The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Interview: From the Mayor's Doorstep (2007)

Supplement to the deluxe print edition of the newsletter published by Piri Halasz.

Piri Halasz: First, let me congratulate you on your inclusion in this big, handsome, three-volume survey of American abstract painting, La Nouvelle Abstraction Américaine, 1950-1970, by Claudine Humblet, published by Skira of Milan. The library at Columbia only has the original French version, copyrighted 2003, though I understand that an edition in English is planned. You and your paintings get a 33-page chapter with 33 reproductions in color. Can you tell me anything about when and how this undertaking came to be, and what degree of participation was required of you?

Walter Darby Bannard: Thanks. The English edition is done; I have a copy. I think it is scheduled for formal publication in November.

Claudine is a very nice, soft-spoken lady who contacted me more than 20 years ago about a project she had which she wanted to interview me for. She came to my house several times and we exchanged a fair amount of mail and pictures of paintings and the like over the years. I was never very clear exactly what the project was; it seemed like an extended PhD thesis which might go on forever.

Then a year or two ago I got this huge 3-volume - I guess "tome" is the word - which was so heavy, physically heavy, that it came in a case with a carrying strap like a mailman's pouch.

Her selection of the 50 or so artists is idiosyncratic and interesting and the book itself is a staggering piece of scholarship - she found shows and references to my paintings I knew nothing about and she probably did the same for the others. I don't think I have ever seen anything like it.

PH: In Humblet's book, I come across a reference to the article that David Bourdon, my fellow Time Inc-er, wrote about you for Art International in 1967. That reminded me of the '60s as a whole, though I didn't start writing about art myself (for Time) until 1967; even then, I only very rarely wrote about artists you would have known-and only you (once, very, very briefly) when you starred in the "Corcoran Biennial" in 1969. I'd like to hear what you remember best about that decade, and how you feel the art world of that decade differs from ours today.

WDB: You did write about me at least one other time. You called me "the most daring artist" in a show at the Morris Museum: NY Times 2/11/73. A belated thanks!

This is a book-length question, of course. We were lucky in the 60s. The AE artists had "broken the ice" and set things up for us. There was a growing appetite for and excitement about innovative work, and there was plenty of it being done. There were sharp people like your Time-mate David Bourdon, a very likeable guy and excellent interviewer who repeatedly asked me pointed questions which made me realize I had not thought as many things through as I supposed I had. There was Clem and his keen eye and constant encouragement. There was endless talk with smart artists who had good ideas. New critics, magazines, markets and galleries. New money. New materials. Endless invitations to lecture, judge, write. A real feeling of expansion, invention, of riding a big wave.

We had a ball. That's what makes it difficult, or, perhaps, too obviously self-serving, to compare it to today. Our painting fell from fashion, of course, which makes criticizing the present sound like sour grapes - a kind of catch-22. The art business began to look more and more like the pop music business. There was a feeling of a decline in standards followed by overt ridicule of the very notion of standards. An endless stream of new artists making tchotchkes and trophy art was met by an endless stream of money to absorb it. Branding and name recognition became paramount. Geezers like me retreated to academe or found some other safe place to paint and wait it out. Some continued to be successful. Some gave up altogether.

I know it's generational, but I really do think we are in a fallow time right now, artistically, at least. We will just have to wait and see.

PH: When I visited the much-admired exhibition of your minimal paintings at Jacobson Howard in New York this past spring, it was like meeting a whole new Bannard. I'd totally (or at least consciously) forgotten about Western Air No. 2, the painting Time had reproduced with the Corcoran story, and only felt at home with Bannards of the '80s and since. Now, could you tell us how these minimal paintings of the period between 1959 and 1965 came to be? I know that Michael Fried (Princeton '59) says that during the summer of 1959 "Bannard too made a remarkable series of paintings only some of which are extant today." I take this to be a reference to the beginning of these minimal paintings that you would continue to paint until 1965, and of which Blue Parlor is one. If that is the case, can you tell me where you were living and working at the time, and more importantly how you arrived at the series in general, and how in particular you arrived at Blue Parlor?

WDB: Mike must have thought that the paintings had been lost or destroyed because they were never seen after my first show at Tibor's in 1965.

In 1958 I lived in a house on Spruce St. in Princeton NJ and in 1959 in a tiny house in Skillman, NJ, about 5 miles north of Princeton. The only space I had to paint in either was the cellar, although in the Skillman house I also made metal sculpture in the garage.

Everyone who saw (or now sees) these paintings brings up Noland and Albers but these artists were far from being influences at this time. I never saw a Noland until the French & Co. exhibit in the late Fall of 1959, by which time I was well into the circles. Albers was very visible - in all the books, etc. - but I had absolutely no interest in his latter-day Bauhaus neoplasticism, and if I thought about his color at all I did not like it and still don't. In any event I lived like a hermit in the late '50s, seeing mostly only Frank Stella and Mike Fried and a few others. The stylistic similarities are a case of what evolutionary biologists call "convergent evolution."

The actual influences were much more random and eccentric and go way back; I fell in love with a pale, Cubist Ben Nicholson I saw in a newspaper roto section when I was 11 years old, for example. In college, in the early '50s, there was Picasso, Klee, Miro. Later I took to Rothko, the simple black/red/white atmospheric abstractions of Stamos and then, somewhat later again, Clyfford Still, and maybe Gottlieb. Also pictures like Motherwell's Fishes with Red Stripe and a tall blue Frankenthaler which I saw at the Whitney in the mid-'50s. When you are a hungry kid painter you are influenced by almost everything.

I was also quite taken by some of the early work of Rauschenberg and Johns and did any number of small "detritus" assemblages. There was a Rauschenberg called Stone Stone Stone reproduced in a 1954(?) issue of "New Directions in Writing" which I kept around because the idea of repetition fascinated me. I also had a strange obsession with floating figures and large floating objects like blimps and even conceived a "happening" in 1958 (I still have the drawings) which would have exploded a huge, hydrogen-filled balloon in the form of a de Kooning "Woman" with tracer bullets. By 1958 the pictures started getting very pale and symmetrical, with lots of open space and repeated semi-geometric elements in an abstracted landscape format. By late 1958 or early 1959 I recall a painting of a centered floating circle with Clyfford Still-like bands across the top and the bottom of the canvas. Frank and Mike and I were close then and there was a lot of interaction & problem-solving between us. Frank looked at the painting one day and said "you don't need the top band." So I took it off. Then Mike looked at it soon after and said "you don't need the bottom band." So I took that off too, and there it was: a circle.

Once I comprehended what had opened up now that all the "self-expression" was gone I got to work with color and careful adjustments of size, proportion, spacing and symmetry. I wanted everything in them to subdue "relationship" and enhance "presentation," as if by looking at the painting you were "meeting" it, sizing it up all at once, intuitionally, as you would another person, feeling its presence like the ectoplasm in that wonderful 1940s ghost film The Uninvited.

Blue Parlor is indeed one of those pictures. It was painted in a rented garage in Nantucket in the summer of 1960. By then I had worked out a system of circle, rectangle or band and a set of types of contrast, such as "stark" (black & white), "close value/similar hue" (dark orange against a slightly darker, grayer salmon orange), "odd combination" (pale green against a greyed greenish yellow) and such like. Blue Parlor is one of the "close value" types. Of course being into "systems" and "series" at the time I envisioned endless color/format combinations which were never done because I got interested in greater complexity by the mid-60s. I needed to move on.