Artist Duncan Hannah on Life, Love and Keith Haring

"I want to do something about what’s good in the world. Not what we already know to be bad," says the painter and author

Duncan Hannah 1970s NYC
Artist Duncan Hannah (Leah Odze Epstein for InsideHook)

Welcome back to “The World According To …”, a series in which we solicit advice from people who are in a position to give it.

Duncan Hannah is a New York-based painter and a fixture of the downtown New York art and music scenes of the ’70s and ’80s, where he palled around, painted, worked with and occasionally starred in underground art films with the likes of Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry and the Talking Heads.

Last year, his abridged diaries of the 1970s were published under the title Twentieth Century Boy, and since then he has had gallery shows in London and Paris. He is currently working on editing his diaries of the 1980’s. InsideHook spoke with him at his home studio in Brooklyn while his cat Tarzan stalked the floorboards. 

When and why did you start writing a diary? 

The 1970s. I think I wrote more then because my life was very exciting and I knew I should get some of it down or I’d never remember it. And fortunately I got a lot of detail down, which brings you closer to it. A lot of memoirs are generalized. Memoirs shape things through the lens of today but mine, being a diary, was day to day. The nice thing about a diary is you don’t know what’s coming. Like all these people you meet. Like Debbie Harry; will she become successful? I don’t know, probably not. Will any of us? Doubtful. Never thinking the ’70s would become a golden age in a way. It just seemed kind of hilarious, grubby, slightly dangerous. But it was ours so we loved it. One loves whatever scene one’s in in their twenties. 

When you went back to edit the ’70s diaries did you find people in there who didn’t become famous?

Oh yeah, and I wrote about them just as much. Which is nice because it’s not just name dropping or celebrities. It’s just the weave of your own bohemian society. Some of the people that didn’t make it or even died, I had just as much hope for them as I did for the talking heads. And I was wrong the other way, too: one of my good friends in the late ’70s lived underneath Keith Haring on Bryant Park and Keith was unknown and very shy and sweet and young and I already had a gallery so I was kind of like a real artist while Keith was out of art school, and he said very tentatively “Duncan do you think I could show you my work? Would you ever come up to my studio?” and I said “Yeah of course, let’s go!” So i went up and looked at what he did and I thought “Oh god, poor guy, he’s such a nice guy but he doesn’t have a chance in hell.” So it’s not like I have unerring instincts. I guess in a way I didn’t see Keith Haring as a painter. I saw him as a graphic artist or something. 

Did you find that your work being figurative was out of step with what everybody else was doing?

Yeah. Even Andy Warhol in the ’70s was like a graphic artist. He was interesting more as a cultural iconoclast to me than as a painter because his early work wasn’t very painterly. By that point it had gotten very graphic. And irony was so important to people and although one uses irony in your sense of humor and conversationally I didn’t put it in my work that much because I had such a romantic notion of painting. I did feel out of step. In 1980/81 the Neo-Expressionists came in and the Italians and the Germans and that was mostly figurative so suddenly from being really outside I was really inside and people kind of changed their criteria about what contemporary art should look like very quickly, like “Yes, we need young figurative painters. Where are they?” “I’m here!” “Great! Have a show on 57th street!” The art world is very fickle and that surprised me as a naive youth from the midwest. I thought it was sacrosanct in a way and its not. It’s like fashion. And people who write about it tend to want to write about what’s new and most art students want to be in the zeitgeist and do what’s happening. So I was a little odd in that I liked the excitement of it all but I have this idea of painting that I wanted to pursue that didn’t have so much to do with all of that. I thought the idea of a timeless art was very interesting and challenging. And I definitely wanted to try to do something that was difficult to do because you’re better that way. You grow and you stretch yourself. You’re in unknown territory and that’s where interesting things tend to happen, when you don’t know what you’re doing. 

Timelessness is a constant feeling in your painting and yet now you’re also going to be known as a diarist which is all about time. 

