‘Contemporary art depends upon context, a commonplace perhaps, but the artist’s intentions, tactics and talents are today always adjudged depending upon the where and the how of their presentation. Thus we are presented with the enigma of Duncan Hannah, a New Yorker enviably freighted with pop cultural mythology, a veritable Zelig who runs in the most modish Manhattan circles, confrere to everyone from Vincent Gallo to Johnny Thunders and Patti Smith, but whose oeuvre is fully pledged to some Anglophile Arcadia.
‘Hannah makes no secret of his heroes, artists such as William Nicholson, Henry Lamb, Augustus John, William Orpen and, above all, Walter Sickert, the greatest painter of the 20th century in his highly considered opinion. Once launched upon that enjoyable albeit ultimately reductive “comparison game,” one might be tempted to bandy about the names of those very early-20th-century American artists in Europe like Richard Hayley Lever, Robert Henri and especially Edward Hopper (in regard to his early oil sketches of Paris). While here in New York, Hannah might appear as an eccentric maestro trading in make-believe; on the other side of the Atlantic, he has the status of a connoisseur re-mixing and extending the English tradition in a logical progression.
‘But that is not it at all. That is not what it means at all, to paraphrase another WASP anglophile, because though Hannah welcomes and, most importantly, can well withstand detailed practical comparison with the above artists, his actual technique and sheer skill remaining nonpareil, he is entirely aware his work will not be thus judged. For rather than being ranked against such past masters, rated according to the rules of, say, the Slade under the tutelage of the legendary taskmaster Henry Tonks, Hannah’s work is, of course, appraised by the criteria of the international art-game of 2007, by the flavor-of-this-month rather than the last or next one. And as such, its position becomes the more intriguing, its capacity for resistance and restitution to current practice all the richer.
‘For though the history of postwar figurative painting undoubtedly exaggerates its isolation and disparagement, a “myth of opposition” against the reality of its continual healthy existence, it is certainly true that when Hannah attended art school at Bard in 1972 it was far from the dominant mode. Nor was it usual to find one’s imagery exclusively among French or English subject matter from the 1920s and ‘30s, most notably its cinema.
‘But tracking the micro-history of such phenomena one should be aware that there are fashions in nostalgia as well as everything else. And Hannah’s impressionable jeunesse coincided with that first, early 1970s fascination with all things retro, from Chanel to F. Scott Fitzgerald, cocktails and flappers, Jazz & Zoot, as evinced by everything from the Art Deco revival to Biba, Roxy Music and The Boyfriend. The downtown New York scene of the mid-‘70s included deliberately old-fashioned dandies, including McDermott & McGough who actually back-dated their paintings to much earlier decades, among a groundswell of rising figurative tendencies.
‘In such a milieu it makes sense that when Hannah told his friend and mentor Andy Warhol he was trying to paint like Balthus that Andy should reply, “Oh, what a great idea. Gee, we must do that, we’ve got to paint like Balthus!” For the supposedly reactionary and the radical are forever admixed into the very DNA of figurative painting, a series of actions and re-actions which continually shift the discourse of this medium.
‘One strategy to enrich this argument is through narrative, fantasy and plot — that always moot issue of pictorial story-telling. This might be exemplified by a 1987 exhibition organized by Douglas Blau in New York which gathered such fabulists of the era as Troy Brauntuch, Mark Innerst, Michelle Zalopany, Jack Goldstein and Mark Tansey. This was entitled “Fictions,” which curiously is the same name as Hannah’s current show in which the literary link is made all the clearer thanks to a recent series of 41 x 48 cm. paintings that systematically portray the covers of period Penguin and Pelican paperbacks.
‘Framed by the gallery’s doorway so they become a dominant element of the exhibition, these works are paradoxically very much paintings, their relative looseness and brushwork proclaiming their status, their scale and texture distancing them further, while their titles prompt topical comparison, whether Art in England or Undertones of War. These works have a Jasperian nay Johnsesque semantic double-bluff, their painterliness and thingness working towards and against each other, a rebus that confounds our reductive expectations of the object through bravura painterly panache.
‘Hannah clearly loves these things, he loves not only the design and typography of such books but also what they represent, an entire period of Anglo-Saxon publishing, a vanished world within which they were quotidian objects and which still exists inside the texts of these volumes. These Penguin books are simultaneously artifacts of antiquity and bearers, containers of its continued message, still readable, re-visitable today, to be potentially recaptured by the act of reading as Hannah pins the past in paint.
