The Nonconformist: An Interview of Painter Duncan Hannah

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photograph and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

A painter of imaginative worlds of youthful frolic and abandon by trade, Duncan Hannah is a natural-born gentleman of letters and raconteur. He has a lot of stories to tell, like the time he introduced Nico to the band Television at CBGB. Or the time he wound up in a limo with David Bowie, Brian Ferry, and Andy Warhol. Or the time Patti Smith wrote a poem about him. Or the time that Lou Reed asked him to shit on his face at Max’s Kansas City. But Hannah wasn’t always at the right place at the right time, he was also at the wrong place at the wrong time. Growing up in Minneapolis, smoking weed, and taking acid, Hannah yearned for the bright lights and big city. Obsessed with literature, obsessed with the libidinal forces that consumed him, and obsessed with French and Italian New Wave films, Hannah’s figurative oil paintings have that new car smell circa 1935. They are electric, new but vintage, eternal but corporeal, vague but crystal clear, flesh-toned and coated with a fresh wax of nostalgia. Imagine Edward Hopper’s loneliness caught in a tornado with the masturbatory fantasies of a teenager – Michel Poiccard's bush and tush pinups taped to the mirror of a celluloid sex dream. I caught up with Hannah before the opening of his exhibition and West Coast book release at Parker Gallery in Los Angeles.

Oliver MAXWELL Kupper: Let’s start off with Cinemabilia in New York.  Was that 1970? 

DUNCAN HANNAH: That was probably the spring of '74, because I went to Parsons, and Parsons was right above Cinemabilia. So I just swung in. I was nuts about foreign cinema. So I'd say, "Let me see your Alain Delon file. Terry Ork, who owned the place, would go, "Richie! Alain Delon." Richie was Richard Hell – he worked there. I'd get a big pile of stills and then I'd say, "Could I get these?" And Terry would say, "Just take 'em." 

And you used those for reference?

Yeah. I wanted to make paintings like French movies that felt kind of pregnant with danger and romance. But unlike film noir I didn't want them to be too heavy. Because the French are – it's kind of lighter. And it happens in broad daylight. Breathless is a great example. 

I love the way Belmondo touches his lips in that movie. Alain Delon was another great actor. There's a
photograph of you, I think it's in your studio maybe, and you look sort of like Alain Delon! 

A little friendlier than Alain Delon. He's got those icy blue eyes.

He has very steely blue eyes. And a very steely look.

Yeah and he is...He killed his bodyguard. And got away with it.

That's wild. I didn't know that at all. 

I don't know if you can print this, but he had an orgy club and Pompidou was part of the club. Pompidou's wife was kind of a swinger, nympho, and Pompidou apparently had a huge penis. But anyhow, Alain Delon secretly filmed all of his orgy things behind a two-way mirror. So he shot his bodyguard with his gun, a Luger, wrapped him up in a tarpaulin that said, "Alain Delon," on it.

Smart.

[Laughs] He drove to the outskirts of Paris and just threw him in the dump. And so the dump guys found his corpse with a bullet. So there could only be one suspect: him. His bodyguard had been blackmailing him, because he got jealous of how rich Delon was. And I think Delon was kind of a dick too, so he was just like, "Fuck you, I'm so sick of working for you. Gimme something." But Delon was completely unruffled, and nobody could figure out why. Why is he being so cool? I mean it's completely in character. So Pompidou stepped in and said, "Case dismissed. There is no case." And the country, especially all the lefties, just said, "What? Different rules for rich and powerful people, that ain't right. Fuck you pigs." 

I wanted to talk a little bit about your upbringing. It seems like being a rebel started suiting you a lot more than conforming. Especially against a lot of these strict, postwar,
Midwestern values. Where do you think that rebellion came from?

I was fine with everything until, I don't know, maybe I started smoking pot at fourteen or fifteen. That was a great eye-opener. My grades immediately plummeted. And then pot led to everything else eventually. I also always wanted to be an artist, which is nonconformist. Anyhow, my dad was a lawyer, and he thought, "Well, he'll be an architect. He'll be something.

