New York

David Diao

Failure: no one wants to become one and yet as a theme it is one of the 20th century’s privileged topoi. Long before post-Modernism’s esthetic and ideological valorization of incompletion and irresolution over “organic unity,” high-Modernist literary exemplars mined the rich thematic vein of failure: the narrator’s pathetic failure to quit smoking in Italo Svevo’s The Confessions of Zeno; and the literal failure of the characters to move, buried as they are in sand up to the neck, in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days.

In the realm of painting, failure is a no less popular theme, particularly since abstraction took a metacritical swerve, and all the fun to be had lay in dramatizing over and over again how painting could not achieve transcendence, was reducible to enumerable stratagems, wasn’t “pure.” Then there’s biography: Irving Sandler may have jingoistically trumpeted “The Triumph of American Painting,” but as Lawrence Weiner beautifully observed in a 1989 interview, “People have forgotten what Abstract Expressionism was about. It certainly wasn’t some macho fantasy; it was the first time that American men could acknowledge inner feelings . . . . And David Smith. . . . Here was a steel worker who built submarines, and his work is so feminine, and about failure.”

When I first visited David Diao’s exhibition of paintings, “The Bitter Tea of General Yen,” I feared I was in the presence of a less esthetically recuperable failure: “Gee,” I thought, “this show is really dumb.” Returning a few weeks later, I had precisely the opposite reaction: no, this isn’t dumb at all, it’s a ruse, a smart guy donning the mask of a dope—i.e., a self-protective, defensive, thoroughly ironic posture. What do smart people do when they discover that the cleverness that plays so well on the cocktail party circuit doesn’t necessarily convert into a lucrative or for that matter even sustainable career? Ignorant though I am of Diao’s biographical particulars, this seems to be the message of his work’s fake-stupid pose, the pose of a disabused and disinherited smartie. Or a smartass: check out MoMA I, II, and III (all 1994), in which Diao has created acrylic-and-vinyl-on-canvas invitations to a Museum of Modern Art show celebrating “25 Years of His Art.” One painting simply imitates the graphic style of an invitation; the others, however, have been arrayed to form schematic happy and sad faces. These faces, by the way, have slant eyes.

Which brings us to the title of Diao’s show, a reference to a 1933 film by Frank Capra starring Barbara Stanwyck. The seventh edition of Halliwell’s Film Guide describes it as follows: “An American lady missionary in Shanghai is captured by a Chinese warlord and falls in love with him. Arty miscegenation story which bids fair to become a cult film and certainly has a number of interesting sequences.” The level of fantasy built into the miscegenation story is greater than Halliwell lets on, as the Chinese warlord was played by a Westerner in yellow face—the decidedly Nordic-sounding Nils Asther. Diao’s Carton d’Invitation (Invitation card, 1994) reproduces the format of an invitation to a famous Joseph Beuys retrospective at the Beaubourg, with himself as the honoree; the image of Beuys on the left side of the invitation has been replaced by one of Bruce Lee giving a martial arts kick. What difference does it make that it isn’t Diao’s picture? All Asians look alike.

In Retrospective, 1995, Diao reproduces two styles associated with Brice Marden on one picture plane: a white rectangle bearing genuine Chinese calligraphy—which reads “David Diao Retrospective,” followed by the artist’s Chinese signature/stamp—floats on a dark-chocolate-brown ground reminiscent of Marden’s early monochrome style. The calligraphy, of course, alludes to Marden’s subsequent stylistic development. Does Diao, an artist of Chinese descent, have a more “natural” or “honest” relation to Cold Mountain (an 8th-century Chinese hermit after whom Marden titled a series of paintings) than Marden, in which case the latter comes off as an appropriationist, colonizer, and orientalist? In fact, Marden’s monochrome style belongs to a reductivist trajectory for which Diao has always felt an affinity—that is his artistic “lineage.”

Finally, the question may be, What kind of art should an Asian-American make? It would have been interesting to see Diao’s work in the context of Elisabeth Sussman’s 1993 Whitney Biennial. How would his “otherness” have played in the midst of all that identity politicking? What as an AsianAmerican artist are you allowed/encouraged to be: a purveyor of elegant styles recalling ancestral traditions? Or a wild-eyed firebrand exposing institutionalized racism? Do you have a “legitimate” place within the quintessentially white-male preserve of abstract painting? With uncommon grace and wit, Diao confronts such questions and contradictions.

David Rimanelli