During his first return to the Hill in 53 years, David Diao ’64 snapped a shot of the Peirce Hall tower and posted it to his Instagram account. Peirce was his makeshift art studio at Kenyon in the 1960s; he shared a studio with Graham Gund ’63 H’81 in the top floor of the tower. There, he developed a style that would propel his works into galleries such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. “I don’t think you can go up there easily, but you’ve got a great view,” Diao said.
At that time, the College had only 500 students. It did not admit women and the studio art major didn’t exist. Diao expected to study the natural sciences, but quickly found his passions lay elsewhere. “I was eventually saved by going into the philosophy department,” Diao said. “They brought in this [professor] named Joseph Slate from whom I took a course on Josef Albers’ use of color.”
Diao uses color confidently in his work, like the juxtaposed red and yellow in “Untitled (China in Russian)” (1988). The painting spells out the word “China” as it would be pronounced in Chinese but uses the Cyrillic alphabet. The writing can only be understood if the viewer understands both Russian and Chinese — or if one is fortunate enough to attend a talk by Diao.
Because Kenyon did not offer many art classes when Diao attended, he had limited supplies at his disposal, so he experimented with color to reinvent the works of those who inspired him. Interpretations of works by Kazimir Malevich and Barnett Newman fuse abstract geometric pieces with bold and emotive hues. He superimposes Malevich’s famous photo “The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting 0.10” (1915) onto canvas, inverting its color and reflecting the outlines of the piece to create “Glissement” (1984), an homage to the Malevich original.
In his talk, Diao explained how he uses elements from the work of his heroes. “I’m not afraid to make overt references,” Diao said. He also chronicled Newman’s career by using quantitative information, such as the number of paintings Barnett made each year, and representing the data in a visually stimulating way. “Barnett Newman: His Gap Years” (2014) is a painting, for example, that depicts two years where Newman produced no paintings.
Recently, Diao turned a critical eye to his own childhood in America Beckoning, the exhibition displayed in Gund Gallery until Oct. 8. The paintings chronicle the transitory period of his childhood when his family escaped from Communist China and moved to Hong Kong before immigrating to America. Again, he uses strategic color in “Arrive/Depart” (2016) to separate the events of the world during this time period. A gray background represents their gravity, and a bright orange top half represents his life as a child, of which he remembers little.
The exhibition is dedicated to Joseph Slate, the professor whose teaching gave Diao the confidence to pursue studio art. “I thought [Slate] would maybe be charmed by having this show dedicated to him,” Diao said. “[Slate] made a special trip over the summer to see it and wrote me a lovely note.”
Diao traced the influence of Kenyon on his life and career from his earliest days in the U.S. to his role as an artist.
“Whether I like it or not, my life has been very connected with Kenyon College,” Diao said.