Duncan Hannah - Eccentric Painter
« The past is never dead. It's not even past. »
This famous line from the Faulkner novel, Requiem for a Nun, could be highlighted at every show of American painter Duncan Hannah. At first contact with the work and the man we are confronted with a style of studied anachronism—his painting seems so much to be an expression of memories--real or from books. Memories of atmospheres, landscapes or objects from a long lost world. It invites us on a nostalgic voyage, in search of lost time and gives rise to a feeling of being faced with something familiar and outdated at the same time. Without a doubt, his sources send us inevitably back to 20th Century America, crisscrossed by multiple currents, « I’m a 20th Century collision, that’s what I am » he declared one day in a statement that well describes his work. His point of view is profoundly American, in his nostalgic vision of old Europe and its avant-garde references and fascination not only with 1930s culture but also that of the 1970s mix of rock and punk, art and underground cinema. This is why when you become attached to Duncan Hannah’s life and work you cross paths with Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine, Larry Rivers and Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper and Francis Picabia, Alfred Hitchcock and Amos Poe. But in essence, isn’t crossing paths of worlds so diverse, Duncan Hannah’s way of escaping the Zeitgeist, and following his professor David Hockney’s advice? So many assumed and of course diverted references place Duncan Hannah in the position of great uniqueness.
In his generally small format paintings, the scenes and characters diffuse the same feeling of suspended time as in Edward Hopper. Harsh cinematographic lighting accentuates the shadows, exactly like that of the Interwar Realists, of the Precisionists and of the Neue Sachlichkeit. The scenes, just like parts of a mentally rewritten scenario, are realist and stamped with mystery at the same time. The very pictorial technique is used to restitute places and atmospheres that could have been settings for a detective or spy novel. The principal subject matter of his work – solitary figures, empty landscapes, airports, nocturnal street scenes, young women in interiors a la Balthus, communicate this feeling of disquieting strangeness treasured by the surrealists and the German artists of New Objectivity. As in their work, the act of waiting, the seemingly peaceful landscapes, the enigma of the day, the smooth expressionless faces of Hollywood movie starlets, emanate from the paintings of Duncan Hannah. Whereas the images are sometimes extracted from old magazines, postcards or movie posters, whereas the outcome could be a kind of kitsch in the vein of Picabia’s 1940s canvases, the very personal universe of Hannah reveals itself little by little.
On closer examination, the multiplicities of these references dissimulate the affirmation of an art off center, even more subversive because it appears clear and readable. These allusions to art of the past are so implicit that they end up escaping, leaving us facing work that is bizarre because of its obviousness, eccentric because of its references, abstract because of its realness. Also couldn’t we talk more about the anachronous? Surely the cultured pose of Duncan Hannah is one of 19th Century impertinent dandies whose unique goal was to “combat and destroy triviality” to quote Charles Baudelaire in Curiosités esthétiques, the title of which could be appropriated by Duncan Hannah. The painter takes real pleasure in restituting his imaginary worlds, making places and characters cohabit in his canvases, associated according to his fantasies. In the astounding portrait gallery that he conjures up, reality and fiction are mixed, high and low culture, past and present. By a play of imperceptible temporal shifting, he invites us to plunge into the 1950s, of his childhood and remembrance. A world of a well-positioned anglophile, with its green hued landscapes, its Scottish castles and Grand hotels on the Riviera, adventure heroes and children’s games, we can associate with representations of racecars and battleships. From his paintbrush emerge, in their true identities, figures of a personal pantheon that he materializes and resuscitates for his own pleasure: writers (John Fitzgerald, James Joyce), decadent poets with tragic destinies (Ernest Dowson), or friends (journalist Glenn O’Brien), film actresses like Nova Pilbeam heroin of Hitchcock movies, Catherine Spaak, Isabelle Huppert, Lee Remick in the part of Temple Drake.
At the same time, Duncan Hannah jubilation with painting is apparent in the paint strokes that restore the variability of atmosphere (reference to the postimpressionist ambiance in the Camden Town Group) and the incessant play of shadows and light. The softness of the pastel or at times fluorescent colors, the knowledgeable rose hued palette illuminates certain portraits of starlets, sometimes overexposed, whose precise profiles are detached from a background of intense color.
For the artist, «Figurative painting has some kind of narrative to it. I find that my paintings are much more autobiographical than I think they are. Sometimes I just think of formal subjects. I think, well, I should do a figure in a landscape. That’s what I need to do after all these interiors I’ve been doing. Then I find that the narrative qualities have always got to do with my personal life, with what’s up, what’s been happening”.
This allusion by Duncan Hannah to his own biography brings us in a surprising way to the New York underground, when he arrives there in the fall of 1973. As soon as he gets out of Parsons School of Design, his active affiliation with punk rock, one of the most excessive cultural and musical movements of the end of the 20th Century, is as much the imprint of Duncan Hannah as the subtle anachronism of his painting. Aiming for the center of the New York downtown scene, he can often be seen at CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, Mecca of 1970-80s New York punk rock and no wave. A meeting place not just for musicians but also poets and artists, the young Duncan can be seen in numerous photographs of that period after a Patti Smith concert with the producer Steve Paul, the Warhol photographer, Leee Black Childers. Critical observer of this world, Duncan Hannah is often mentioned in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, describing the lifestyles of musicians, drag queens, and night owls. The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and The Stooges, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, the Ramones, Blondie, Television or The Talking Heads, are all « people who made him what he is » as much as the above mentioned painters and writers. Rapidly, Duncan Hannah’s Bohemian dandy look attracts attention. You can see him in underground films, such as Unmade Beds (1976), opposite Debbie Harry, singer of the group Blondie, where he plays the central character, photographer Rico, Amos Poe’s homage to the French Nouvelle Vague.
