Martha Diamond, a native New Yorker, received a 2001 art award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. At the ceremony last month, Chuck Close presented her with the award and the citation, which read, "Martha Diamond's paintings are based on vision, nuance, gesture, light, reflection and atmosphere. The work is elegant, hip, compelling and thoroughly modern. This is serious painting, uncompromised, deep and infinitely rewarding."
Diamond has been a vital member of the New York art world since graduating from NYU with an MFA. She has lived and worked in the same downtown loft for many years, long before fancy shoe boutiques replaced the local Hell's Angels chapter.
In her sun-filled loft, flea market finds like 1950s lamps coexist elegantly with Italian leather sofas. Diamond's art collection includes works by Lois Dodd, Alex Katz, Hunt Slonem, Merlin James, Stephen Westfall and other contemporary artists with whom she has traded work. Her pristine studio boasts no distractions, save whitewashed wooden furniture, neat racks of paintings and Diamond's current work.
Diamond, who is widely known for her gestural urban imagery, has long been regarded as a brilliant oil painter. She works from small, jewel-like studies that she then translates to larger canvases. Her methodology takes on the immediacy of performance art. We spoke in her living room on a recent rainy afternoon.
Ilka Scobie: What were your first encounters with the art scene?
Martha Diamond: It was much smaller. The current scene is much more international. There were a lot of Abstract Expressionist painters to look at. Pop art was happening. Castelli had a small gallery uptown on 77th Street, the shows there were fabulous. Donna Dennis and I went to Paris for about a year, and when we came back, Peter Schjeldahl took us out to parties. I met a lot of people right away. The first party I went to in New York was at Bill Berkson's on 57th Street. Frank O'Hara, Larry Rivers, Alex Katz were all there. And John Ashberry, who said I brought out his latent heterosexuality, which I immediately told my parents.
IS: Was there a lot of socializing with poets?
MD: The people I knew, and still know, are artists and writers. There was the whole St. Marks scene. Ted Berrigan, who talked to and supported everybody. And Ron Padgett. Anne Waldman edited the Poetry Project at St. Marks and edited The World. There were a lot of collaborations between artists and poets. Joe Brainard and George Schneemann were especially active. It was a very dynamic scene.
IS: Which artists were you interested in, early on?
MD: I loved Jackson Pollock, Chinese brush paintings, Piero della Francesca and gothic cathedrals. I wasn't consciously influenced by other artists, until I learned more fundamentals myself.
IS: What inspires you as a painter?
MD: I always look at the city, and I do draw from life. I look a lot, I have a good memory for spaces, places. A lot of times, it's not the building itself that inspires the work. It's the idea of some type of composition to try, or some kind of brush handling to use. And then, you make the image out of it, or find an image that you can use with that idea of space or color.
IS: Tell me about how you work.
MD: I don't use lines a lot. When I put paint down, I hope it's going to have a certain light or weight or space, or to imply the same. The definition of the image comes out of the way the paint is handled. And the formal properties, the light, the space.
I actually began working this way many years before I turned to city images. After school, for a while, I painted with anything but brushes. Then I went back to oil painting and experimented with as many paint handlings as I could think of. It turned out for me to always be the brush.
IS: Tell me about the '70s...
MD: In the early '70s there were a number of people who were putting art work on the ceiling, around the room, growing from the floor up, working from the top down, using materials directly. That was an influence. And I began to go to museums more. And the Bykert Gallery, which was so hot.
IS: Jump start to the '80s...
MD: I remember Julian Schnabel, whose work I saw way early on, before he had a gallery. I was sort of shocked, but I never forgot the experience of seeing those works. They were huge, very tall. Slowly, I began to understand what he was doing, just in terms of scale and energy. And Joel Shapiro, whose work I always paid
attention to, once gave me great advice, "Don't edit in advance."
Paula Cooper Gallery was the place to look at new art. I began to appreciate Alex Katz's paintings, when I went back to using a brush. And the Italians came, and the Germans came, and a there was a lot more kinds of content, from all over the place, all over the world, ranging from Clemente to Keifer.
A lot of people began to paint again, when painting was supposed to be dead. The amount of energy in the '80s was a big deal.
IS: Which gallery were you at then?
MD: Brooke Alexander, and then Robert Miller in the '90s.
IS: And what are you working on right now?
MD: Figurative things where all the definition comes from the brush marks. I'm experimenting with anything that comes to me. You try everything, and eventually, all the ideas coalesce into a new idea you didn't know you were going to have.
Martha Diamond's work is currently on display at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and her prints are available at Stewart & Stewart.