Darby Bannard's Beautiful Disasters
by brett sokol
Darby Bannard inside his University of Miami studio with his newest paintings
|Darby Bannard in his studio|
|Ivory Rising, 1960|
There are splatters of paint everywhere—on the floor, on some nearby chairs, and not least, on the dozens of canvases tacked to the walls inside Darby Bannard’s studio at the University of Miami, where he teaches as a professor in the art department. In fact, gazing around the room is liable to produce a bit of sensory overload. In his latest series of paintings, a riot of multicolored brushstrokes crash over one another in densely built layers—a playful squiggle here, a violent wave there, cohering into an often-hypnotic whole.
Paintbrushes are only part of Bannard’s arsenal, though. He’s retired his use of a diaper stapled to the end of a long stick (“perfect for spreading out paint”), but he’s still keen on a large push broom (“the kind you usually see following a horse down the street”), as well as a squeegee wielded with surgical precision.
It’s a physical approach that belies Bannard’s age. Artists are generally expected to grow more conservative over the years, drawn to familiar notions out of habit, convenience, or a desire to tend to their careers. And academia is hardly an environment that promotes straying from the herd. Yet at 77—and looking nearly a decade younger—Bannard seems to be aging in reverse. His paintings are becoming freer in hand and more unpredictable. “Some work better than others,” he admits with a chuckle. To be sure, there are triumphs in this latest series, while others are beautiful disasters, and a few are a bit of a mess. But what’s truly surprising isn’t just Bannard’s willingness to explore, but how markedly different these newest efforts are from his own earlier canvases.
“I had a formula,” Bannard explains, pulling out sketchbooks from the late ’60s and early ’70s, revealing blueprints on graph paper with, yes, actual mathematical formulas determining the placement of colors and interlocking geometric slices. “Everything was absolutely precise, all the curves were plotted out. Eventually it drove me crazy doing it.” So no more x + y = transcendence? “Just the thought of doing anything like that now gives me a headache,” he groans.
He’d embraced a style of visceral minimalism as early as 1959, while in his 20s—“You just take a color and give it to them! Bang! Right in their face!”—and by the fall of 1964, the New York art world finally caught on. Legendary trendsetter Leo Castelli set up a solo show for him, sandwiched between exhibitions at his gallery from John Chamberlain and Roy Lichtenstein. Bannard seemed to be on his way to art stardom.
“The problem is, I had gotten bored with minimalism and had started doing more complicated pictures,” Bannard says, a development of which he’d neglected to inform Castelli. “Leo took one look at them and turned green. ‘Is this what you’re painting now?’ It was only a month before the show was supposed to open. He had all the ads out, all the announcements sent. But when people came to the gallery, there was a different show there.”
A subsequent move to the Tibor de Nagy Gallery was more simpatico; the paintings sold briskly and were soon being exhibited at both the Whitney Museum of American Art and The Museum of Modern Art. Yet as Bannard drove deeper into abstraction, crafting wispy swaths of diaphanous color washing over one another (and the viewer), he again found himself at loggerheads with the art world’s tastemakers. Minimalism had spread with a coarse vengeance, conceptualism blossomed, and anything actually pleasing to look at—or heaven forbid, smacking of “beauty”—was deemed critically suspect. “I started writing articles for Artforum saying how shallow all this new work was. And that was not a good career move, because it got everybody all pissed off. I was just being reckless, not thinking of the consequences.” If the stakes were the aesthetic direction of the art world, it was a battle of ideas that Bannard lost.
Though a Bannard painting was featured on Artforum’s cover in 1968 (accompanied by no less than five pages of glowing analysis), and Bannard himself was a contributing editor there in the early ’70s, don’t look for even a mention of him in the magazine today. The publication’s anthology of those years, published online in 2005, curiously excises his essays, while its exhaustive chronicle of that same period, from 2000, sees several erstwhile colleagues still referencing him as a dangerous ideological enemy to be railed against, seemingly bound for “the ash heap of history.”
So how does it feel to be contemporary art’s last Menshevik? “I get bypassed all the time,” Bannard says with a good-natured shrug. “I get to paint every day, so what have I got to complain about?” Still, there’s a hint of vindication in his voice as he notes that some of his ’60s works are suddenly hot again: His Los Angeles-based dealer sold a half-dozen of those once derided, now rediscovered color-field pieces during last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach; collectors were shocked to discover their maker wasn’t a freshly minted MFA graduate living in Bushwick. But once that dusted-off cache is exhausted, don’t expect any new paintings fashioned in that vein.
“If you do that, you’re just churning out tchotchkes. I don’t change for any reason except that I want to keep myself interested.” He’s also bemusedly aware that just as the Darby Bannard of 1960 would’ve looked askance at the abstractions he produced in 1968, the Bannard of the late ’60s would be similarly puzzled by his present-day artwork. So what’s next? Bannard shoots an incredulous look in response. The only way to discover that is to actually paint it, he says. “The painting evolves. It has to evolve.”
Starting February 5, Darby Bannard’s artwork is on view at the Hunter Gallery (3390 Mary St., Coconut Grove, 305-447-0401) and April 14–June 3 at the University of Miami Lowe Art Museum (1301 Stanford Dr., Coral Gables, 305-284-3535); e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
photographs by jim arbogast