Was there ever an ounce of thought of becoming a lawyer or anything
like that?

Not at all. Not a nano second. 



But it seemed like your artwork was your own way of finding your identity. The realism in your art – was it a way to ground you in a way?

Yeah I would say that.  If you'd asked me when I was twenty, "Will you paint like that?" I doubt it. I just kind of grew into it. But it took a while, because I was just absorbing, you know Fillmore posters, and Zap Comix, and Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol. There was just so much coming in that it could've gone in many different directions. 

You were mainly studying abstract expressionists, right?

I went to Bard, and my teachers were Color Field painters. But I took art history, which was great, because you see this continuum and how it all fits together. Which was new to me. When I was a kid, I'd go to the MoMA and you look at all this different stuff and you think, "How does it fit together? I should know this. I'm gonna be an artist, but I don't get it." But then when you take art history, you kind of get it. One thing leads into another and you go, "Ohh." The reason I was confused by that is because, you know some particular painting, it's just that I don't like it. It's just my subjective take and it's okay not to like it. But now I know how it fits in. But anyhow, when it got to the late '40s and you get to de Kooning, I just went, "Wow."

You had these other tastes and interests that were completely opposite and modern in a way. 

Yeah, I was really attracted to being narrative. And I could just see I was gonna be a third-rate abstract painter. I mean it was fun, but I just thought, "It's not me." So I thought my voice was elsewhere. And figurative painting, you don't need an outside challenge, because it's challenging in and of itself. Because I wasn't trained to paint the way I am. So, I was just looking at dead painters and trying to figure out what they did. 

Like Hopper?

Yeah, like Hopper. And wondering: Why is there so much psychology? His paintings were so pregnant with something. 

There's an anxiousness about them. And a loneliness.

Yeah, and a kind of mistrust. Whose side are you on, and who can you trust? And how can you put that in a painting? I realized that film and books travel through time. If you want to make a movie about Los Angeles in 1939, no problem. But if a contemporary painter paints Los Angeles in 1939, it's called, “nostalgic," or "retro," or something, which just doesn't seem fair. So as long as you do it well, you can transcend it. I love period stuff. And I thought, "Why can't painters do that too?"

I think your paintings are interesting because there's a distinct contemporary feel to them, even though they're retrospective. They look more like fantasies in a way...

Yeah it's not quite real. I remember when I was like ten, I went to Europe for the first time and it felt really foreign. I loved that feeling. And it gave me some sense of what the world would be like when I actually became an adult at twenty-one. It'll be like this. Anyhow, then I grew up. Things change and it's not really the way you thought it would be. But I thought, that feeling I had when I was ten, and also the future being kind of friendly, it was gonna be great. [Laughs]

It feels like you were yearning to get out of the Midwest and go to the big city.

Yeah, as fast as I could. Clearly, Minneapolis was, for me, nowhere to stay. I went to New York when I was seven, with my parents. We were staying at the Waldorf, and I remember standing under the Marquee on Park Avenue, looking at the yellow cabs going back and forth, and just thinking with absolute certainty, "Oh, I get it. So this is where you come to live." And I never wavered.

You have endless incredible stories. And you're an obsessive collector of personal ephemera, too. Your diaries were full of everything.

And physical memorabilia too. I mean I am, I've always been a collector of all kinds of stuff. 

And the writing seems that way. It seems like a collection of streams of consciousness...

I suppose that's it. You collect records and drawings, and you collect conversations, and you collect memories and you collect dirty jokes. You collect all kinds of things. I guess I hate to let things slip through my fingers. 

Keeping all these moments recorded, did you feel like you were living through a sort of historical time? 

I'd have to say no. Except, I wanted to be in swinging London, with the Yardbirds and the Who. I don't know, that was really appealing. I was born too late. When this started happening I thought, "Well, this is pretty good too." But, I never thought it would cross over. But then, you know, Blondie and Talking Heads got signed and then they'd be gone for a year. Then you'd see them on TV, and you'd read about them in Melody Maker or some French pop magazine, and you'd go, "Wow. These are not our bands anymore. These bands belong to the world." It's working. 

