Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Darby Bannard and the curse of abstract painting*

Green Valentine #3, 1965, Alkyd on canvas (65"x62")

There are too many artists, too many dealers and too much art. —Darby Bannard

Alfredo Triff

In 1964, Clement Greenberg organized a show for Los Angeles County Museum: "Post Painterly Abstraction" proved to be one of the most controversial events of the decade. The -mostly- young artists in the show rebelled against the heroic gestures of the Abstract Expressionists. They painted broad areas of color, reveling in the expressive possibilities of what Greenberg had called "openness and clarity." Amongst the 31 artists included were Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella, and Walter Darby Bannard.

Fast-forward to 2010: "Darby Bannard: The Miami Years," an exhibition at the Center for Visual Communication in Wynwood,1 shows a collection of more than 30 paintings executed between 1990-2009. Bannard, the subject of this event is now a professor of painting at the University of Miami, where he has been teaching for almost 20 years.

When you have made a good painting, don't do another like it.

One cannot understand Bannard, the artist, unless one carefully looks at his work. The paintings from 1990 clearly show the struggle in building the abstract form: Dark blue resin gets frantically splattered over iridescent, lightly pre-painted surfaces. The artist eschews balance for action, excising paint off the flat expanse while exposing rectangular bands of gaudy, positive-negative marks.

Keela, 1990, Acylic on canvas (91"x56")

Then, a pronounced sudden shift: The six acrylics from 1992 literally explode with garish fluorescent oranges, yellows and greens. With these chaotic canvases, Bannard trades balance and order for shock value. Of the series, Billy's Jupiter hints at the next development: It coagulates better. Semicircular up-and-down movements of the broom's bristles reveal yellow, orange and purple striated hues, as if sharp limestone layers got broken up by sudden quadrate voids of underpaint.

 Billy's Jupiter, 1992, Acrylic on canvas (44"x57")

By 2002 everything changes again. Ember Shoals and Umatilla are serene:

 Umatilla 2002, Acylic on canvas (44"x27")

Judging by the irregular size of the canvases it seems as if Bannard adopts a "paint" and "cut" technique: Imagine a huge painting containing all these "details".

The figures achieved by Bannard's squeegee have this ecological imprint, like the meandering course of a river or the aeolian dunes of a dessert. They also bring to mind delicate graffiti. The matter congeals with bits of color-drip and minute specks of tenuous hues coming from within the paste, like algae silhouettes, sprouting up from under the magma.

 Radley Shoals, 2005, Acylic on canvas (49"x49")

The last 8 paintings from 2008-2009 go into uncharted, abstract hybrid territory. They are proto-figurative, cartoonish and strident. Regarding this series, Bannard recalls Bonnie Clearwater, the director of MoCA, telling him in jest that he had "discovered Pop art 50 years too late."

 Crooked Mile, 2009, Acryclic on canvas (53"x55")

Live to paint, don't paint to live.

Darby Bannard belongs to two equally important movements of the early 1960's in American art: Minimalism and Color Field Painting. Yet, he is not recognized as a major figure in each one of them: A catalyst, a witness, a participant, but not one of the main characters. What happened? By 1964 at the same time that Bannard was recognized as a Color Field painter by Greenberg, he already had a reputation for making minimal, geometric paintings, which, in the early 1960's were referred to as "hard edge."

Clear Yellow, 1962, Alkyd on canvas (65"x62")

Color Field Painting and Minimalism –as "hard-edge" was later called in the late 1960's- differed in important ways. While Color Field Painting sought transparency, Minimalism aimed at economy. Color Field painters looked for clarity and anonymous facture, rejecting Minimalism's fascination with ideology.