This collision of worlds did exist in the New York of the 70s, incredible melting pot of creativity where intellectuals mixed with artists and poets, the prime example being at Andy Warhol’s Factory. Duncan Hannah willingly compares this period to the Montparnasse of the 1920s when “suddenly it was well viewed to be a young painter». In this period his work is seen next to other young painters such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Salle and Keith Haring. He participates in seminal exhibitions of new tendencies in contemporary art such as the Times Square Show in 1980, organized by the artists’ group Collaborative Projects Inc. or New York / New Wave at PS1 in 1981, and the same year, has a solo show at an uptown gallery in Manhattan.
That other modernity is expressed in his carefully constructed collages that are of a high aesthetic quality. Inducing another type of narration than the painting, the assemblages of photographs from magazines, wrapping paper, fragments of words taken from ads and theater tickets, are animated by acid colors that are very Pop. This time his sources are works of precursors of that movement, the Englishmen, Richard Hamilton or Peter Blake who designed the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover and whose collages are inclusive of an entire set of pop culture imagery ranging from cartoons to consumer goods.
Hannah’s fascination with the printed word comes from his admiration of poets of the New York School (bearing the same name as the group of abstract expressionist painters): Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery James Schuyler, W.H Auden and Ron Padgett cross paths with artists Alex Katz, Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher and Fairfield Porter – very much admired by Duncan Hannah. At the heart of this intellectual New York, painters are promoted by bookstores (Gotham Book Mart) and publishers, (Turtle Point Press, Tibor de Nagy Gallery and Editions). Duncan Hannah contributes to the Paris Review, participates in the Poetry Project at St. Marks Church, does book and album covers and illustrations for magazines and newspapers like the New York Times.
There are many aspects of Duncan Hannah’s work that possess qualities of the poetry of the New York group, full of complex associations, clashing conversations or advertizing slogans. Among the works he admires, Hannah mentions the large format collages of Larry Rivers who was his teacher, and those of Joe Brainard, author of the poem I remember, that inspired Je me souviens de Georges Perec. There is a common ground between Duncan Hannah’s painting and the work of Brainard, also a perfectly polymath artist: poet, painter and illustrator. Like brief sequences of a Brainard poem, one finds in Duncan Hannah’s small format painting, the same attraction for the simple and the obvious, memories that capture atmospheres, a standard format that allows for a great variety of snapshots and sensations. Both deliver a full spectrum of images of 1940s-1970s America, fragments of intimate and nostalgic autobiographies, like the collective memory of a hunt for fireflies.
This affiliation with the literary world also explains the singular choice of small format paintings: the series Penguin Books, the famous English language pocket book editions. The recognizable design of these paperbacks created in the 1930s and updated in the 50s, is distinguished by its concise form, the choice of each acid color is associated with a literary genre, its highly readable typography and its logo, the famous stylized penguin.
Duncan Hannah has a taste for beautiful paper; he possesses a large collection of these books that he loves and paints with their defaults. Duncan Hannah’s Penguin Books combine these worlds perfectly, starting with a reference to the pop art silkscreen R. B. Kitaj book covers of the 1960s. Here we also find the same tonalities as in his landscapes and portraits. The flat surfaces of these paintings and the formal simplicity of their colored strips brought them closer to Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans. But they are a lot more than an ordinary standardized object in the tradition of Pop Art and a simple visual tool: the sources chosen by Duncan Hannah once again integrate his personal references, and in their apparent objectivity, refer back again to fragments of his own memory. This series functions like ex-votos that Duncan Hannah, in the role of an erudite gentleman, consecrates to his favorite authors. It’s not surprising to find once again, Joe Brainard’s I remember, poets Eileen Myles, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara, Dylan Thomas or the novelist Agatha Christie. The fictive or real titles are always evocative, as for example The Lost World by Randall Jarrell.
In reality, Duncan Hannah’s entire body of work is like the Penguin Classics book covers that he paints. Under a simple and colored appearance is dissimulated the complexity of content revealing as much of the viewer’s own experience as that of the author. Painting books reveals all the pleasure of fiction and appears like an imminently nostalgic gesture, a throw back to all periods of life. Also the works of Duncan Hannah very seriously ask the question of narrative and the relation of time to painting. In reality, the very conscious anachronistic positioning of an artist always brings up questions, especially if interpreted as anti-conformism overthrowing the presuppositions of art history. A deliberately provocative attitude, comparable to the New York artists McDermott and McGough, who deny present time and live like Victorian Dandies. This refusal of established order is contained in the Punk movement that also enables a certain form of paradoxical innocence and is very present in Duncan Hannah’s paintings.
Honoring his friend, the journalist Glenn O’Brien, Duncan Hannah evoked his “omnivorous appetite for beauty, humor and eccentricity, often combined”, his taste for a mixture of high and low culture “part of the same big picture ». These qualities that he judges cardinal, equally apply to his own conception of art, whose significance didn’t escape Andy Warhol. In 1976, in front of one of Duncan Hannah’s paintings, Warhol exclaimed: ”Gee – How come I didn’t have that idea myself?”