David Diao, Triptych, 1972, Acrylic on canvas, 85 x 198 inches
In my previous essay, I called out auction houses and galleries for doling out credit for innovation when it serves their profit margins, in moves that essentially alter history to suit their needs. I focused on the use of the squeegee in painting and how certain auction houses, most notably Phillips, credited Gerhard Richter, rather than Jack Whitten, as the first artist to use it. The artists themselves never made this claim. In fact, most artists I have spoken with understand how the use of a new tool is not so simple; its first use is rarely, if ever, attributable to any one artist. Indeed, an innovation is alive and mutable as it passes from hand to hand. It’s just that the white male hands tend to get the credit.
A recent conversation with the artist David Diao expanded the story of the squeegee to include him and his practice in ways that are interesting for art history, and for the history of a neighborhood of artists.
In the late seventies and eighties in Tribeca and SoHo, unhoused men would move between cars stopped at red lights and commence to squeegee windshields in exchange for a handout, spreading city grit and leaving trails of grime and streaks of dirt behind. We all knew them. David Diao was the first to take this windshield washing tool upstairs to his Canal Street studio where he began to make works with a new squeegee purchased from one of the five hardware stores on his block.
When David Diao invited Jack Whitten over to his studio, Jack saw the squeegee used as a painting tool for the first time. Both men then invented their own versions of a squeegee which they used to make larger works. *
Further, David Diao showed these works in the 1973 Whitney Biennial. He also showed them at Prospekt ’73: Maler, Painters, Peintres at the Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, a show that included Richter’s work, but before he used the squeegee in his abstract paintings. It is likely that Richter would have seen this work of David Diao’s.
David Diao, Colombe-d’Or, 1972, Acrylic on canvas, 94 x 81 inches
Two decades later, in 1993, Diao took an essay by Benjamin Buchloh on Richter and made it into a print that he titled Synecdoche. Diao states that he “realized that if he changed certain facts, such as names and dates, and inserted images of his own early abstract works, the Buchloch essay could have been written about what Diao was doing some years before Richter started to make his own “squeegeed” abstractions.” **
David Diao, Synecdoche, 1993, Collage and silk-screen on canvas, 22.5 x 38 inches
[N.B., the squeegee is the central tool used in screen printing]
There are parallels between the under-recorded histories of Jack Whitten and David Diao: an artist of color uses a particular tool in a novel way in their painting practice but a white European male gets the credit.
A mise-en-abyme may be operative here; going further back in time, there may emerge more stories which beget yet more stories. This is why history is never final, but always alive. What is key, is that we all keep searching for the clearer view under the layers of those histories invented by and convenient to the wealth of Nations.
David Diao, Wealth of Nations, 1973, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 172 inches
*Author’s conversation with the artist David Diao, May 29, 2022
** David Diao, Philip Tinari, Michael Corris, Karen Marta, Pi Li, and Sarah K. Rich, David Diao = Diao Deqian. Bejing, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art; Munich: DelMonico Books – Prestel, 2018. Exhibition Catalog.
Heide Fasnacht, Bluetopia, 2022, Mixed media on wood panel, 60 x 96 inches
Heide Fasnacht is an artist who, after making sculpture for many decades, has returned to her first love: painting. She is an occasional squeegee user. Her work is in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the DeCordova Museum, the Walker Art Center, the DeYoung Museum and many others. www.heidefasnacht.com