Martha Diamond: 1980-1989
On ViewMagenta Plains
January 13 – February 17, 2021
I have not been seeing much art in person lately. There is something to be said for the thrill of browsing galleries at “limited capacity”—walking back and forth along a stretch of Judd’s works in plywood without encountering the obstacle of another body, for example—but I also find it unnerving to be so conspicuously alone with art. Recently, though, while on the Lower East Side for another reason, I stopped in to Magenta Plains, having heard that works by Martha Diamond—a relatively unknown painter who palled around with John Ashbery and Peter Schjeldahl when he was just a party-boy—were on view. Inside, I found New York, which is not to say that I found New York in the representational sense—though Diamond’s paintings do represent the city’s urbanscape—but in the sensorial way that I once heard foghorns through Arthur Dove’s painting of that name. For many months I had been unable to answer the question, “What is New York like these days?” and now, encountering Diamond’s paintings, I could.
Curious, then, that none of the paintings featured in the show are new, particularly because—as many artists have managed, gratefully, to be productive—today’s penchant seems to be for displaying art made in the throes of 2020. As the title of the show makes clear, these are all paintings from the 1980s, a time that was both different from and the same as what we are experiencing today. Different in that we were not uniformly immersed in a pandemic, but the same in that we were: AIDS, however ignored, is indivisible from New York during that decade, and the cultural product that resulted. Different in that America had not yet been subjected to the autocracy of Donald Trump, but the same in that this country was in the palm of his political and ideological progenitor. Looking at Diamond’s paintings is like looking at a picture of your mother and seeing, in only roughly outdated clothing, yourself.
1980–1989 consists of two related bodies of work. The first comprises six large, rectangular canvases depicting aspects of the city in Diamond’s favored neo-expressionist style. Fat, eccentric brushstrokes, applied wet-on-wet, dysregulate architectural planes. Colors are either nocturnal—I imagined Diamond roaming, as Virginia Woolf once did in London, along New York’s dusky avenues—or infernal. Red Cityscape (1989) barely looks like a city at all, or at least not a city anyone would want to live in. Slashes of a red that can be described in no other way but as indicative of blood are low-lighted by black and hash together to form the ridges of roofs, the facades of unearthly buildings, an eerily pinkened sky. Orange Light (1983) prefigures San Francisco this past September, when the morning sun, scattered by particles of dense smoke from nearby forest fires, turned that city’s sky an electric tangerine. In Diamond’s painting, the roof of one building, painted an ashy gray, runs from the foreground into the middle ground where it intersects with the side of another structure, like a road to nowhere.
The most arresting of the larger paintings is Facade 1982 (1981–82). The palette here is blackened cerulean and a fluorescent powder yellow like that found in Moonlight/City View #2 (1981), in which light seeps from the windows of skyscrapers after nightfall. In Facade 1982, however, photic normalcy is reversed so that the facades of two tall buildings are illuminated—as if spot-lit—and their windows black. Against one of the two is what is probably the shadow of another building, but that looks unmistakably like the projected silhouette of Dracula or—more auspiciously—Batman. The painting’s effect is reminiscent of the complex light and shade in Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl (c. 1657) at New York’s Frick Collection, in which a soldier’s shadowed back contrasts with the resplendent torso of the woman sitting across from him, smiling uneasily; it is an emotional moment, echoed by the play of light across an open window and its casement. Such a feather-thin line between fear and delight, that which sucks the soul and that which saves it, is patently New York, and by the transitive property I have realized, patently Martha Diamond.
The show’s second body of work is a group of Diamond’s small-scale studies from this period. All about eight or nine inches high and six or seven inches wide, they remind me of postcards sent from that era into ours. A few reference some of the larger paintings in the first room, but most don’t. Some are lighter colored and less severe, but most depict jagged, at times cubistic forms, done in apocalyptic hues. The prevailing sentiment, however, is not sinister; it’s one of empowerment. These are painterly renditions of New-York-style resilience, which is an admittedly reckless fortitude, no matter what the threat, no matter who the menace.