Artists at Work: Luke Diiorio


This month we’re visiting New York-based artists in their studios, ahead of their fall solo exhibition openings.

Luke Diiorio graduated from Lehigh University in 2006 with a degree in philosophy and has been painting recreationally for 15 years. It wasn’t until 2013, however, that he emerged from the Royal College of Art in London with an MA and adopted his own contemporary form of minimalism. Now, the Brooklyn-based artist stitches together and folds linen and raw canvas, placing the fabrics directly onto wooden backings or stretching the sewn materials over frames. 

“The eye has intelligence that goes further beyond our language. It’s quick to the scene, so I respect that,” the 32-year-old says. “That’s why I have these [different] backings, because I know the eye can tell.”

Looking at his recent muted canvases, which lean against two walls of his Industry City studio space, Diiorio’s adaptation of minimalism has progressed even further with his removal of color. Previous hints of robin’s egg blue and light rose alongside dark browns and occasional lilacs are replaced by bleached and raw materials—pristine white, beige, cream, and brown abounded. Within Diiorio’s work, the artist’s presence is nearly invisible, apparent only through black pen markings that are often abstracted and folded into surfaces.

Diiorio refers to his finished works as paintings, yet his canvases transcend the boundaries between sculpture and painting, creating a specific visual syntax. “They’re sprayed with a gun and compressor, and bleach and different chemicals, so that is the painting, but then [the material] gets sculpted,” the artist continues. He uses minimal forms to explore two- and three-dimensional surfaces with one singular goal: to evoke pleasure.

Next month, the artist will display new works in his first solo show in the U.K.—”Sunset Park” at London’s Pippy Houldsworth Gallery—and will also participate in a group show alongside the likes of Bruce Nauman and Fred Sandback at Super Dakota in Brussels. During a break from his preparations, we met the artist at his studio.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: I want to start by asking how you went from traditional painting to the newer fabric works?

DIIORIO: This is new work for the past year and a half. I was always interested in fragmenting stuff, chopping an image up, and splicing the surface. The fold is a nice way to bring up an image. Even if the image is quite minimal, the image is abstract, but to break it up really fragments it, which I have always been interested in—in painting, sculpture, other people’s work, in language and poetry. So folding was a nice way to do it. The image travels.

MCDERMOTT: Because your works are so abstract and relatively conceptual, what exactly is the image for you?

DIIORIO: Any mark, any travel. That’s why I like writing on the canvas. The mark travels, goes on a journey, gets mixed up. It’s still recognizable, we know it’s language, we know it’s a manmade mark, but our mind also plays with that. We know it goes behind and comes back. We know it’s not invisible.

MCDERMOTT: I read something about how you don’t consider your work the same kind of minimalism that is formally referred to as minimalism—like Agnes Martin and Donald Judd—because of its new emergence with a different meaning. Can you talk about that?

DIIORIO: Minimalism is reduction. It reaches this radical point of, “Can we go any further?” A style was created—not necessarily a style, but a way of working. This goes beyond an art practioner; it becomes a vehicle to do other things. In many ways, the people who came before did the hard work; classic minimalists, like Martin, like Judd, American I would say, people like Robert Irwin, really broke down perception.

MCDERMOTT: One of your most influential books is Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Over Thirty Years of Conversations with Robert Irwin.

DIIORIO: Yeah, totally. And he took minimalism to the next level, or the original level, because he broke down his practice; he minimalized his practice. He would go out to the desert for months, for years, and not make a work, really just break down, “What does it mean to make a mark? Why am I making a mark?” He broke down his logic for making things. 

MCDERMOTT: How do you break down the logic for yourself?

DIIORIO: I don’t call myself a minimalist; I don’t work with minimalism. I know what it is, I respect it, and I don’t pretend that my work doesn’t come from that, because it does, but now I think it’s more like, “We have this language of minimalism. How can we work with it? How do we insert it in pop culture? How do we insert that into digital imagery? How do we play with it after years of history and talking about it?”

MCDERMOTT: Yet Agnes Martin is also one of your strongest influences.

DIIORIO: Yeah, Agnes Martin is an influence to a lot of people. She was certainly radical, and I think that’s a big difference: If you picked out a piece here [in the studio] and one of hers, I’m sure you could find some similarities, but she was radical. This is not radical. When she did those paintings, people were like, “You can’t do this. You’re crazy.” That’s why minimalism reached this point of extremism. This is not extreme painting.

These are abstract paintings but they’re very literal in a sense. This is a line that is a line; the shadow is its image in the painting; the linen is its own image. I would say the most abstract part of these paintings is adding color, which I do very seldomly. I’m moving out of that.

MCDERMOTT: What caused the shift away from color?

