Saturday, August 14, 1982. I have come to Duncan Hannah’s apartment in the Upper West Side. I have met him once before, briefly. He appears to be a man attuned to the inevitability of eclecticism in the modern artist. At the same time he possesses an honesty which I find initially more disarming than surprising. Is he an anachronism or simply the good painter I think he is? I have removed my tape recorder and camera from my briefcase to find that both are kaput. Whatever the man is, he seems better equipped than I for our interview.
It is clear and sunny outside. On the table in his studio sit five reference books: This Is Amsterdam: From Dawn Till Night, an old anthology of still, black and white photographs, of men with woolen caps staring into reflective canals and pale Dutch women with tulips; Europe: A Journey with Pictures; a book on Kandinsky; and one on Kitaj; and lastly a thin volume entitled Spiders and Their Kin.
Duncan Hannah I’ve been in a vacuum in 1982, painting away, and I was thinking “What am I? I’m like Munch meets Walt Disney. I’m a 20th Century collision, that’s what I am.” And I was thinking, “You’re an American Poet, in the grand tradition of Hart Crane. That’s what you are.” Then I think I’m doing it because I like to play, because I never got out of kindergarten. I’m still playing, that’s why I do it. No. You do it because it’s a spiritual activity. This is where you pray.
The artist shows me his paintings. One of the first is called Night Flight.
I’ve done train stations before, but airports, that’s how people really travel these days.
Simon Lane What about spy books? And Secret Agents?
DH They always tell you how the Civil Service works. What I like about them is the atmosphere, going to the airport and getting on the plane. He’s going off, and he’s going to get into real trouble. It’s usually in the airport, when he’s in his trench coat, that’s when he stops to think. We’ve all taken flights, and flights are like that. You can take stock.
Agents. Writers. Lovers. Friends unwittingly planted in Duncan Hannah’s private landscape.
DH Most of my people just aren’t anybody. Unless they’re actually portraits. I think of them as Mr. Man, Everyman, or just the man from Camus, the man in the suit and tie, who drinks coffee and smokes the cigarette.
SL Duncan’s idiosyncratic response to literature suggests a refusal on his part to submit to popular tongue-in-cheek myth-making. His demystification of the famous, and indeed of many hallowed themes, is a warm and personal one. Irony and wit without the gloss. In Afternoon of an Author, F. Scott Fitzgerald sits on a fence in the countryside.
DH He’s staring into the abyss, there’s a sort of childishness about him. I guess you think of Fitzgerald either on The Riviera, or in the Plaza Hotel. So I put him in God’s country.
His paintings of Kandinsky and of Joyce, James Joyce Sings the Blues, are equally candid.
DH People treat Joyce so seriously, and he was really a big comedian. He loved to bring out his ukulele and play for people, roaring drunk. Of the Kandinsky: I like the idea of a gentleman mystic.
One of my themes is Bohemianism. Each new batch of Bohemians think they have invented all this stuff, like rampant sex and drinking, and it’s just as old as the hills. I liked the fact that there was nothing new under the sun.
Smoke emphasizes this. The rooftops of Greenwich Village just before dawn, the result of a drunken night with a friend who pointed out of the window, “Why don’t you throw a couple of drops of ink on the dawn?” There are two cats in the bottom of the picture.
DH They’re the witnesses.
SL Luxembourg Gardens is less overtly Bohemian. But this is Paris. It’s a picture of a toy yacht.
DH I like to do an abstract painting, in a liberal context. One thing I do, which I think surprises people, is that I paint upside down a lot, which abstract painters do all the time. I don’t know whether figurative painters do it or not, but I do. It’s a way to make sure the components work well with each other. I was actually trained to be an abstract painter, if it is possible to be trained as one. I wish I’d studied with Cézanne or someone like that. Somebody who was concerned with depth and volume.
Drawing is the purest form, I mean you’re really making connections, you look at the visual information, you’ve got a pencil and a piece of paper. How do you translate that? That’s about as pure and as crucial as you can get. You know exactly where you stand, all the challenges are right there. You don’t have to invent them.
I am struck by the diversity of subject matter in Duncan’s work. There is a restlessness thematically which I find refreshing, an integrity and clarity of purpose which at first seems at odds with his openness to a wide variety of material; as I see more paintings however, I become aware of a very particular unity of atmosphere. Duncan talks of the aura created by the consistency of vision of a writer or an artist of Greeneland and Kitajland.
DH I’m starting to see the boundaries of Hannahland.
I was different from my friends who studied at the Art Students League, who just did these really boring, pedestrian paintings. They always treated me as a joke. To modern painting I’m very traditional, to these guys I’m not traditional at all, I’m a nut, right? So I’m somewhere between the two. I’m trying to spell out a world I carry in my head, from memories, from wishes, from reading, from movies, from a lot of the world that’s vanishing.
Neither of us wants to go into nostalgia.
DH Say if a painting is 50 percent subject and 50 percent execution then you have to have a palette of subject too, so why 1982, and not the 20th Century?
I am looking at The Land of Locomotives. Duncan mentions Kandinsky, and of using the train as “a way to paint the landscape.” Another landscape painting, August, of the country around Florence, is dominated by the sky.
DH I just found myself looking up all the time.
I went into Alcoholics Anonymous a couple of years ago. To get well, they said you have to turn yourself over to a higher power. God? Well I guess I believe in God, so I had to think about it. Certainly God is all around, clouds, sunsets, dawn, that’s godly. Nature. So I started on heavens. If this was the Age of Anxiety I would paint the opposite, the Age of Harmony and Serenity.
SL I am now looking at Boulevard.
DH This is one of my favorites. It’s got an elegance to it.
The painting is of Paris, from a photograph of clandestine Resistance activity during the Occupation. Two cars (Citroëns?) are parked in the road. Men stand beside them. The Boulevardiers are taking their stroll, apparently oblivious to whatever is going on. The moment is frozen, captured in the manner of the photojournalist.
In Innocents I find more mystery, more expectancy. Two girls stand in front of some ornamental gardens. It is ethereal, enigmatic, loaded with symbol. “You can’t figure out what’s wrong. But there is something.” Duncan dislikes the extreme detachment of Magritte, of those Surrealists who concentrated on the factual metamorphosis of dreams. He favors instead “the dream quality which has nothing particularly surreal about it.”
His most recent paintings take dreams and turn them into quiet nightmares, not the kind resulting from deep anxiety or guilt, rather the ones you get from eating too much before going to sleep. These are haunting, troublesome images, of dereliction, both modern and ancient, but they are nevertheless transitory in nature, an identification with a certain state of mind, as opposed to any lasting neurosis. Haunted Hearts is particularly revealing.
DH In this case I was looking for a metaphor.
Figurative painting has some kind of narrative to it. You’ve got to train yourself to be a story teller. 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. And that’s true, you don’t really have to try with that kind of thing. If you’re sincere, and keep yourself serious and interested, and fascinated, it’ll all come. You’ll write your own autobiography.