Jessica Diamond’s Apple Season (Artist’s Life #2) opens with a grass-green field. Painted directly onto the second-floor wall at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the 17-line, curvilinear poem is about fruit trees that are out of sight and forgotten. In the woods, Diamond observes, there are thousands of apples “never to be seen.”
Her wall paintings are “a kind of yearning to be a wild apple,” says Betsy Johnson, assistant curator at the museum, to be “outside of society.”
In “Jessica Diamond: Wheel of Life,” on view at the Hirshhorn through June 2, 2024, the conceptual artist peers in at a culture coming undone, fraying at the seams. Staged in the second-floor gallery, the enigmatic show overlooks the museum’s central courtyard, light flooding the ringed room. The 15-work installation, Diamond’s largest to date, exists both in and outside of time. A kind of autobiography, the show is at times literal, at others abstract, and ever fixated on the unseen, or what swells just below the surface.
Born in 1957 in New York City, Diamond studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York and at Columbia University. Her wall paintings, some gargantuan, others just a foot tall, are uniformly pointed: art with an edge. Diamond came into her own in the ’80s, when markets were booming and artists at once borrowed from and reimagined popular culture—think Jeff Koons’ psychedelic balloon animals. Like that of her contemporaries, Diamond’s work had, and still has, a contrarian strain; her wall paintings are simultaneously a reaction to and a reprieve from the commercial.
“She calls attention to the systems that shape our lives,” Johnson asserts. Her installations are a kind of invitation to “step back and question.”
Diamond found answers in the writing of Henry David Thoreau, whom she calls in an exhibition planning document a “one-person social revolution.” In his 1862 essay “Wild Apples,” Thoreau revels in the fruit’s great variety—its streaking, splotches and strains—but ends his treatise with a warning, borrowed from the Old Testament text of Joel, in which a swarm of locusts descends on Judah: “For a nation is come up upon my land, strong, and without number, whose teeth are the teeth of a lion.” Unrest looms in Judah, as it does in Diamond’s opening work, which begins with a resounding call: “Let / Me / Be.” The line, like so many in the installation, is a “touchstone for how she gets through,” Johnson says, “how she winds her way through life.”
For Diamond, the past is fertile ground. In Childhood Calling, one of the show’s cool-tinged paintings, the artist retreats to her early years. Scrawled in cursive across the expansive Rothko-esque work of royal blue atop forest green, Diamond writes, “Take Me Back / When the Leaves Were Always / Magic.” There’s something Proustian about the command, which hints at a simpler time. Diamond here is straining toward life not as it is lived but as it is remembered, without blemish, pristine. What magic do the leaves hold? The spare text, like so much of Diamond’s work, refuses easy answers.
Take Untitled (O Small Small Head), a periwinkle poem dappled with blush-pinks. The innocuous verse centers on a head, a small “Brown Bead,” a “White Orb,” and ends, as swiftly as it begins, with the command to “Speak!” Diamond here is addressing everyone and no one in particular.
There’s a similar air about The Law of Status* and a Nonpareil Cat (*Thorstein Veblen 1899). The ecstatic work, which pairs a fluid script with a blasé kitten, is an overt reference to the American economist Thorstein Veblen, whose 1899 work The Theory of the Leisure Class defined “conspicuous consumption,” the public display of not just wealth but also the time to enjoy it. The dominant feature in life, Diamond declares in her fiery piece, is “The Law of Status,” a pronouncement enlivened by the painting’s cherry-red Cheshire-like cat, donning sunglasses and the first hint of a smile like an affectless taunt.
The work anticipates M3 (In Life, Money), a behemoth of a painting. The gilded “M3” lined in crow-black is an allusion to the economic term M3, which measures a country’s money supply at any given time. In Diamond’s hands, the sum is hulking. The artist called the work a “monstrous false idol,” Johnson explains. The expansive “M” features a Greek column, a nod to democracy, and a foreboding stone wall facade. Diamond’s critique of capital runs deep. The work recalls her 1989 painting in which she emblazoned “I Hate Business,” in all caps, on a brick rooftop in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Flanking M3 in the show is a work easy enough to miss. Scrawled in ink-black script, the text is penned hastily and reads “Goodbye Edward Hopper.” Hopper, the American painter best known for his figures in isolation—looking in and out of a world in flux—is “a symbol,” Johnson notes, “of life before the madness.” His world is no longer, Diamond seems to say; the quiet, the stillness, is lost.