That is funny — I’m much more contemporary as a writer than I am as a painter. If I see an early Hitchcock film or something I just feel kind of one with that in a way that I don’t with a lot of contemporary culture. I remember going to the met and looking in the post impressionist room where the Gauguins and Bonnards and Lautrecs and I tried to imagine one of my paintings in there – what if I was right between that Lautrec and that Bonnard. So that was the kind of bar I set. If a painter is great they lay down a challenge no matter what year it is, 1850 or 1910 and you can choose to pick up that challenge because art doesn’t progress, really. Maybe science progresses, lots of things do, but I don’t think painting does. It changes, but the new doesn’t replace the old.

I remember once I sold a couple of paintings to McDonald’s corporate headquarters, which surprised me. One was of Joan of Arc and I can’t remember what the other one was. And they said “Would you do a commission for us?” And I said “Yeah, what do you have in mind?” And they said “Well, anything you’d like but you have to put the golden arches in it?” And I said “Yeah, ooh, I don’t think I’d feel comfortable doing that.” It just sounded like “Will you be kitsch for us?” And it was 10,000 dollars or something which is always appealing but I can’t do that. 

Had you read other diaries?

Yeah. I had associated diary writing with depressive girls in college who are complaining to their diary about their boyfriend or whatever. I always thought it was a downer, the few diaries I was allowed to glance at. That’s what journaling is, where you kind of work through your depression, and I thought I never want to do that — I want to write from jubilation. It helps you get an overview of the life you’re living. At least you feel like you’ve got a handle on it even if you don’t. But if you can write about it it feels manageable. A lot of times I was way out of my depth socially and emotionally. But if you can write about it maybe it gives you a false sense of security in some way.

Does it do something for your ego?

It makes you feel like you’re more in control. I suppose it’s hard not to be the hero of your own diary unless you absolutely loath yourself, which I’m sure has been done. I had a lot of shortcomings and foibles that kind of counterbalanced. I also had good luck. I realized how fortunate I was to be young and relatively attractive and in New York City, which is one of the best places you can be. And especially since I come from the midwest and I never felt that way there. It felt stultifying and New York was just as liberating as I’d hoped it would be. No matter how weird you are there are ten people that are then times weirder and that’s very comforting to me. I thought “Ah! This is where the weirdos are! And we’ve come from all over the place just to be together.” That was good but it was also bad in that no matter how bad I was — bad habits like drugs and alcohol — you always knew somebody who was much worse. So you start comparing yourself to people who don’t have long to live and think “well I’m not that bad.” 

Do you have any advice for people who are writing diaries?

Don’t leave out the boring bits. The New York School of poets like Frank Ohara and James Skyler, Joe Brainardm they all had this way of writing about daily stuff that we all do that somehow was transcendent. It was seemingly banal but there’d be these little gems of observation in it that raised it and when you read it you go “Oh yeah, wow, well seen and so sensitive to nuance!” So that’s good writing. But that’s really hard to do. It looks simple but it’s very difficult. If you do that and don’t succeed it’s just boring.

Where does your work fit into contemporary art?

I don’t get swept up into what’s going on unless I like it. There’s lots of contemporary painters I like, but we’re not in a good place art history-wise at the moment. It just seems anemic. Duchamp puts a urinal in a museum in 1911; well that meant something. And I’m sure I would’ve said “Yeah, cool,” but they’re still doing that in different ways now and I just find it sort of meaningless. I just think, so what? That idea is over 100 years old. It was radical then and now it’s just mainstream. The whole culture is so shocking anyhow. It just seems kind of redundant. I want to do something about what’s good in the world around us. Not what we already know to be bad. So my painting doesn’t have an ax to grind with the world, it just kind of ignores a lot of it. It’s kind of love motivated instead of hate motivated.

Who was the first famous person you ever met?

I think it was Johnny Weismuller who played Tarzan. I was 10 and he came to my local department store to introduce “Tarzan and the Apes.” He was a really big guy and it was noon and he was drunk. He had big movie star sunglasses on and a double-breasted jacket. He looked like a movie star. He had an ascot, white flannels, white bucks. And he had the posture of a man who was so drunk he knew he couldn’t move too much or he’d just fall over. And his head was back. And I said “Hello Mr. Weismuller, I’m so excited to meet you, my name is Duncan Hannah, would you sign this for me?” And he bent down and this wave of whiskey came at me.

Did he do the yell?

