Martha Diamond, a renowned painter known for her depictions of New York City’s ever-changing buildings, streets, and vibrant landscapes, passed away on Saturday after battling a lengthy illness. She was 79 years old. The news of her death was confirmed by the Martha Diamond Trust.
Martha Diamond’s artistic style was a unique blend of various approaches. She skillfully handled paint with the expressive flair of an Abstract Expressionist, focusing on materials. Her striking yet vivid portrayals of her hometown often reduced iconic structures and bustling streets to simple shapes and bold colors, reminiscent of mid-period Mondrian. To avoid monotony, she painted with her non-dominant left hand. Like her New York School mentors and friends, such as Jane Freilicher, Martha Diamond had a deep connection to her surroundings and often painted scenes from her light-filled loft on the Bowery.
Personally, Martha Diamond was a point of intersection, maintaining long-lasting friendships with poets, gallerists, and fellow painters. She dedicated herself to teaching generations of students and played a critical role in the development of American painting. Despite her vast range of influences and interests, her art itself was defined by what she chose to exclude.
One of her notable works, “World Trade” from 1988, showcased two thick, sooty bars hanging down the center of a six-foot-tall canvas. The color of the bars, a mixture of brown and pink, appeared denser at the top and bottom edges. Long brushstrokes created a distinct wood-grain-like texture, capturing the famous vertical lines of the buildings. The use of unpainted white linen exposed slivers and created a dazzling glare. Apart from a few smudgy red and blue lines behind the buildings and some diagonal strokes that resembled clouds, the painting was intentionally minimalist.
Martha Diamond explained in a video interview that viewers already have preconceived notions about the World Trade Center, and her painting aimed to explore what can be left out while still conveying its essence. The absence of extraneous details made the remaining elements even more profound. Viewers were compelled to engage with the paint, performance, image, idea, and their own expectations.
Martha Bonnie Diamond was born on May 1, 1944, in Manhattan to Norman Diamond, an internist, and Lillian (Levine) Diamond, a homemaker. She grew up in Hollis Hills, Queens, and Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan. She is survived by her sisters, Miriam Diamond-Barber and Elaine Diamond Ford, and her brother, Michael Diamond.
Martha Diamond’s artistic journey began in childhood, where she developed a passion for drawing. She often accompanied her father on hospital rounds near Central Park Conservatory Garden, where the towering Manhattan skyline left a lasting impression. She graduated with a B.A. in art and art history from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., in 1964, where she formed friendships with artist Donna Dennis and poet and art critic Peter Schjeldahl.
After a trip to Paris with Donna Dennis, Martha Diamond returned to New York City, where she engaged with poets Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett and explored the city’s diverse neighborhoods with Peter Schjeldahl. Poet Anne Waldman, another close friend, recalled their shared passion for becoming artists together.
In 1966, Martha Diamond found employment in the film department at the Museum of Modern Art. She gained valuable experience and immersed herself in the art world, attending various openings and enjoying meals in the gardens where poets would bring drugs.
Martha Diamond discovered her loft on the Bowery, below Houston Street, in 1969, and it became her lifelong home. In 1970, painter Joan Mitchell visited her loft and encouraged her to move her paintings, which she previously made flat on the floor, onto the walls. In the following years, Martha Diamond led printmaking workshops in New York City public schools as part of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Learning Through Art program. She also taught at prestigious institutions such as Harvard, Yale, the Goddard Riverside Community Center in New York, and the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in Madison, Maine. She served on the board of governors at the Skowhegan School for 36 years.
Martha Diamond’s first solo show took place at Brooke Alexander Gallery in 1976. In 1982, she debuted her cityscape paintings at the gallery. Later, she joined the Robert Miller Gallery. Martha Diamond achieved significant recognition, appearing in the Whitney Museum’s influential “MetaManhattan” show in 1984 and its 1989 Biennial. She received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1980 and an Academy Award for Art from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001. Her artwork has been acquired by prestigious institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim, among others.
However, Martha Diamond’s recognition never fully matched the significance of her work. Her friend Donna Dennis noted that there was a lack of interest in their artwork compared to male artists within their circle. She believed that Martha Diamond’s work deserved greater attention earlier on, as it was just as powerful 30 or 40 years ago. Nonetheless, Martha Diamond’s work will be showcased in a solo exhibition at the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles next year. Additionally, a survey exhibition of her work is planned for 2024 at the Colby College Museum of Art in Maine and the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut. She has gained support from prominent painters like Alex Katz and David Salle.