Hopewell Valley Sun, 1959, Alkyd on canvas (63"x62")

On the other hand, minimalists had little patience for intuition. Interestingly, Bannard incarnated both:

Untitled, 1959, Brushed Alkyd resin on paper (24"x18")

Why didn't he stick with Minimalism? For someone as adept as he was with both vocabularies, it's ironic that as Minimalism gained prominence, Color Field was losing market momentum. By the late-1970's Conceptual Art, Minimalism and to a lesser extent Pop art, crowded the market for attention. Color Field was already passé.2

Bannard was a promising painter even before he got his first solo show in 1965. Paula Harper, professor of Art History at the University of Miami and a respected critic, recalls having seen a painting by Bannard in Leo Steinberg's bedroom. At the time, Harper was a student in Steinberg's class at Hunter College, where Steinberg was a professor of Art History. Along with Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, Mr. Steinberg was one of the gurus of the New York Art scene of the 1960's. When contacted on the phone by this writer, Mr. Steinberg, now in his 90's, recalls the painting: "It was back in the 1960's, a long time ago. Sadly, when I divorced, my wife got it."

Something that has contributed to the mixed reception of Bannard’s work is precisely his moving away too soon, right before critics, dealers -and the market- had enough time to understand it. The received idea is that style is like human character. It builds through time. One cannot change one's style so quickly that the work is perceived as being too reactive.

A New York painter and critic who prefers to remain anonymous agrees: "He should've stuck with his early stuff. His work was very good in the early 1960's." Then, there is Bannard’s admission of his own experience with Leo Castelli. The famous New York dealer had a keen sense for the ups and downs of the art-market. He heard of Bannard through Frank Stella, who was Bannard's friend. Castelli expressed interest in Bannard's minimalist paintings from 1959-1963 and was ready to give the young artist a solo show. Problem is that in late-1964 Bannard was already exploring something else. "I was simply through with hard-edge stuff," he says. When Castelli went to Stella’s studio, the dealer asked Bannard in disbelief: "Is this what you are doing now?" Bannard tells the story and prompts a resigned smile: “Castelli hated the paintings."

Another artist who –like Bannard- sort of bridges both Color Field painting and Minimalism is Ellsworth Kelly, who after a career of 60 years is one of the foremost living abstract painters in America. When this writer brings Kelly’s example, Bannard reluctantly throws his arms forward: "I could not paint the same stuff for 50 years!" Then he asks candidly: "Experimentation, isn't that what art is supposed to be about?"

Art makes you reinvent the wheel with regularity. If you don't, art gets bored.

There is more than whim or bad luck to Bannard’s –periodic- shifts. To understand the big picture, we need to go back once more, right after we left off: At some point in the 1970's the texture got more dense, the resin-like surface breaking as if by a pressure from within, exposing cracks and blemished pores. Bannard's texture ambivalently swings from heavy to  washed out:

Black Forest, 1974, Acrylic on canvas, (41x52)

During the early 1980's, the artist gave up paint and started using only gel. This is the beginning of the "scallop period:"

 Tridacna, 1982, Resin on canvas.

Big monochromatic paintings, whose surface resemble the sort of specular crystals found in hematite ore. The mood is not geometric, but basaltic: organic outlines, like folded schist, compressed and rendered by heat and pressure.

Gusto, 1982, Resin on canvas.

By the late 1980's, Bannard’s oeuvre showed a process whereby each following stage seemed to point the contradictions implicit in the preceding stage. So, the paintings of the late 1960's keep coming back, now as iridescent under-layer for the paintings of the early 1990's. A reinvention, no doubt, which instead of rejecting, assimilates.

 Mandragora, 1969, (part of MoMA collection)

Don't apologize for, justify or rationalize bad writing.

Another facet of Bannard is his stature as writer/critic, well documented by numerous articles he has written throughout the years for renowned art magazines, such as Art Forum, Art News and Art in America, amongst others. Writing, is no doubt, important for Bannard the artist. And as much as he shuns the idea of theorizing, since one cannot discuss without a background of ideas to start with, one could argue that by engaging theory, Bannard's already doing theory.