‘This love is the key to Hannah’s oeuvre, a refusal to give up what he most admires, what in truth he most wants, whether Scottish Twilight or German Gymnast — however remote they might seem in time or reality, they can be his, and ours, through the transmogrification of art. Hannah is, without hesitation or embarrassment a romantic whose attraction to the past is so palpable, so resonant, it is immediately communicated to the most casual viewer.
‘At the risk of burying his singular talent under an avalanche of names the most pertinent comparison between Hannah and other contemporary practitioners would be with Karen Kilimnik (who shares his Mod London penchant) and Elizabeth Peyton, whose esthetic is also based upon a love — fandom — both pop and regal.
‘If all art is in some sense about “loss,” Hannah suggests that through the alchemy of image-making, through the long, laborious and pleasurable task in itself, the artist may “lose” himself while finding, restoring, the sanctity of the physical world and all its antecedent history.’ — Adrian Dannatt
Duncan Hannah page @ Facebook
Duncan Hannah’s Blog
Duncan Hannah at Castillo/Corrales
Duncan Hannah interviewed in 1982 by Simon Lane
‘Duncan Hannah and Anna Taylor (1981)’
Duncan Hannah works @ Paddle8
Duncan Hannah @ IMDb
‘The lady vanishes: Nova Pilbeam’
‘Le dandy Duncan Hannah’
‘Spotlight On Artist Duncan Hannah’
The artist in his youth
Paradigm Presents Rear Window with Duncan Hannah
Trailer: ‘Unmade Beds’ (1976), starring Duncan Hannah & Deborah Harry
Trailer: ‘The Foreigner’ (1978), starring Duncan Hannah & Deborah Harry
An Afternoon With… Duncan Hannah
Duncan Hannah in Manhattan
“I have a large collection of classic Penguin paperbacks, and they’re so beautiful,” Hannah says. “I paint them with all their distressed-ness, and dog ears and rips. I must have done 80 or 90, and I started making some up, like Cautionary Tales by Duncan Hannah, a book I was going to write about my life and times. I only got so far as the cover.”
Having grown up in Minneapolis, Hannah “can definitely see the St. Paul in F. Scott Fitzgerald; partly it’s that yearning he had to be in the East.” Hannah’s Triumph in Brussels (Above) also reflects yearning: “It harkens back to when I was a kid in the 50’s, and thought adulthood would mean having a gorgeous sports car and a redhead at your side.”
“Sometimes I feel ghetto-ized by people who say, ‘oh, it’s nostalgia,'” Hannah says. “The way I paint, I suppose you could find in a painting from 1935. But I had to teach myself to paint that way. Once I realized there was a narrative impulse I wanted to explore, I slavishly studied paintings by dead painters to try to figure out how to do it.”
Just as the 18th-century English painter George Stubbs was famous for his thoroughbreds, “I thought maybe I should paint a series of race cars,” Hannah says. “Getting the gleam on the fenders was really fun.”
Hannah describes his work as “a trip through other times, done in a rather straightforward style” that he arrived at after artist David Hockney told him, in the 1970s, to “take all the gimmicks out.”
Among the “gimmicks” Hannah abandoned: writing on paintings, and borders, and scribbly bits that were there to make a painting look jazzy. “Hockney said this was like putting your painting in quotes, and hedging your bets, instead of trusting your painting to itself,” Hannah says. “He said, ‘Forget about the zeitgeist.’ ”
“I was always an imaginative kid and I loved other eras, cultural history and art history and film history and biographies,” Hannah says. “I always wanted to roam around in the 20th century, just as a novelist or a filmmaker might choose to dwell in the past.”
In Upper Fifth, Hannah depicts actress Sarah Miles as she appeared in her film debut, with Laurence Olivier in Term of Trial.
When Hannah moved into his apartment, previously occupied by the Swedish Institute of Massage, the rent was $450 a month, but it had no kitchen. He installed a sink, along with a stove, and a refrigerator. “It did have a full bathroom, though, which was very useful,” he says.
Hannah’s art collection includes works by old friends, antique store finds, and “swaps” with other painters. Rooftop (Above R) is by the visual artist Joe Brainard, who died of AIDS in 1994.
The guest bedroom, painted billiards-room green.
The guest room is filled with juvenilia — wooden ships, and boys’ adventure books, and a bicycle—and Hannah tells visitors: “If you fall asleep in this room, you’ll have dreams of your childhood.”
