The celebrated painter Duncan Hannah talks about his experiences during the punk rock era in New York and the characters in his circle, including Jim Carroll, Ray Johnson, Eric Li, and Rene Ricard
Duncan Hannah’s paintings of pin-ups, starlets, race cars, ships, airplanes, alpine scenes and European back alleys offer a high-art treatment of pulp subject matter and display a remarkable sensibility and talent. His work was included in the famed Times Square Show in 1980 and now sits in major museum collections. Twentieth-Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies, a selection of Hannah’s journals, is being released by Knopf on March 13. With a narrative propelled by sex, alcohol and boldface names of the punk rock era, the book is a highly entertaining, funny, warped fairy tale about a young artist making his way. It is also a fascinating document of a lost bohemia: New York City in the Seventies.PKM: Twentieth-Century Boy opens when you’re seventeen and a junior in high school and ends in 1981 when you’re twenty-eight. Some of your behavior is totally outrageous (and I mean that in the best sense of the word)! In what ways are you different today from the Duncan in the journals? The same?
Duncan Hannah: Well, I’ve been sober for years, so THAT’S the biggest difference. My inebriation accounted for a lot of my bad behavior. I’m fairly dependable now, back then hardly at all. Also, I’m less attracted to the flashy, or the zeitgeist. I’m interested in what’s timeless, for instance. I don’t really care about what’s new, I care about what’s good.
I’m still an enthusiast. I still listen to the music I loved then on a daily basis, still swoon over the same European screen goddesses. Still read spy thrillers. Still get excited over the discovery of a dead painter I didn’t know about. So my appetites are intact.
PKM: One of the neat, unexpected aspects of the book is the narrative arc that emerges. How would you characterize it?
Duncan Hannah: Basically everything I yearn for on page one has come true on the last page.
“I’ve always been envious of the pop music medium, because you actually reach youth, whereas being a painter you reach other painters and art collectors, which is a much smaller niche. Youth actually LIVE with their music, they get high to it, they have sex to it, it’s much more subversive in that way.”
PKM: Your journals are engaging on so many levels. Downtown NYC in the Seventies seems like both a small town and a golden age of bohemianism. Why was that?
Duncan Hannah: NYC was much less populated, and it was broke. It was cheap to live here. The underground scene was so small that it was inevitable that you’d run into everyone that you were meant to meet. The people I knew had wildly eclectic passions, without any thought of some kind of commercial reward attached. So this led to some very entertaining eccentricity. There was a great crossover in the layers of society, highbrow/lowbrow overlaps. There was a spirit of adventure.
PKM: The main settings of Twentieth-Century Boy are Minneapolis, Bard College and NYC, particularly downtown, with a couple of detours to Europe thrown in for good measure. Describe each of these three worlds.
Duncan Hannah: Minneapolis was an OK place to grow up, and all the bands came through. Something about it I found stifling though. I had my eyes set on the East. Bard was an idyllic, pastoral incubator from which to hatch our fantasies, away from parental supervision for the first time. New York City was the end of the road, where it was time to stop being a big fish in a small pond, and be tested against the best and the brightest. I’d first visited NYC with my parents in 1959, at age seven, and knew without a doubt that THIS was where one came to live. Living in New York is an ongoing education.
PKM: At one point you’re working as a commercial artist (to pay the rent), a fine artist, an underground film star and a photojournalist for New York Rocker, all at the same time. That’s a lot of gigs! Was that typical of your friends and acquaintances?
Duncan Hannah: Most of my friends were polyglots. It was the age of Do-It-Yourself, so any enterprise would likely include a mish-mash of diverse talents. There was little available to us kids, so we took what we could for ourselves. We worked within our glaring limitations. The crudeness became a style, in film, in art, in music, in romance, in everything.
PKM: In the book your best friends include Eric Li of Marbles and Rob DuPrey of Mumps, now both storied NYC punk-era bands. You’re palling around with Richard Lloyd and Richard Hell from Television. What was your impression of those bands and the other bands on the scene, like Blondie, Talking Heads and the Ramones?
Duncan Hannah: I never thought those groups would make it, they were all so quirky. But I watched Blondie and the Talking Heads turn into powerful bands with international appeal, and that was exciting.
PKM: Describe Eric Li, Rob DuPrey, Richard Lloyd, David McDermott, Ray Johnson, Kathy Acker, Rene Ricard, Danny Fields, Andy Warhol, Nico.
Duncan Hannah: Ray Johnson was always a bit of a legend in his own time, with his elegant collage shows at the Feigen Gallery, but his personality was decidedly unprofessional. The thing is, he WORKED constantly. A true weirdo.
Eric Li was a sweet Chinese-American kid who went to Columbia, a math whiz, a piano prodigy. He wound up overdosing on a speedball. I remember his friend Walter Lure saying at his memorial that it was the “weekend warriors” who always fall first.
Rene Ricard was a brilliant, complicated guy, who kind of embodied the Warhol Factory aesthetic for me. He was very funny, in a bitchy kind of way.
PKM: Two of my favorite “characters” in the journals are your long-suffering parents in the early Minneapolis sequences. They are so well-drawn, and your conversations with them are hilarious. They have such high hopes for you, and every year their expectations diminish. A number of the family scenes are poignant. You were the teenage son from hell! Were those entries difficult for you to read?
