Catalog essay for the exhibition "Walter Darby Bannard - Paintings from the '70s and '80s," at Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus Art Gallery, Miami, Florida, November 19 - December 21, 1990.
The paintings in this show were made from 1973 to 1988 - 15 years of painting since my retrospective at The Baltimore Museum of Art in 1973.
I am a self-taught painter. I started drawing seriously at the age of six or seven, and thought about becoming a cartoonist because that's what I spent a lot of time doing in college. However, I was taken prisoner by Abstract Expressionism in the '50s, and since then all I've wanted to do is paint abstract paintings.
During the late '50s and early '60s my painting was very minimal. Later in the '60s it got more complex, painterly and colorful. I used tinted alkyd resin house paints, for the most part.
In the early '70s I was drawn to the new acrylic mediums which were coming out, and I began making paintings flat on the floor with thick gel surfaces and color suspended in Magna or polymer mediums. Atalanta 1973 is an example. After that I returned to a kind of soft-surface minimalism, in contrast to the earlier geometric minimalism. These were dark days for me, and the paintings done then, such as The Marishes 1974, are appropriately somber and withdrawn.
All through the 70s I thought of color as a liquid, flowing over and settling in on a roughened surface, changing as it mixed and dried. The canvas was stapled to a slightly raised wooden platform and sized to shrink it tight. Then colored gel was scraped on with squeegee-like tools. When that was dried, colored polymer was poured on in layers and allowed to find its place.
After the monochromes of '73 and '74 I made more colorful pictures composed in vertical striations (Blinding Cables 1975). This went very nicely until a friend (who knew nothing about abstract painting) said that the technique was too regular and that I should shove all the vertical marks over to one side. I tried this, and that started me "composing" again, playing around with placement, close values and transparency. This brought about paintings I think of as "naturalistic," not because they look like nature as we see it, but because they were surfaces made the way nature makes surfaces. Chrome Terrace 1976, Melindrosa 1978 and most of the paintings done up to about 1981 were made this way.
In 1981 was asked to be a leader at a painting workshop in Emma Lake in northern Saskatchewan. I had my materials shipped up, but when I got to the studio building I saw that there was no way to install a painting platform on dead level so that the polymer would spread evenly. I set up plywood with sawhorses and shims, but one way or another the colored polymer would run off or gather in one spot. Because as a leader I was obliged to paint to set an example, I developed a kind of gel "drawing" on canvas and on large sheets of fiberglass paper I had brought. This proved interesting and I did forty of them.
After the workshop several individuals with sharp eyes told me that the gel drawings were first-rate and that I should make large paintings the same way. I tried it and it seemed to work well. When I went to the new Triangle Workshop in Pine Plains, New York the following summer, I ran off about a dozen paintings by pushing out concentric scalloped bands of colored gel with a large homemade squeegee. Putty Plains 1982 is one of these. I worked out several variations from 1982 to 1984 (Locoweed 1983, Moonstone 1984).
People seem to think that inspiration comes down on artists like lightning out of the clouds. Inspiration is real, but it rests on hard work and hard looking at your own work, and at the work of others, to see what is there to use. After my show at Knoedler's in 1984 I wanted a change from the bold, fast painting I was doing, and my paintings from '72 and '73 pointed the way. I went back to a slower, more subtle system of marking the gel and also went back to pouring colored polymer (Borealis 1985). In 1985 I used a rubber-fingered mulch rake I found in a garden catalog to comb the gel, and I rolled latex paint on the ridges to complement the polymer which settled in the grooves (The Siren 1986).
In May of 1987 I went to another workshop in a far-off place and once again a crisis in materials changed my art. If you want to change your art, change your studio, as they say. I had been assured that plenty of polymer medium would be waiting for me when I got to the Triangle Workshop in Barcelona, Spain, but what I found instead was a girl in overalls mixing an odd-smelling pale liquid in a plastic bucket with a broomstick. It was like a Poussin painting of peasants churning butter. I knew I had a problem.
That evening, in a spirit of resigned frustration, I laid out some canvas and noodled some colored gel around with a large push broom and went to dinner. Late the next morning, when I got to our huge communal studio in the Gothic Quarter, I was surprised to learn that a critic and several Canadian sculptors had been admiring and talking about what I regarded as base-coat sketching. Inspirited by their encouragement, I went at it again with the broom, forced back to the simple roots of painting just as l had been six years before at Emma Lake. Art makes you reinvent the wheel with regularity. If you don't, art slips away.
There are two paintings in the exhibition which were painted at that workshop: Loco Verde #1 and Plano Morado #2.
The making of the large brushed gel drawings, like any narrow, enabling system, opened the door to a hundred paths. After Barcelona I added a rubber-bladed squeegee to my arsenal and painted a series with dark metallic gel against a light ground (Pearly Gates 1987), and a series using light gel against a darker, varicolored ground (Agrigento 1988).
I didn't paint for a few months after I got to Miami in the Fall of 1989, but I dug in and started working hard around February. The paintings have resolved into a 5' x 7' format with a "red-hot" orange-gold ground under a deep blue-violet metallic brush-and-cut drawing. I've been doing this for the last six months with good results, I think. Some of these paintings are scheduled to be shown in New York at the Greenberg-Wilson Gallery and in Miami at the Ann Jaffe Gallery in shows which will overlap Miami-Dade's exhibition.
There is some dimensional illusion in most of my large brushed gel paintings since Barcelona. They look like wind and waves, so I am told, and I don't have any problem with this, although nothing in the paintings is meant to refer directly to anything in the natural world. An old friend once said that if such things are evoked they can be seen as a parallel of things or events in the world, a parallel brought about by processes in painting which echo processes in nature.