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Artist is still smiling

Life in 1970s NYC fast lane


A girlfriend once told Duncan Hannah he slept with a smile on his face. That smile is still there. Allen Ginsburg made heroic moves on him to no avail. That was Hannah’s life in New York City in the raucous 70s. There he was suspended as if in midair somewhere below 14th Street where the gritty underground coursed through the lives David Bowie, Andy Warhol, the Max’s Kansas City crowd. A survivor with the same joie de vivre now as then, he tells all in 20th Century Boy, Notebooks of the Seventies.

Frank Pizzoli (CV): It’s 1975, you’re fresh from Parsons and you don’t miss a thing in New York City. How did you survive?

Duncan Hannah: Well I could easily have not. So many others didn’t.

CV: Why you?

HANNAH: A psychic once told me that I had a guardian angel named Anthony looking after me.

CV: When did you adjust habits?

HANNAH: By 32, I’d given up the party. And I’ve been very happy to learn since then that the party continues. Life’s pretty good for me but you don’t know that when you’re in your twenties earnestly discovering yourself.

CV: What drove you then?

HANNAH: It’s easy to fall into all the romantic myths about the culture around you. I wanted to be around all those people. Whether that’s good or whether that’s passion, whatever it is when you’re young that’s a powerful lure.

CV: Your Kevin Bacon was ridiculous. And it was pre-Internet. How did one manage all those relationships?

HANNAH: Every Wednesday morning you’d grab the Village Voice.You got on the telephone. People had their special groups. People let each other know what was happening in the city.

CV: All that was easy for you?

HANNAH: Not really, at least not at first. I was young and not on the guest lists. I had no money. Danny Fields was the one who opened many doors that allowed me to get into many places I normally would not have without him.

CV: So, there you were, a straight kid from Minneapolis, cute as the day is long, mixing in with high-brow, low-brow, straight, gay, sex, drugs, rock and roll. One big social cocktail.

HANNAH: I certainly had people interested in me, some funny stories around all that.

CV: Do tell?

HANNAH: Allen Ginsburg, for example. I always admired his work. When I finally met him, he would always make a play for me, especially early on he made big plays for me.

CV: And then what?

HANNAH: I told Ginsburg he was a hero of mine and all he wanted to do was get in my pants. Why couldn’t we be creative together? Why couldn’t we be creative peers?

CV: How did that go over?

HANNAH: William Burroughs was there, saw everything, when he put the squeeze on me. Burroughs said: Finally, Ginsburg, somebody has your number.

CV:: How did that eventually play out?

HANNAH: I would run into Ginsburg over and over at various venues throughout the 80s, and even later. And each time I’d see him he hadn’t remembered the previous times. But the coda to that story is quite nice. By the 90s he had asked if I would participate in a two person show of his photographs and my paintings. I’m not sure still then, even at that moment, he realized that he had so often hit on me. I did bring it to his attention. I noted to him that it took a long time for him to see me as an artist, not a pick up.

CV: Ginsburg’s reaction?

HANNAH: He asked if we could trade works! Of course, I agreed. And we did.

CV: Finally, it was about your work. My experiences in 70s New York City taught me it was ‘about the work,’ the creative work. Not about wealth, status, velvet ropes. The creative class was accessible.

HANNAH: Yes, it’s true. Everyone below 14th Street knew one another. It was a very small group. And it was about the work, not about money or fame or fortune. People actually had a sincere interest in what others were doing creatively.

CV: Eventually, their ideas informed the larger public?

HANNAH: For sure. It was an underground. Early into it all we felt we had a shared secret. But nothing stays underground for any length of time. It quickly goes above ground.

CV: One above ground experience in 1980 – The Times Square Show (a seminal group exhibition organized by Collaborative Projects Inc., or Colab, where Hannah’s work hung alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring) – fueled your eventual trajectory.

HANNAH: The Times Square Show was our version of social realism.

CV; After the Abstract Expressionists had waned and Pop Art was in full vogue?

HANNAH: Yes, like Pop Art relied on real images, we wanted the world to see what New York City was really like - rats, dirty needles, ghettos, poverty, homelessness. It was about 100 artists who wanted to make a statement.

CV: And this was the ‘old’ Times Square, pre- Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Disney?

HANNAH: A drastically different environment back then.

CV: But you were not a Pop Artist?

HANNAH: Hardly. That’s the funny thing. My work did not represent the trend then in terms of art. I had been then, and remain, traditional. The New York Times reviewer Brett Sokol wrote (April 16, 2016) that back then, as now, I was “steeped in the figurative traditions of his heroes Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer and excited to follow their career footsteps.”

CV: About 100 artists from all backgrounds and presentation styles came together to draw attention to the city’s underclass?

HANNAH: Exactly. The building we used was abandoned, as were many in ‘old’ Times Square. We worried that owners and developers would enrich only themselves rather than, at least in some ways, address affordable housing and homelessness.

CV: A 70s version of Intersectional?

HANNAH: Yes. The show was a great crossover. I suppose you’re right, the word today would be Intersectional. As artists we wanted to show the mosaic of human experience that New York City was in those years. Still is, although it’s more polarized between rich and poor.

CV: Besides launching you, did the Times Square Show shape you?

HANNAH: I never paint a protest. I find that art that has an agenda is not effective.

CV: Now that will get you a one-month sentence for re-education in activist boot camp.

HANNAH: Oh yes, I guess it will. But once someone told me that art that was beautiful and brought pleasure was not worth it. Imagine that. I guess I’m a little backwards. I’m not that way at all.

CV: Where do your ideas come from? There you were around Warhol, Pop Artists, Keith Haring, yet ever the traditionalist.

HANNAH: You would think my work would be like Warhol’s and others since I have spent so much time in and around that crowd. Well, I’m not a very good modern artist in the sense that my life is not part of my art. I think that Warhol was idea driven. He was always looking for good ideas. I’m more intuitive, I respond to what I love. I see something beautiful and I want to paint it. That’s how I work.

This interview was originally published in The Brooklyn Rail where Frank Pizzoli is a contributor.