Saturday, February 20th, 2016

An Awesome Pursuit of Variety: Martha Diamond’s Little Pictures

Martha Diamond: Recent Paintings at Alexandre Gallery

January 7 to February 13, 2016
724 Fifth Avenue, 4th Floor, at 57th Street
New York City, (212) 755-2828

installation view, Martha Diamond: Recent Paintings at Alexandre Gallery, 2016
installation view, Martha Diamond: Recent Paintings at Alexandre Gallery, 2016

Forty-one small paintings completed since 2002 fill the central but still relatively intimate room at Alexandre Gallery. All rectangles, many are twelve by ten inches, though some are a bit larger than that. Many are untitled or have titles generically identifying such subjects as a cityscape or church, or describing their content—Untitled Frame With Construction (2002-3) and Blue Wash (2011-14) being examples of that. Most (but not all) have internal painted frames surrounding a central image or shape. Otherwise, her compositions are very varied. Consider just three: Untitled Frame Painting (2002-3) places short vertical black lines in a frame; Untitled (2002) centers iridescent red brushstrokes on a blue background within an orange frame; and Frame Painting With Stride (2002-3) sets a striding black stick figure on a white background in a dark red frame. Sometimes Diamond’s titles are simply mysterious. Are there two philosophers in Two Philosophers (2009-15)? And what in the world are the three tie-like shapes within the frame of Untitled Frame Series With Red Yellow and Blue (2002-3)?

Diamond is devilishly hard to place. Drawing on her own comments, should we, perhaps, identify her as a very belated Abstract Expressionist who is often engaged with figurative subjects? Long ago she did express affinities felt with Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, and fascination with Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. But since her paintings look very different from any of these artists, what I think that she learned from them is the importance of incessant, willful improvisation. She certainly has an identifiable personal style. When you give them even the briefest flicker of awareness, her very varied paintings all are immediately hers. Sometimes, as Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times of her 1988 exhibition at Robert Miller Gallery, it is easy to think

[…] that there’s not much going on, that this painter of lush, fragrantly colored, nearly abstract skyscrapers and city views is falling apart in public. At times, this seems to be the case.

Martha Diamond, Untitled, 2002. Oil on panel, 12 x 10 inches. Courtesy of Alexandre Gallery
Martha Diamond, Untitled, 2002. Oil on panel, 12 x 10 inches. Courtesy of Alexandre Gallery

“But others,” this reviewer adds, “may be among the best paintings she has made.” This exhibition is different—it has some ups and downs, but I don’t find it particularly uneven. I believe, rather, that because Diamond’s happily awesome pursuit of visual variety never slips into cliché, her show is more than the sum of its parts, which is to say your pleasure in each of these painterly pictures involves awareness that many otherwise different looking paintings are at hand. In that way, the effect is the exact opposite of looking at works in series by Frank Stella, when multiple repetitions of one basic visual conception can be deadening.

So far as I can see, Diamond is a completely intuitive artist, one for whom it is hard to associate any theorizing in her pictures. This is what makes it difficult to place her historically. In the usual histories of New York painting, Abstract Expressionism yields to minimal art, Pop Art and conceptualism just when, circa 1965, she took up residence there. You don’t feel that she has much to do with these developments. In his essay “Style now” (1972) the aesthetic philosopher Richard Wollheim notes that “the most powerful pressure under which the contemporary painter labours” is the pressure “to seek recognition through the recognizability of his work.” What defines convincing art, he argues, is the achievement of a style. Style “has a unity,” which is to say that it involves employment of “something like a coherent set of rules,” which are difficult (or even impossible) to spell out in so many words. The difficulty of quantifying what is, nonetheless, a visually self-evident felt unity in this body of Diamond’s art, provides a way of placing her. In an admirably brief essay in the exhibition catalogue, Alex Katz says that these paintings “will eat up almost anything you put near them.” He’s absolutely right—they are terrific.