Even Patti Smith too. It seemed like Patti was so niche.

Yeah she’s a poet. 


Inspired by Rimbaud. 

I think I saw one of her first gigs, when she had Lenny, and she was very embarrassed about it. Like she was pretending to be a rockstar. "I'm just gonna pretend to be a rockstar, just for this one song. So I'm bringing out Lenny Kaye!" And of course we all loved Nuggets. Yay, Lenny Kaye! And it was so primitive. She'd do a Marvelettes song. And you'd just go, "Oh, that's charming." Who would've thought? It was like a magic trick. Also, because she was in love with rock
stars, then to become a rock star gradually, right in front of your eyes.

It's really fascinating. And people think about that era of being just purely punk and people in tatters.

Real punk is something I've barely listened to. And even when I did, it's fun, but it's not really my kind of music. Except something like the Stooges, it transcends punk. As Danny Fields said, it's like our "Wagner" or something. And I thought, "Yeah, it kind of is." 

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Danny Fields was sort of a big part of your evolution. He seemed to introduce you to a lot of different people in New York. 

Yeah. My editor said, "Y'know, I kind of get tired of your antics with your decadent friends, until you move to New York and meet Danny Fields. He's the straw that stirs the drink." And I don't exactly know what that means, but it sounds good. 

It totally makes sense. It seems that way. You read it, and it's amazing, it's riveting, and then...

Well then I think it just kicks in. All those people I've been reading about and listening to, fantasizing about, there they are. And he had the magic key. And they all loved him. He was so respected. 

Do you still paint upside down? I read somewhere that you paint upside down. 

Oh, well I don't get upside down, but yeah I do turn the painting upside down. And it's very helpful. And then the other trick is you hold a mirror against it so you can see it backwards. And you can see a flaw immediately. Because you've gotten so used to it. But that was the one thing — not the one thing — that I really learned from my abstract teachers: is just keep turning it.
Because the painting should be as strong formally as it is narratively. It's to prevent you from painting a picture. I mean pictures are fine, but you're painting a painting. And painting
has its own rules. And if you forget that, it's weaker.

It doesn't hold up the narrative as well if it sucks formally.

Yeah and it's even good to bring the narrative down. Like if details get lost or something. That's fine and hopefully it becomes archetypal in some kind of way.

The viewer can better create the picture in their own head. 

Well that's exactly it. It's more generous that way. If you don't nail everything down for the viewer, they know that. I mean I always think it's funny painting reflections in water, or reflections on anything, because it looks so difficult, but actually doing it is really simple. You just mimic what's nearby. And the viewer fills it in. They know exactly what that is. So you don't even have to flesh it out much. You have to suggest it and the viewer does the rest. 

I think that's why the Renaissance painters were so brilliant. 

Yeah and then the viewer's more engaged too. Because they've actually contributed to it. Whereas like a photorealist, they leave you absolutely nothing to do. It just leaves me cold. Because yeah, that looks impossible to do, but who cares?

Going back to the book, what made you decide to publish the diaries? Did they come to you?

I had an offer from an archive dealer to sell my archives to some big library. And I was sixty-three at the time maybe. I thought, "Ooh, I'm not done with them." I'd never read them, and I'd been meaning to do something for about ten years. And I thought, this is the time. So I started editing.
Salvaging what was salvageable. And then there was a New York Times article about me, because I had a show in Chinatown. And they were asking me how I liked the Patti Smith book and I said, "Yeah, I liked it. It wasn't quite my experience, but maybe I'll write my own." And it was completely off the cuff. So it's funny that he threw that in, but then an editor at Random House saw, who owned one of my paintings, and I knew very slightly, and he said, "Hey, if you actually do that, let me have first peek." I thought he was being polite. After a few months, I thought, "I should get him out of the way." So I sent him forty pages, waited for him to say, "Oh, I'm so busy, I don't know when I'll get to this but thanks a lot." But he wrote right back and said, "This is great. Send me more." So I sent him another one-hundred pages. And then he just said, "Alright, meet me for breakfast tomorrow." And this guy's a famous editor. He did David Foster Wallace. Like real writers. [Laughs] And I thought, "What?" 