Duncan Hannah: Yes, I’m afraid I was hard on them. My mother’s angry outbursts were pretty funny, she obviously had a vivid imagination. Whereas my dad was very patient, gave me the benefit of the doubt, while never being the least bit interested in the career path I laid out for myself, which to him seemed doomed.
PKM: How is the New York art scene, in particular, of the Seventies different from today’s?
Duncan Hannah: The art world today has become like a competitive sport, with winners and losers. Everybody is keeping score. I think young artists’ priorities have changed away from some kind of personal expression to a market-driven product. They play the game. It’s so much about money now. I find it anemic, for the most part.
PKM: A number of Seventies-era memoirs have appeared in recent years. Why do you think that is? Any that have particularly grabbed you?
Duncan Hannah: I think it’s because the lapse of time is getting larger, and there isn’t likely to be that kind of bohemianism, at least in Manhattan, again. I was always interested in the decades before I was born. I wished I’d been born earlier so I could have experienced Swinging London, for instance. But I may not have survived it. I love James Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out, about HIS indoctrination in NYC in the 70s. His powers of description are amazing. Paris in the 20s, Berlin in the 30s, New York in the 50s. I’m fascinated by it all.
PKM: In what ways is a memoir different from a journal? Care to add any postscripts about any of the folks or goings-on in the book? Here’s your chance.
Duncan Hannah: If it had been a memoir, I wouldn’t have remembered half of what went on. Also, I couldn’t have captured the attitude we seemed to have back then. Plus, it would have been so tempting to rewrite history a little bit. I would have noted the ironies of what happened to these characters down the road. As it is, the future is a blank.
PKM: You have unpublished journals of the Eighties, Nineties, Aughts and on to the present. Why does the selection in the book end when it does?
Duncan Hannah: It’s already a fat book, so the decision to make it a decade seemed right. We had to cut at least half of it as it was. Plus, it has a happy ending. Always good to end on a high note.
PKM: You’ve recorded the audio book. Will there be any special “bonus” material, maybe something that was just too smutty to include in the print edition? (Just a thought.)
Duncan Hannah: I’m afraid not.
“There was little available to us kids, so we took what we could for ourselves. We worked within our glaring limitations. The crudeness became a style, in film, in art, in music, in romance, in everything.”
PKM: Gerry Howard, your editor, was one of Jim Carroll’s editors. I see some affinities between your book and Carroll’s wonderful fictionalized memoirs, The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries. Do you think Gerry saw you as somehow continuing in the great Jim Carroll tradition? How would you describe that tradition?
Duncan Hannah: I’m sure he did. They are linked by bad habits and high aspirations. We are both beholden to Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac. Carroll is not your typical high-school basketball star, and I was probably not your typical rock kid. I think it’s the juxtaposition that’s interesting.
PKM: What do you think most inspired or motivated you during the decade that you are documenting?
Duncan Hannah: The need to become the kind of artist that I could be proud of. To become engaged with the cultural input that I was feeding off of, and make it mean something to me, and possibly others. Someone like David Bowie was doing that with high visibility, and it was thrilling to chart his progress. I’ve always been envious of the pop music medium, because you actually reach youth, whereas being a painter you reach other painters and art collectors, which is a much smaller niche. Youth actually LIVE with their music, they get high to it, they have sex to it, it’s much more subversive in that way. You get them where they live, at that malleable point in their lives.
PKM: Provide a preview of your Eighties journals. Are they just as racy?
Duncan Hannah: The early 80s were a rocky time for me, in terms of staying sober, and my romantic liaisons, so there’s that kind of drama. But I eventually came to grips with my self-destructive tendencies, and applied myself more dutifully to becoming a better painter. I kept meeting fascinating people, and writing more at length about them, since I finally had my wits about me.
PKM: Why did you keep a journal?
Duncan Hannah: I read a lot, so I wanted to try my hand at it. I didn’t like the feeling of time slipping away unacknowledged. I wanted to see if my friends and I could be mythologized. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to encapsulate my experiences with a writerly flourish, if I could.
PKM: Hopper and Balthus are two of your main men. What do you like so much about their work?
Duncan Hannah: They are each solid painters who manage to get a psychological subtext going with seemingly straightforward subjects. Each transcended his genre to create a singular, identifiable dream-world, one quintessentially European, one very American. Both were unfussy painters whose mood carried the day.
PKM: I know that your feeling is that at times as an artist you’ve been outside the mainstream? Why is that?
Duncan Hannah: I never embraced my generation’s cynicism. It’s just not me. I am much more driven by love, desire, and the pursuit of beauty, which has not been a central theme in art in the last 40 years of art history, so I didn’t fall into any popular camp. I like fringe artists myself, so I accepted that. I also like to wander around in time, and not necessarily address myself to the present, which was seen by some as not being relevant.
PKM: This past fall and winter you had separate shows of new work and of old work in two NYC galleries, a show in a Paris gallery, and the Club 57 group show at MOMA. Is this your time?
Duncan Hannah: It seems to be. As the Boys Scouts always say, “Be prepared.”