I don’t think so. He didn’t do much. He was very non-verbal. They said “Hey boys and girls, this is Tarzan himself!” I never saw his eyes which I’m sure were very bloodshot. 

What is one piece of art, song, photo, book, that changed the way you view the world?

I suppose the Beatles’ “Love Me Do.” It was their first single here and it was so different from all the junk. I didn’t even like music particularly, because the top 40 was so schmaltzy. And hearing that joyous sound come out of a car radio, I suppose that would have to be it. And then seeing them on Ed Sullivan, all that stuff. Just thrilling, as it was for all my chums. I remember the Monday after the Ed Sullivan show when the Beatles were first on we’d all seen them and we were changed. The girls were in love for the first time in their life. It was like there was a different avenue for you if you want. You don’t have to go into this assembly line of life — look at these guys; they just made it up. And they’re having a ball. 

What do you fear most about the future?

You know, same as we all do. Nuclear disaster, global warming, overpopulation. Dictators both here and in North Korea. 

Apart from your parents and family who’s the first person you came across in your life who you consider a mentor?

I’ve had several. When I moved to New York I met Danny fields who was a music guy; he had managed the Stooges and the Velvet Underground and the MC5 and he had this way. Everyone loved Danny. And he knew everybody and he had this really funny ironic way of looking at the world and nothing was too outrageous. He just took it all in. He was very nonjudgemental about people’s eccentricities. And I really studied him. 

Later — 10 years later, maybe more — Richard Merkin. He and I were best buddies for a while. He was so fully formed and eccentric and opinionated and curious and he was a real mentor. He’d already gone through what I was going through where you kind of sift through things finding what’s right for you and what’s not right for you. To find out who you might be – he’d already done that, and he was RICHARD MERKIN with his brilliantine hair and his mustache. He made a great impression on me. Everybody needs someone like that I think, it’s pretty helpful. And it helps you define who you are. 

What’s one thing that you would save from a burning building?

I guess my cat Tarzan. I love Tarzan. I’ve always liked Tarzan. My dad liked Tarzan.

What’s the appeal of Tarzan?

Freedom. And Jane. Jane was very fetching. Living in a treehouse sounds good. Being strong and a hero. 

One thing about Richard Merkin, every morning he’d take an ice cold shower, and I said why do you do that? And he said “Because I’ve never been tested!” And I said “What do you mean? Tested by what?” And he said “By war!” And I said “That’s why you take an ice cold shower?” And he said “Yes!” Like it’s perfectly evident. I’ve always been a hero worshipper and I’ve always loved the idea of heroes and Tarzan’s a good hero. He’s good, and he always wins. 

Your favorite curse word?

Oh, I suppose “fuck.” 

What’s your worst habit? You’ve kicked a few.

Nicorette gum, maybe? Procrastination? I really find it difficult to make myself do things I don’t want to do. Which I suppose is true of most people but some people just get it out of the way and I just don’t. And then it hangs over your head. Like every year when I do my taxes, I get em out, and then I don’t do them. And then I busy myself with a million other things day after day after day until finally… Why don’t you just get it over with so you won’t be living under a cloud for two weeks? But anyhow, we seek progress not perfection. 

Words for your tombstone?

As far as sayings go, I like the Boy Scouts of America: “Be Prepared.” I don’t know if that’s good for a tombstone. I love E.M. Forester’s dictum “only connect,” which the older I get the more profound it seems. The mistake being people think you can plan your life and that’ll be that but it doesn’t work that way. Art students say to me “Ok, so I admire your career, I want to do that too, how do you do that?” Well, trial and error – you don’t know where anything is coming from but you have to stay in the process. That’s just life. And then one thing leads to another, some are good and some are bad and you learn from failure and it’s just a mess, really. But you just keep going, that’s the deal, and only connect. If you withdraw and don’t connect you’re fucked. You just have to keep your ears open and be aware and don’t be quick to judge a situation. Be open.

What would you say to someone who thinks they’ve arrived too late for all the great cultural moments?

