Diana Al-Hadid: Excavating the Muse
The story of Gradiva, a sculpture that came to life, captured public imagination at the start of the 20th century. Today, the artist Diana Al-Hadid has resurrected her.
Diana Al-Hadid is a contemporary artist known for her large-scale sculptures, which draw inspiration from architecture, civilizations of the past and present, and the histories and possibilities of sculptural materials.
Born in Syria, Al-Hadid moved to Ohio when she was five years old. She studied sculpture and art history at Kent State University and received an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University.
She produces innovative sculptures and wall hangings in a range of material—fiberglass, polymer, steel, plaster, and more. Her work has been displayed in more than twenty solo exhibitions across the United States and in Europe and is included in the collections of the Whitney Museum, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the San Jose Museum of Art, among other institutions. In 2018, she completed a series of large mosaics for the walls of the new Penn Station in New York.
Diana Al-Hadid is not afraid of failure. If anything, she runs towards it.
Diana Al-Hadid: I always think about in terms of like just throwing things in the past, like, just make it, just finish it. I feel like the more I can produce the more I’m gonna know my work, and it’s sort of insatiable because it’ll never really end. But I feel like there’s better work if I can just get through this work.
In the last 15 years, Al-Hadid has become well-known for her large, intricate installations. She is celebrated for her innovative processes, and symbolic references to art history, but her life as an artist might never have been. Al-Hadid’s family immigrated from Aleppo, Syria to North Canton, Ohio when she was five. The transition from the Middle East to the Midwest was difficult, but made easier by the kindness of strangers along the way. One of the earliest was Diana’s first grade teacher, Mrs. D.
Al-Hadid: My memory of her is that she was just like this incredible, magical person, and she was in a sense a second mother, because she took care of me for the whole school day, and taught me to read, and interact with kids. Everything about her radiated acceptance and curiosity, and she just set such a high bar. And I remember thinking that she was always this person that we thought of as how wonderful America is, and how we’d see these bigoted people and say you know, you’d hear things, but there was always a Mrs. D.
But Al-Hadid never took any of these helping hands for granted. She relentlessly pursued her passion for creativity with a dedication bordering on the obsessive. Take for instance that time in grad school when she spent eight hours a day for months carving a giant piece of foam with a dental tool trying desperately to sculpt it into the perfect shape.
Al-Hadid: And the thing never looked right. I had it in so many different forms, I painted it, I scratched it all out, I recombined it, I put some of it on the wall, some of it on the floor, I tried everything to make this thing right, and it just didn’t, the organizing principle was missing, and everything was just peripheral stuff, and I just had to get rid of it. There was some core question, or something that I wasn’t, that I was, just like a blind spot. Like I really just wanted, I think I was the sculpture all as an excuse to learn how to do this technique or this process, just to get it right. And I kept re-writing the narrative around this carved foam business. But this is the beautiful thing. Now, what is it, 13 years later, and I just now realized a way to kind of give it.
AJC: Make it work?
Diana Al-Hadid is preoccupied with material, but not with the expensive meaning, and for the past few years, Gradiva has been her muse. Gradiva, or the one who’s splendid and walking, is the female character in a novella written by the popular German author, Wilhelm Jensen in 1903. It tells the story of an archeologist who falls in love with a Roman sculpture of a woman mid-stride. Obsessed, he begins chasing his hallucination of her through the streets of Pompeii, all the while trying desperately to rationalize his attraction. It was already a well-known tale, but in 1917, Sigmund Freud brought it to an even wider audience.
Al-Hadid: I think he thought of this as sort of an allegory of the psychoanalytic process, that you would excavate, of course you’re in Pompeii, so kind of to get at your root desire, you kind of have to peel back the layers, like an archeologist, and I found that–
AJC: What were you trying to say?
Al-Hadid: The story resonated with me, because my work is built physically by means of many thin, accumulated layers. So there’s a natural archeological let’s say character to my process.
AJC: Reverse archeology.
Al-Hadid: You’re seeing, right. It’s built up.
AJC: You’re building the onion inside out.
Al-Hadid: Correct. Correct. And I’m making the paintings in reverse, in a sense, because I’m laying out the first color and it gets progressively buried behind each subsequent mark and when it dries, all this drippy imagery that I have made, it gets reinforced with fiber glass, so it’s essentially like a fresco because those colors are embedded in the material and it’s like a tapestry, but it comes off and it’s these panels. So the making of the work was resonant with the narrative, and she also is just such a fabulous character, like she’s leading this guy around Italy, and I just find that the perspective of the narration really interesting.
Gradiva first appeared in Al-Hadid’s work in 2011. She returned in 2018, and in 2019 she took her place in the new Penn Station, a wing to the original Penn Station which was demolished after just half a century of use in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden.
Al-Hadid: It seemed appropriate to refer to the old Penn Station in the building of the new Penn Station, and I felt like Gradiva could kind of now pass through New York, and she kind of walks up the stairs and out of the station.
Like her Gradivas, Diana Al-Hadid is a woman perpetually in motion, always striving, forever searching for what’s next.