For part of May 2023, Lydia Dona’s abstract art could be seen in three separate New York exhibitions, each of which offered a different perspective on what she has been up to since 2008,  30 years after she moved to New York in the late 1970s from Jerusalem and began making a name for herself. Although Dona had her first solo show in New York in 1979, she did not begin exhibiting regularly until the mid-1980s, when the art world’s attention was dominated by Neo-Expressionism and Neo-Geo, and many artists were playing out the end of Modernism. 

From the mid-’80s until the early ’90s, Dona exhibited often in New York, but her shows became more sporadic after that, and her work never became branded, like that of others of her generation, such as Peter Halley. With her three May exhibitions, including a group show, Schema: World as Diagram at Marlborough Gallery, curated by Raphael Rubinstein and Heather Bause Rubinstein, I had the opportunity to get a fresh perspective on a well-known artist of the 1980s.

In the catalogue accompanying Schema: World as Diagram, Raphael Rubinstein wrote: 

Dona is preoccupied with the urban environment. These are paintings created with a keen sense of the invisible infrastructure that keeps a city running and, even more, of the constant breakdowns of urban systems. In their very diversity of sources, their multiplicity of overlapping languages, I see Dona’s paintings as reflections of the place where they are made, New York City, this dynamic site of “borderline engagements.”

Lydia Dona, “Levels in Momentum” (2012), oil, acrylic, metallic and sign paint on canvas, 84 x 64 inches

Dona began exhibiting in the mid-’80s, and her work was seen in connect to Jonathan Lasker, Fabian Marcaccio, and David Reed — artists interested in the relation between the direct application of paint and the photographic presentation, the original and the copy, among other things. Within all these approaches was a concern with the handmade and the mechanical. With her work and visual vocabulary, Dona gets right to the heart of the problem, the relationship between the machine and the hand. Her paintings bring together abstraction and representation, the hand-drawn mark and the projected image. Through her interweaving and range of paint applications, she defers a conclusion regarding painting’s possibilities, largely because she likes paint’s mutability — what can be achieved when you bring together oils, acrylic, enamel, metallic paint, and laminated iron oxide powder, all of which are in “High Impact” (2016). 

The nine large paintings in the exhibition Lydia Dona, installed in the lobby atrium at 375 Hudson Street, curated by Jay Grimm, are dated from 2008 to 2018. In the largest, “From Heat to Sub-Zero” (2008), the artist defines the territory she has explored ever since that time, using images derived from car manuals in combination with different kinds of paint. While Rubinstein’s observation offers a good way to understand what Dona is doing, it does not go far enough, which may be one reason her work is not considered by most in the art world at the same level as Peter Halley and Jonathan Lasker. She has not prioritized critical theory in her work. She has not published a book of essays or issued a manifesto, nor has she attached her work to a critical narrative.

Dona creates line drawings of car engines, mechanical parts, devices, and tubing, most often using an overhead projector. The image may be superimposed upon an abstract field, which is likely to be layered and composed of formally distinct areas that range from graphic contrast (light to dark) to tonal shifts (i.e., orange against rust red in “From Heat to Sub-Zero”). She may partially obscure the image with a splash or gestural mark, creating friction between image and mark, the mechanical and the handmade, control and surrender. But her juxtapositions, layering, and superimpositions never seem arbitrary; she works everything out in a painting process that seems open ended rather than formulaic. She exploits the particular properties of her medium in ways that bind the disparate elements together. 

Lydia Dona, “Busted Into Light” (2018), oil, acrylic, metallic paint on canvas, 60 x 72 inches

In “Platinum Journeys” (2016), a thick, encrusted puddle of black enamel in the upper middle of the canvas stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the painting. As opposed to what look like crudely drawn spools and a crank shaft, a partially obscured linear image near the puddle is not readily identifiable. Is it mechanical or organic? 

A trip to New York in 1915 inspired Francis Picabia to focus on machinery, and he attributed his exploration of machine drawings to his experience of the United States. After moving to New York, Dona began exploring the aftermath of what Picabia called “the genius of the modern world.” Does the black puddle refer to the waste we have produced in the name of modernity? Is it leakage from a machine or an indication that the machine has broken down? Are the tubes and engines trying to revive painting? 

The ambiguity we encounter in Dona’s work is an accurate reflection of her own deep-rooted uncertainty regarding painting’s possibilities, as well as resistance to reaching conclusions about the failures of modernism. For more than three decades, this ambiguity has generated enigmatic abstractions that join together legible and indecipherable parts. Dona treats different aspects of abstraction, including gesture and monochrome, similarly to machine manuals, as found material. What makes her work more than a series of appropriations is her love of paint — as both material and process. 

Lydia Dona, “From Heat to Sub-Zero” (2008), oil, acrylic, metallic paint & enamel on canvas, 84 x 192 inches (courtesy private collection)

Schema: World as Diagram continues at Marlborough Gallery (545 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 11. The exhibition was curated by Raphael Rubinstein and Heather Bause Rubinstein.

Lydia Dona continues at 375 Hudson (375 Hudson Street, Soho, Manhattan) through February 2024. The exhibition was curated by Jay Grimm.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...