Well this is real writing, I think that you have – you could have been a novelist, you could have been a short story writer. 

That's really nice to hear, but it's impossible for me to see it like that. Anyhow, he just said, "I'm
gonna sell it to Knopf. This is great. And, there is no primary document of the '70s that's like this. This is so different from a memoir. It has an immediacy to it that those other books don't have." And I said, "Okay." And he said, "So just finish up..." And he warned me, he said, "This is very — are you ready for this? Because you're, like, naked."

I like that he warned you afterwards.

Well, it was kind of in the process, but he said, "You know you're laying yourself open." And there's a lawyer to protect other people in it. So we concealed identities. I said, "I don't know. I don't think I'm that bad in it. So why not?" Also, I love this kind of book. I love when an author tells the truth. And I always feel so grateful. And they don't all do it. I mean if you don't tell the truth, who cares? It's just not that interesting. So I thought, well it's my ace in the hole, that it's just tawdry as it is.

But it also has a lot of...the tawdriness of it adds to the depth in a way. And I think that you had a sort of very keen way of observing what was around you. It really did seem grounding. 

Yeah, I think that's right, it was a way of equilibrium. And if I could write it down, it didn't mean that it was that bad or I was still in possession of my wits or something. I think that's probably right. 

I mean there's a lot of blackouts. There's a lot of lapses in memory and small lapses in judgment. But you always sort of bounce back to things. And you're still alive. You're still around. 

Well I'm surprised that the tone is kind of consistent from the beginning to the end. And I didn't expect that. I thought it would be kind of all over the place. Because I remember — if I'd written a memoir, I would've thought, "Oh, that's the time when I was trying on identities and we were all very pretentious and phonies a lot of the time." But I didn't find it like that. It doesn't seem like that. 

It seemed authentic. You seemed like a journalist in your own life. You seem like you were on an assignment.

And that myself is my experiment in a way. 

And you sort of become a fixture in the history of a lot of people's lives. I think that's what's so
interesting about painters. You can enter different worlds.

Yeah. Not something I necessarily thought about. But it does provide you, as long as you're in the mix somehow, you don't have to be David Hockney. But if you're in there, it just keeps ever-changing. It's fascinating. So, that's really good. And that is one thing I really wanted: access to that world that seemed out of reach when I was twelve. And then eventually it wasn't. 

What was the process of curating this show? Because it seemed like it goes back a little bit to your earlier work.

When Sam Parker opened his gallery, he said, "Let's have a show." Actually, I've had a bunch of shows lately. I've shown in Amsterdam, Paris, two in New York, and then this, all in a year. And it was all based on the inventory that I had. So that was good. I mean I paint a lot. I paint every day of the week if I can. So it just builds up. And not all painters I know do that. And they'll call and say, "What're you doing?" "Painting." "Got a show?" "No, just painting." And they go, "Oh, good for you." Regardless of shows. And also I paint better if I don't have a deadline or a destination. So if it has no purpose other than to turn me on that week – that’s usually the best.

Well, I like the world you are creating with your paintings – your imagination is rich.

I mean, sometimes I'll be painting in a heatwave in the summer and I'll paint a car in the snow. It's clearly escapism for me. It's a blizzard in January and I'm painting the Riviera. As long as you've got desires and whims and eccentricities, I just think, exploit them. And then the other thing is, which I think most artists agree with, is that you don't have to start with a good idea, all you've got to do is get engaged. And you don't start with this flourish of virtuosity. I don't anyhow. You can start with a mistake and then you make another mistake. And then you have to correct those. And after you've corrected enough mistakes, suddenly it starts happening. And you're connected to this thing. That has its own rules. And your deal is to try to figure out what those rules are and follow them. Or not follow them. That to me
is creativity.

This interview was published in Autre Issue 5 (Summer 2018). Purchase here.