I love scenes — like Paris in the 20s — and London in the 60’s. I was sorry to have missed but I was too young. So when I was watching those bands at CBGBs i was thinking “Oh well I didn’t see The Who and The Stones and the Yardbirds and the Small Faces at the Marquee Club and Eel Pie Island but I’ve got this and this is pretty good. Maybe it’s not as good but it’s mine. And then later you think, yeah, that was really good! You don’t know. I remember a curator at the Whitney once, I was complaining about Schnabel’s place in contemporary art and he said “you don’t know how this is going to play out. So don’t pretend you do.” I said ‘What do you mean?” and he said “Revisionsm. He might be a footnote in 50 years and this remarkable thing that we barely notice at the time will be elevated to the prime mover.” So I find there’s a lot of wisdom in not knowing things. 

What’s the key to sustained motivation in a long career?

Curiosity. Desire. Hope. I realize when I have the flu or something not only do you physically feel crummy but you’ve kind of lost hope. You’re not really interested in anything. You don’t want to read you don’t want to watch TV. You’re just like “uh.” And that’s like death in a way. Because you’ve lost your desire. And that’s such a key part of creativity I think. And the hope part of it — if you start a painting you have to start it with a hope at least that something really interesting is going to happen. That you’re going to give birth to something that’s never been seen before. Which doesn’t always happen but at least you were hoping it would. 

Do you think that there’s still a counterculture these days? Or is it just that people notice these things less as they get older? 

I don’t’ think there is. The lag time between what was underground and overground — it used to be there was a long lag. Like three years or something. Now it’s like “Boom! It’s gone viral, ok, that’s the mainstream now.” What? That was totally obscure ten days ago. Well now Apple’s new campaign is based on it or something. So no I don’t think so. But I have a lot of friends who seem to be about 30 and they’re all kind of scholars in their way and they know a lot about art movies and stuff like that and they make it their business to know and there’s nothing in it for them, there’s no payoff. Which I find really touching. It’s when people are really obsessive about something with seemingly no ulterior motive. But it’ll probably turn into something really wonderful and all that will fuel whatever it is they do. I don’t know if that’s a counterculture but its people who don’t buy just whatever is put in front of us. And there used to be a lot more of those people because pre-internet you had to do your research in a very hands on painstaking way. Every time I travel I go to used bookstores and get on “my hands and knees in the dust and go “Oh my god I’ve been looking for this for fifteen years! And now of course you find it in a minute and it’s at your door in two days. All that’s gone. But because of that research i think it meant more because it was difficult. if it’s so easy it’s all kind of equally meaningful or meaningless. 

What would you have done if painting hadn’t been a success?

I don’t know. I really put all my eggs in one basket. I guess I would have liked to be a writer. I would have liked to have been an actor but I don’t know much about it. I really felt compelled to be an artist from such an early age and so you do it because you love it and then you get better than your classmates and then you get noticed for that and it just keeps going. I don’t really believe in talent but I believe that if you do something you love over and over and over again you’re going to get a lot better at it. Because I loved painting and drawing I got good at it from a young age.

Being an artist is an eccentric occupation. And before there was so much money in it there were more eccentrics because there was nothing to expect. There was no carrot at the end of the stick other than you expressing that thing that you express. The idea of looking at a life as a painter as a career was a dodgy enterprise. And now it’s not. Schools teach it: How to get a grant. When I was at Bard I said to my teachers, “Can I ask you what do I actually do when I get out of school?” Which was a very expensive education. They said, “You know, drive a cab, bartend.” And I said “That’s it? And they said yeah, what’s wrong with that?”

I became an illustrator, which was a good way to make a living. And good discipline because deadlines and things. So instead of treating your talent as this kind of holy ephemeral gift, you get a job due at 10 AM that’s it you gotta do and you gotta put your name on it. It’s gonna be in the New York Times and then by the next morning you’ll be in the garbage and you’ll get a check for 100 bucks.

How do you make love stick around?

I think in your mind you use your imagination. Fantasy. 

Does love involve self delusion?

Yeah, I think it involves… I think you have to use your imagination make it new, to make it fresh. Anything that becomes habit is kind of deadly. But you can just do it in your head. If you can make love to your girlfriend 3000 times or something just tell yourself in your head you’ve never done this before. Trick yourself. I remember Merkin telling me that domesticity was the death knell of eroticism, you must enact your own rituals. I thought “Whoa what does that mean?”

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