Walter Darby Bannard: Paintings from 1969 to 1975

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he late WALTER DARBY BANNARD (1934–2016) was an abstract artist, not a trained art historian. Nevertheless, belonging to the first generation of American painters and sculptors who were mostly college-educated, Bannard (Princeton ’56) not only made avant-garde art; he also wrote about it. He was as comfortable analyzing the work of such Abstract Expressionists as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Hans Hofmann as he was applying to expanses of stretched canvas all sorts of colors, including some he once exactingly itemized as grayish bluish green flat, grayish yellow orange gloss, and bright orange flat. In a series of dense, speculative essays he began publishing in Artforum in 1966, Bannard focused on pivotal issues he and his fellow abstractionists faced. He was particularly interested in the interaction between color and space. For centuries, when representational art reigned supreme, art historians considered another matter more consequential: the nature of color versus line. But times had changed. Abstract art was ascendant. And, in 1967, Bannard opined: ”I believe the avant-garde in painting today consists of painters who are dealing with color problems.” Three years later, he boldly declared: “Recently, artists who have been making the very best paintings have been making them in terms of color rather than space.” In canvases he executed between 1968 and the mid-1970s, Bannard sought ways to make color a rich, expressive force. Taking note, several colleagues hailed his achievement. In the cover story from the October 1968 issue of Artforum, critic Kermit Champa described Bannard’s latest art “as some of the most challenging color experiences in recent memory.” When the Baltimore Art Museum mounted a survey of the Ivy Leaguer’s canvases in 1973, curator Jane Harrison Cone observed: “It is clear, as you experience the strength and beauty of his art, that Bannard must be counted as one of the few enduringly significant and original artists to have emerged over the past fifteen years, the period in which pure color abstraction, or ‘color-field’ painting, coalesced into a vitally important moment in this country.” With the advent of conceptual art, the appearance of NeoExpressionism and Neo-Geo, and the emergence of still other art styles and manners, the tables were turned. Color abstraction was downgraded. However, what once had seemed old hat recently has been revitalized by a younger generation. Fifty-some years later, we now have the opportunity at Berry Campbell to look anew at Bannard’s middle period. This phase occupies several years between his execution of understated, geometric or Minimalist art and a later body of large works featuring colored gels and polymers applied with squeegees and commercial floor brooms. In the current show, Western Air #5, The Plains #2, Cherokee Blanket #4, and Winter’s Traces are standout paintings executed between 1969 and 1971 that could not seem fresher or more capacious. Bannard’s appealing, seductive palette is, in his words from 1973, comprised of “high value, light color or strange, unusual colors.” Their subdued, low-key nature is quietly appealing. Furthermore, by using both matte and glossy pigments, which are activated when canvases are properly lit, he achieved, as he once remarked, “differences which were independent of color.” As it is, nothing about these four paintings suggests that they were generated by obtuse theories. Yet, during this middle period, Bannard was consciously trying to avoid traces of Cubist space, something he associated with bare

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canvas. He also was using canvases of larger dimensions because, as he indicated in 1971: “Color needs size to get the ‘feel’ across, to show off.” And he consciously was not creating assertive forms or distinct shapes as he had done in his Minimalist phase. He referred to this as “reduction of specificity of shape.” Bannard greatly admired Jules Olitski’s having successfully mastered this action. In 1970, Bannard meticulously described how he painted Cherokee Blanket #2. He pointed out that he had used four differently colored paints that he applied separately in five layers. Though two were matte-based and the other two were glossy and reflective, all were of similar value. Like the four related canvases at Berry Campbell, Cherokee Blanket #2 projects an aura of spontaneity. At times, in works such as this, viewers can be reminded of clouds floating in a bright sky. But when he was painting these canvases, Bannard wasn’t as carefree as these seem to be. “The color combination,” he noted, “was carefully worked out before the painting was begun. Once applied, the colors took on some further variation according to conditions on the canvas.” And Bannard worked differently than he had in the past. Echoing a widely held belief, he wrote: “A change in ‘style’ has usually been a change in method of paint application.” He explained further: “The paint on Cherokee Blanket #2 was poured or dabbed on with soaked gauze diapers. Cardboard templates were used to impose an armature for the color.”

The rectangular canvases initially had been divided into smaller rectangular sections. As the artist developed these works, the armature was buried beneath the swaths of color. At one point, only some straight lines were visible. What Bannard was doing was related to the way, say, Philip Guston during the 1950s had painted a clock—and other recognizable images—on a pictorial plane and then, covered them up. In the beginning of his middle period, Bannard prized order and geometry and then subverted these qualities. He also nodded to Hofmann’s concept of push/pull, adapting it to different ends. The younger American was using his rectangles not to create spatial relationships as so much as to present color. Thinking about the impasto on the surfaces of Hofmann’s late abstractions also led Bannard to work more with texture and touch. Applying colored gels and polymers in monochromatic formats to his surfaces, he newly called attention to ridges, creases, and other “sculpted” passages. He found he could “use paint more expressively, to let out its intrinsic qualities of fluidity, relative transparency, thickness and thinness, oiliness and dryness, and the like.” It only took a few short years for Walter Darby Bannard to arrive at this point.

PHYLLIS TUCHMAN


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SELECTED MUSEUM COLLECTIONS Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York Aldrich Museum of Contemporarty Art, Ridgefield, Connecticut Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, Canada Art Museum of South Texas, Corpus Christi Asheville Art Museum, North Carolina Baltimore Museum, Maryland Centre Pompidou, Paris Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama Blanton Museum of Art, The University at Texas, Austin Brooklyn Museum, New York Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, Tennessee Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio Dallas Museum of Art, Texas Dayton Art Institute, Ohio Denver Art Museum, Colorado Edmonton Art Gallery, Alberta, Canada Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts Greenville County Museum of Art, South Carolina Grey Art Gallery, New York University High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York Honolulu Museum, Hawaii Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana Kenyon College Art Gallery, Ohio LaSalle University Art Museum, Philadelphia Lawrenceville School Art Museum, New Jersey Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Miami University Art Museum, Florida Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey Morris Museum, Morristown, New Jersey Museum of Fine Arts, Boston The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas Museum of Modern Art, New York National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC National Gallery of Victoria, Australia Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri New Jersey State Museum, Trenton Newark Museum, New Jersey Neuberger Museum of Art, Harrison, New York Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Portland Art Museum, Oregon Portland Museum of Art, Maine Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam RISD Museum, Providence, Rhode Island Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Springfield Museum of Fine Arts, Massachusetts Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York The Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada Weatherspoon Art Museum, Greensboro, North Carolina Whitney Museum of American Art, New York Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts Winnipeg Art Gallery, Canada Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey

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