The view from the master bedroom. Every morning Hannah wakes to the sight of two cherubs, above the door of the Beaux Arts Dorilton, holding a shield with a letter “D” on it. “It may be for Duncan,” Hannah says.
Small Sorrows (2005)
Winter is Blue (2011)
Lee Remick as Temple Drake (2010)
Thames Valley (2010)
The Second Mrs. DeWinter (2007)
Punting on the Cam (2010)
The Loom of Youth (2011)
Nova Sleeping (2005)
Love’s Young Dream (2005)
Prince & Princessa (2009)
The Mystic Twig (2009)
The Weekend Mystery (2008)
By the Sea (2010)
Bugatti 1924, Cap-d’Antibes (2011)
John and Jane (2007)
En Route (2007)
Air Boat (1996)
Little Angel (2005)
Upper Fifth (2009)
Monica’s green coat (2011)
Orpheus and Eurydice (2008)
Regarding Rosemary (2006)
The Ascent (2012)
Spy Story (2008)
The Green Hat (2003)
The Partisan (2013)
The Shipwreck Boys (2004)
The Shipwreck Boys in Yorkshire (2006)
The Shipwreck Boys on Regents Canal (2008)
p.s. Hey. ** James, Hi, James! Yeah, it was really nice meeting and talking with you in London. I’m glad you de-lurked. Do continue, if it feels right. Very interesting about that theater adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ ‘La Maladie de la Mort’. That’s my very favorite of her books. I’ll go hunt down what information I can find on it. Maybe, yeah, it’ll wind up back here. Thanks! Hope to see you again. Take care. ** Shane Christmass, Hi. Yep, he’s good, unique, singular. Ha ha, good luck not getting outed as a book writer, although it might be your chance to see if you have crossover success in your future, you never know. With Green, you kind of can’t go wrong, I think. But I’d say ‘Party Going’, ‘Concluding’, ‘Nothing’, or ‘Loving’ maybe? ** Jeff J, Yep, cool. Mm, I’m not sure if I have a total favorite Green. If I did, it could be ‘Party Going’. ‘Loving’ is pretty great. Right, 4:30 pm my time Sunday works for me, so let’s set that in stone, as it were, and talk/view then. Look forward to it! ** David Ehrenstein, Indeed. ** Steve Erickson, Yes, that seemed a safe bet. Curious about the Tsai Ming-liang and interested to read your thoughts, naturally. Everyone, Get Steve’s lowdown on Tsai Ming-liang’s new film YOUR FACE right here. ** Misanthrope, And you’re back! I would say prose-poetry is a fine description, yes. Sounds like a total blast, predictable London transportation issues notwithstanding. And great company. It’s good to hear that Rigby is up and about. And Marc and Wolf! I had the same wonderful catching up and laughing with them just the other week. And the mighty Mieze! I’d love to meet her one of these days. Philip Best, who I just missed meeting in Paris. All very cool. Napping during a CE show is so interesting a response that I totally approve. Yeah, great times, man, awesome. You sound refreshed or something. I’ve been pretty good. Dentistry on the bad side and amusement park road trip on the good side and lots of work in the middle. ** Jamie, Gee willikers, Jamie! Yes, all of his novels are excellent. Well, I haven’t read every single one, but at least most are top notch. I’m good. I hardly notice the tooth or, rather, gap now. Just something new to do with my tongue when I’m bored or anxious. The dentist did ask me to stop smoking for a few days, and I did not heed his advice, but I have compromised by brushing my teeth post-cigarette. Hooray for your joyful physical state and near-weeping. Uh, gosh, I feel like I would have tons of film suggestions. What’s your mood asking for? My Friday: working on the TV script and trying to finalise some proposal docs for the new film ‘cos there’s a grant deadline looming and, as I’ve said, everything has to be translated into French before we can submit. Not sure what else. Something unexpected should arise. You, yours? May it be impeccably performed, perfectly produced, and play at 45 rpm. Love like the fourth Byrds album minus ‘Mind Gardens’, Dennis. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. They don’t have fancy, futuristic, magical walking enhancing high tech devices at this late date in time?! A lot of people I know seem to be revisiting Dennis Potter lately. I should. Have a fine, fine day. ** Okay. Since I originally posted this Duncan Hannah exhibition/intro, he has published a terrific, wild, much liked memoir — ‘Twentieth-Century Boy’ — that I also recommend. See you tomorrow.