February 5, 2021
Over the course of her fifty years as a painter in New York, Martha Diamond has applied her love of place and structure to canvases that capture the architecture of the five boroughs in striking hues and energetic, wet-on-wet brushstrokes. On the occasion of “1980–1989,” an exhibition of oil paintings and studies on Masonite made during the titular decade—on view at Magenta Plains in New York through February 17—Diamond looks back on her childhood in the city, her affiliation with the New York School, her informal education in painting, and her artistic community.
I WAS BORN IN NEW YORK, and I always drew. My father worked in the city as a doctor, and sometimes I would go with him on the weekends to make rounds in the hospital on Fifth Avenue and 105th Street, across from the conservatory gardens in Central Park. Taking the highway into Manhattan, I got to see buildings and bridges and tanks, and I liked what I saw. I’d ride my bicycle from Queens to the city, and I had a friend I would run around with named Lonnie, and we just did anything that we wanted to do. I was never intimidated by cars, or people even.
My first art problem, though I didn’t think about it in those terms, was when my family lived across from this nice little public school and I tried to paint the city street. Try and paint asphalt with Tempera. I did paintings that I didn't like when I was a kid because I didn’t know how to plan for them. You know if you try painting without any preparations whatsoever, you can make a mush for a long time. Eventually I figured out how to break things down into pieces and parts. I once heard a talk with Brice Marden about choosing a color to make a painting out of, and so I used that, like in Orange Light, 1983. I just wanted to find out how to make a painting and maybe how to make a good painting.
I went to college with Peter Schjeldahl and the sculptor Donna Dennis, and he was in Paris when she and I were there. When we came back, Peter took us to great places, and so you saw different apartments, different neighborhoods, different people doing different things. I used to go to the movies with Ted Berrigan. He was so supportive of the people that he encountered and knew, and the artists and the poets, and he would pay attention to and talk with them about their work, and that’s a blessing as far as I’m concerned. And the women were doing ambitious things, people like Jane Freilicher—she painted with paint and she made pictures you wanted to look at. The Museum of Modern Art—there were paintings I loved in that place, like Picasso’s figures. So I went to the MoMA to apply for a job in the film department organizing programs of study for schools and I got it. I learned a lot working there, helping with different openings. I would have meals in the gardens, and a poet would bring drugs, and that was great.
One day, a friend of mine brought Joan Mitchell to my studio. I was painting with pieces of linen on the floor at the time and she said you have to put a painting wall up. So Forrest Myers built one for me and helped me get my work up onto it and light it. That was a big deal—she was useful and treated me like a painter and made suggestions. I think being useful to someone is a big deal. I loved her work and appreciated the things she did with yellow particularly.
My studio is on the Bowery. I’ve been there about fifty years. The works in the show are from the ’80s, and most were in storage. Seeing the paintings again, I am amazed that I made them! They are muscular and athletic. Once I had paints mixed and a study on the canvas, I would start painting probably around ten in the morning, and I would just keep going until I was done, which could have been 2 AM. I was raised a righty, but I paint with my left hand because it’s connected to the part of the brain that sees space, volume, and probably colors better. You can do it too, and you’ll concentrate much more because the dominant hand has all the habits. During Covid, I’ve been hanging out on my roof, lifting weights and making paintings of Stuyvesant Town, where my family once lived when I was young.
I just try to give back something of what I was lucky enough to come into. When I was teaching at the School of Visual Arts, I tried always to help the women, because the women were not the focus in the university at the time. Nobody helped me out when I was a kid. No grammar schoolteacher helped me do bubkis. Without really making even a big thing about it to myself, I always tried to make sure that I gave the women what they needed to do what they wanted to do.
— As told to Canada Choate