Yet “Wheel of Life” is a kind of return to that stasis, to a time gone by, if only for a moment. In a blaring world, Diamond’s paintings are deafening. Perhaps Hopper isn’t far off in a show like this one: He is in the stillness, in those who look closely.
Another sharp-eyed observer, Thoreau lived a life apart. In his 1854 book Walden, the transcendentalist reflected on the two years he lived on the titular pond near Concord, Massachusetts. While he received guests and visited the nearby village, Thoreau calls in the text for solitude—of an order less somber than Hopper’s and, perhaps, more productive. “Not till we are lost,” Thoreau contends, “in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves.” It’s that path that Diamond follows, giving herself up to the unknown. Even as she bids Hopper adieu, Diamond calls him forth, extending an open invitation to return, to keep looking.
There’s much to see in Bloom Constellation. Stay a little, it seems to say, let your eyes wander. Curiously, the picture—a smattering of electric-blue stars coalescing in a mesmerizing amalgam—is not of a night sky; rather, it is a fragment, drawn out, isolated, as if a dream, seen only in glints. And yet the picture holds one’s attention, like a face that can’t be placed, ever on the tip of the tongue.
The tension runs through Grit, a wall painting in which the artist’s elongated teeth are clenched together. Diamond flattered herself and closed the gap in her smile for the picture, Johnson says. The gritted teeth are paired in the show with Kiss, an airy work in which a single flourish dips and twirls, the faintest outline of two lips discernible. Where Grit is unnerving, Kiss is soft. The vicissitudes of life are here on display.
There’s a playfulness about the installation, an earnestness. What defines Diamond’s practice, Johnson says, is an awareness of the choices she’s making. “She stays true to her own voice,” the curator adds.
Diamond’s voice echoes in Samba to the Reckoning, each letter of the title rendered in arabesques, swaying this way and that, like a ballerina in time. The longer one looks at the picture, the more the text falls away and the footwork comes forth. The show, as Johnson puts it, mimics how Diamond carries herself through life, here with the élan of a dancer. The show, after all, must go on.
“Wheel of Life” ends as it begins: with panache. The final work, Words at Play: A Circle Thing (Thoreau, Thoreau, Thoreau…) #2, opens with an incantation of Thoreau’s name, which Diamond says “is like magic,” according to Johnson. Set against a cobalt-blue ground, Words at Play is a sprawling poem, not unlike the show’s opening work. The verse here is circular, a reminder that life ebbs and flows, returning to itself. “There is no beginning,” Diamond confesses in the poem. “There is no end.” The call echoes one of Thoreau’s pronouncements in Walden: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” There is still more to see, Diamond seems to concur, if only you have the time to look.
The painting is also a gesture to Walt Whitman, who, Diamond insists in the work, “sparkles from the wheel.” In Whitman’s poem of the same name, he is given over to a bustling crowd: “Myself effusing and fluid, a phantom curiously floating, now here / absorb’d and arrested.” Diamond, too, is phantom-like, her installation hovering over but never quite descending into despair, as if holding out for hope.
Thoreau takes up the same theme in Walden when he asserts: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost.” The dreamer is not far from truth, Thoreau insists; one only needs to believe it into being. Diamond has spent decades building castles in the air, works rooted in genuine curiosity and an ever-inquisitive spirit.
“Diamond’s voice stands apart,” Johnson says. Arrayed in pithy slogans and long-form prose, her installation is by turns critical and spritely. Some works feel conclusive, while others fail to resolve, but each is an invitation to look on and on. As Johnson says of the circuitous show, “You are meant to journey through it.”
On my visit to “Wheel of Life,” a woman stormed out of the show. Red in the face, arms flailing, she turned to her husband and cried, “It’s just writing on the wall! Where is the art?”
I can imagine Diamond’s response: Where isn’t it?
“Jessica Diamond: Wheel of Life” runs through June 2, 2024, at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.