paintings, he paints boldly patterned areas that run from one fragment of wood onto another or change from one pattern to another on the same fragment. This heats up the work and adds to its visually jarring quality. The effect is exactly opposite what it would be if he were to paint the entire construction a single color, as Louise Nevelson does; that would pull the fragments together and make the work far more tasteful and easy to read. In addition, the surfaces of many of the fragments are encrusted—with paint, I suppose—so that the entire work becomes a battlefield of oddly shaped fragments, discordant colors and incompatible surfaces.

God only knows how, but it works. Despite their crudeness and lack of “good taste,” these paintings have a weird kind of balance and rhythm. They’re certainly not to everyone’s liking, and even I have to admit that I’m put off by their superficial ugliness. But ugliness, like beauty, may be only skin deep. Underneath, I think, these are solid, tough paintings, whose artistic integrity and authenticity is a direct result of their having come from a deep wellspring of the artist’s personality.

Jeffrey Keeffe