DIIORIO: This kind of goes back to Robert Irwin; I don’t know why I would put color in anymore. The work is about pleasure—I love pleasure, I want people to derive pleasure from this—but once it starts becoming more about the aesthetic value of the surface, I become a little less interested [in color], opposed to the immediate presence of raw linen. I take pleasure from the un-manipulated.

MCDERMOTT: What is the starting point for the shapes made within the folded linen?

DIIORIO: They come from a lot of drawing—not just drawing as a sketch, but drawing as, “How could I break down my drawing even more? How could I push the drawings?” It’s line, it’s definitely drawing, but it’s always breaking down an image; it’s a progression that takes years but it’s also pretty fresh. The drawings are immediate, and then we’ll cut the canvas maybe a day later. I don’t consider myself a drawer by any means, but drawing is very important—just hand, pencil, to paper—to get your ideas out.

MCDERMOTT: Do you carry a drawing notebook with you at all times?

DIIORIO: I carry a lot of notebooks. [laughs and points to stack of notebooks] These are drawings. We also have notebooks for titles. We have notebooks for shows. We have notebooks for everything.

MCDERMOTT: Going back to your childhood, how did you first become interested in art?  

DIIORIO: My folks are from New York. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and then we came back here to New York. I wouldn’t see a lot of New York gallery shows, but we were, as a family, interested in things like this. I lived with a very large family—there are seven of us, seven siblings—and we would go to museums together. We would look at modernist works. I never thought of becoming a painter by any means; it’s just something that decided itself. You keep doing something for a while, and you think you can do it alongside something else until it becomes more important. 

MCDERMOTT: Is there a moment at one of the museums or a piece of work or an artist that you specifically remember?  

DIIORIO: This might be the first time I’m recalling it, but I remember seeing [Frank] Stella’s Black paintings. Also Rodin sculptures, seeing Rodin in Philadelphia at the Rodin museum was striking. That was very serious for me because I didn’t see any joy in those. It was more like, “These are serious. These are kinda scary. What is this, these huge bronzes?”

MCDERMOTT: There was music playing when I first walked into the studio. Do you always listen to music while you work?

DIIORIO: Me and [my assistant] Sarah started listening to the Spanish and Mexican channels on the radio because I think they’re the only good music stations. We’ve been listening to some food blogs and I listen to sports radio, too. [pauses and points to the floor] These floor mats are very important. We have them in here because we’re doing sculptures with them. They’ll be stacked, and we started cutting in and manipulating them.

MCDERMOTT: I really just thought they were here to make it comfortable for you to stand all day and work…

DIIORIO: They are, but I like standing on them and looking at the paintings at the same time. I think there’s something there. There’s not much to them—they’re interactive, but they’re found objects, so they pretty much are just what they are. They’re a little bit conceptual, but I love them and want to incorporate them into my work just as is. I cut one and painted it, bleached it, and put it back together, but other than that they’ll just be mats that you can stand on, or not stand on, or not even look at. 

MCDERMOTT: So will there be benches in the gallery, or just the mats? 

DIIORIO: No benches. Just mats. I have nothing to do with benches. I know nothing about benches. Museums have benches. I know exactly what you mean, but none for me. Maybe sit on one of the paintings; that’d be nice. They’re kind of cushy. 

MCDERMOTT: You should just put fabric over some of the mats, and then they’d become—

DIIORIO: —next level. Now you’re getting it. [laughs] That’s why I like ’em. You stand on these and kind of feel with your eyes what maybe [the paintings’] surfaces feel like.

MCDERMOTT: Lastly, are you trying to say anything specific with your work?

DIIORIO: I would like to say no, but I am trying to say something. I don’t put a lot of stuff forward or show that much work because I have things to say but not as much as other people. I want to say one or two good things now and then—things that relate to form, things that relate to the history of painting, things that relate to pleasure, I would say, above all.

MCDERMOTT: Pleasure seems to be a recurring theme.

DIIORIO: It’s never something I thought about until recently, but when you break down painting and what you want to get out of it, you want to be involved in this rich history—you want to push boundaries; you want to be radical; you want to make a statement. But, if you can go one step further, why or how do you get there? What’s the vehicle? The vehicle is pleasure. You can look at a lot of things and say, “This is not a pleasurable painting,” but I think a lot of good painting and good art brings you pleasure in some way. That could be pleasure through revolt, or pleasure through rejection, pleasure through pain, pleasure through failure. A lot of this work, you can see, is about failure. Here we’ll make the paintings, we’ll put stuff together, and they’re not anything like what we think they’re going to look like. We anticipate that. So this failure, too, takes the form of coincidence, chance, unintentional—but are these paintings unintentional? No. It’s because we’re surprised, and we love it; I love it. That’s the pleasure. So when I’m making objects within an art practice, pleasure is definitely the end game.