ALEXANDRE GALLERY | JANUARY 7 – FEBRUARY 13, 2016
Martha Diamond: Recent Paintings is a terrific show of forty-one small abstract paintings, done since 2002, continuing her ongoing exploration of a world characterized both by rough figuration and abstraction. She is a true New York artist, a veteran of the still active and productive decades of the New York School whose work demonstrates a predilection not so much for the lyric, gestural abstraction we know so well in the city, but a more uncouth reflection of urban life. Despite the mostly non-objective nature of her work, Diamond’s paintings reflect the knowledge that abstraction and representation can effect a forceful merger in pictures that communicate both presence and legible form. Alex Katz, in Diamond’s catalogue essay, characterizes the paintings as “blunt,” and he is right. They take their position as direct statements about art and city life, and lead the way to a balanced view of the means by which successful work of this sort can be made. Diamond knows that painting remains a mixture of craft and visionary insight, usually (but not always) rooted in an appreciation of the visual structures in real life. As a result, her pictures convey a sense of integrity that borders on the moral, for her sensibility does not so much retrieve as accentuate the grand legacy of New York painting.
The paintings themselves show a practiced awareness of contemporary art conditions. They feel leading-edge in spirit. In Untitled Structure (2014), the imagery is of tall black rectangles grouped in rows against a white ground. The top part of the background consists of a rough surface of dark tan color, contrasting with the white and the black existing beneath it. As a composition, Untitled Structure almost seems modest, but there is a highly satisfying sense of design and expressiveness that results in an experience quite a bit larger than the sum of its parts. As has been noted by Katz, the early twentieth-century painter of natural abstraction, Arthur Dove, feels like a mentor in much of this work. Diamond, a friend of the poet and critic Peter Schjeldahl and a participant in THIS IS FINE, the ambient poetry scene of New York some time back, owes more than a little to the intimate emotional life of the lyric. Her work reminds the viewer that poetic writing can translate feeling and ideas into a communicable entirety—one characterized by a united sense of form. In this way, Untitled Structure connects with deep emotion—this despite the fact that nothing recognizable in a figurative sense is being shown. Its rapport with the viewer is unmistakable.
Untitled Framed Cityscape (2004), only 12 by 10 inches in dimension, nevertheless captures the large spirit of urban life. It consists of a tall rectangle painted abstractly in orange and yellow, with the orange forms rising up into the yellow, which exists at the top of the picture but moves downward in the center and the right edge of the composition. Around is a border of black stripes that surround the center imagery; the stripes are fairly transparent with darker edges. The entire painting is framed by a thin black line. There is no verifiable image we would associate with New York as we know it; however, the center of the piece might refer to buildings on a hot day, while the circumference of stripes could avenue of transport. All in all, it is a terrific picture, one that works profoundly well as nonobjective statement, but which also describes, in a wonderfully roundabout manner, the aura of metropolitan life. Like Untitled Structure, it is a painting that resonates beyond the actual picture it is presenting.
The exquisitely lyrical oil on panel, Blue Wash (2011 – 2014), consists of an image divided by three roughly equidistant horizontal stripes, which separate an upper half that is mostly a blue wash, with an undercoating of pale yellow. In the bottom half, the pale yellow ground is more visible; in the middle there are three column-like figures, roughly painted, which don’t look like anything recognizable, conferring only a sense of pure form. Between the stripes and the columns, there is a good sense of structure to this small work of art. But Blue Wash is also an excuse for portraying the elegant consequence of a wash that has been handled lightly but expertly, building an atmosphere that is both radiant and evanescent. In this kind of painting, intuition amounts to a lot. We feel its ambience first, and only later analyze its structure. Diamond’s art shows us how we might gain from a certain openness of perception, rooted in the history and physical environs of New York. As a painter, her evolving aesthetic is extremely varied, with color, and black and white, and abstraction, and representation, moving in an out of one work to the next. This affords the feeling of diversity within the unity of a single sensibility that is consistently experienced in Diamond’s art.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.