Just to give two examples: Art and Nonsense from 1980 is a fine piece with good advice for artists and critics.3 The Unconditional Esthete from 1987 elaborates a nuanced hypothetical discussion (written with admiration), where Bannard amicably trades jabs with his friend and mentor Clement Greenberg.
Teaching keeps me creative.4

For 18 years, Bannard has trained and formed a whole generation of Miami painters, like Jordan Massengale, Lucas Blanco, Franklin Einspruch and George Bethea, amongst many others. They speak of their teacher  with respect and admiration. David Marsh is a young student who graduates in May. This summer, his MFA show will be exhibited at the Dorsch Gallery. Over the phone, Marsh points to his teacher’s strengths: "Bannard doesn’t disturb you. He points what is successful in a direct, clear manner. He’s always ready to help. I couldn’t have a better teacher." Bethea agrees: "He has a great eye, and a way to show you the best options. Darby can also be very honest and tell you something you need to hear." 
*This article was originally written and intended as an assignment for The Miami Herald. When submitted, it was deemed as too idiosyncratic to appear in the art pages. The reason? The paper wanted a profile of "Bannard the man." 1"Darby Bannard: The Miami Years," Through March 27, at the Center For Visual Communication, 541 NW 27th Street, Miami, (305) 571-1415, a 2007 article for Art Forum, Michael Fried laments that Color Field did not appear in a compilation he called "monumental and tendentious": Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (2004), edited by Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Hal Foster, and Rosalind Krauss. 3Bannard writes: "Materials demonstrate their character when they enter the process of art-making. Then they tell the artist, just as the world tells the organism: do what you want with me but pay close attention to what I am, because if you don't you'll come to grief." 4All of Bannard's in-between-paragraphs quotations (with the exception of the last one) can be found here.


RI said...

Splendid work, excellent writing.

Feminista said...

Why a "curse"?

AT, am not surprised AT ALL by The Herald's response to your article. I don't know what they do but it's not art reviews. I'm definitely visiting the show.

silentmonk said...

why curse? is it because many abstract artist stay with a signature style and continue to push it until they cant anymore, why darby bannard constantly changes with what he is interested never really cemented in anyone group of abstraction?

miamibourbaki said...

Feminista, Bannard refers to a curse in the sense of starting from zero, a blank canvas with no mimesis.

Thanks, silentmonk. I don't think there's anything wrong with pursuing a line to exhaustion. But again, when is something exhausted?

Merci, RI.

Lucas Blanco said...

Nice write up Alfredo. Only noticed one little typo. Marsch's show will be his MFA not BFA. To bad it won't be published in the Herald. Thanks for including my name as one of his students from the hundreds of young artists who have benefited from studying with Darby. It really is a gift to be able to teach art the way that he does.

miamibourbaki said...

Thanks, Lucas. It's fixed already.

Gloria A. Lastres said...

I really like Bannard's philosophies on art, on life really, such as:
"When you have made a good painting, don't do another like it." but my concern is the artists we want to see more from will limit themselves, and those we'd rather not get bombarded with, continue...

JR said...

Research and writing are really right on target. Congratulations, friend!

silentmonk said...

your right, in essence it can not be exhausted because art can spawn unlimited amount of variation. the artist chooses when he can not pursue a certain path of style or technique because it is no longer suitable. pollock when back to some form of figuration and representation after he couldnt do the "drip" paintings anymore, while in a different case rothko found his path and stayed with it til his suicide.

I was looking towards our current global art scene/market where the demand of a "hot" artist is greater than the work he/she may produce, and many times in my opinion doesn't allow them to experiment. giving the artist a sense of fear to losing their current status of fame.

Daniel Kany said...

Newspaper editors are the ones to make their call on what they want for content - it's their business because it's business. That's cool.

That said, I really enjoyed the article.

Frankly, I could care less about this or that artist. Carl Andre was a-hole but I still think his work is brilliant. Van Gogh was insufferable as well as insane. You aren't encountering Frank Stella in the museum - just his paintings.

I like art - not artistic celebrity.

And I like this article.

miamibourbaki said...

Thanks, JR, Daniel. I agree about your point on celebrity. Indeed, fame and quality are not necessary to each other. Keep visiting.