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David Diao, Lying 1, 2000, Acrylic on canvas, 79 x 115 inches (200.7 x 292.1 cm)

Over five decades, David Diao’s paintings have dismantled the tenets of modernism from within, exploring the shadow side of its reductive geometries as a source of untapped potential. “Since 1985, if not earlier, I have sought to question that abstract painting has no referent other than itself,” he has said. “Almost all my work has a backstory.” Those accounts stem from a rigorous approach that resists Conceptual art’s veneer of detached neutrality, relying instead on deeply personal investments in art history and his own place within it.

Diao’s earliest works from the late 1960s challenged then-hegemonic ideas of the means and process of gestural painting, and by the ’80s, more pronounced veins of dissent emerged in his practice. Reworking canonic motifs from the history of abstraction—from Suprematist shapes to Barnett Newman zips and de Stijl icons of industrial design—Diao’s paintings conjure past masters and reckon with the levers of power that govern the art world. As long-serving faculty at the Whitney Independent Study Program, versed in debates on appropriation and institutional critique, Diao’s work of the ’90s began to parse how value is consigned—who is included in the dominant narrative and who is not. Paintings tally his sales and auction records or list the addresses of his studios, charting the fluctuations in his reception and market performance with disarming candor. Just outside the frame, Diao’s experience as an artist of color is palpable: paintings of fictional invitations to retrospectives he wasn’t offered point up major museums’ systemic exclusions, while other works of this period broach how those institutions fetishize the non-white artists they would otherwise overlook.

Born in China’s Sichuan province in 1943, Diao fled the Chinese Communist Party’s takeover of his family home for Hong Kong in 1949 before immigrating to the United States in 1955. Themes of dislocation and loss appear in recent works that have mined this cultural heritage and reconstructed lost archives from his childhood. Throughout, his silken application and elegantly brazen way with color keep abstraction vital, despite his doubts: as fellow painter Thomas Lawson wrote on the eve of Diao’s long-awaited retrospective in 2015, “David Diao’s working life as a painter is a model for us all: a serious and tumultuous fifty-year engagement with the unreliabilities of art.”

David Diao, Installation View, UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, 2015

David Diao (b. 1943, Chengdu, China) lives and works in New York. Institutional solo exhibitions of his work have been held at Gund Gallery at Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio (2017); Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2015); The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut (2014); The Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut (2014); École National d’Arte de Dijon, France (1992); and Musée d’Art Moderne, Saint-Étienne, France (1989). Notable group exhibitions include San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2023); M+, Hong Kong (2021); Le Consortium, Dijon (2019); Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (2014); and the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

Diao’s work is in the collections of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Blanton Museum of Art, Austin; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Le Consortium, Dijon; Fonds national d’art contemporain, Paris; Fonds regional d’art contemporain, Brittany, France; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; M+ Collection, Hong Kong; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Taipei Fine Arts Museum; Vancouver Art Gallery; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others.

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