Art Conversations

An Afternoon with Duncan Hannah (In Memoriam)

By Daniel Penny

Jul 13, 2022

An Afternoon with Duncan Hannah (In Memoriam)

Drake’s is saddened to learn of the death of Duncan Hannah, a friend of the brand and an inspiration to artists, writers, and anybody who appreciated good style. In our upcoming issue of Common Thread, Drake’s will be publishing a short profile we did with Duncan. In honour of his sudden passing, we have decided to publish it online now.

The painter and writer Duncan Hannah invited me out of the rain on an unseasonably cold and wet afternoon in June. With fellow artist Megan Wilson, Hannah split his time between a yellow townhouse in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, and a cottage in Connecticut. Hannah handed me a steaming mug of coffee while I shook off the wet. The stereo murmured a soundtrack of Coltrane and a black cat, Tarzan, mewed in the corner.

At the age of 69, Hannah still exuded a puckish charm, with a smooth-shaven face and a coiffure of brown hair that he habitually pushed out of his eyes. On the afternoon we met, he wore a Drake’s cashmere varsity “D” sweater, oxford shirt, jeans, and white bucks. His apartment was a kind of wunderkammer, tastefully crammed with old books and strange curios: giant toy battleships, dusty old trunks, and cabinets full of files. The walls were festooned with old cigarette signs and vintage advertisements, and lots of paintings, but none of the art was his own. Hannah hated living with his own work because it never seemed finished to him, and he had to constantly fight the urge to revise it.

“There’s always some niggling detail,” he explained.

The front room of the apartment served double duty as Hannah’s studio. Standing by the floor-to-ceiling windows were a pair of easels, a paint-splattered table full of rolled up oil tubes, and jars of brushes sorted by size. In cardboard boxes sat finished and unfinished canvases wrapped in plastic; others were stacked against the wall.

Hannah loved to mine the past for inspiration. His portraits are known for their gauzy atmosphere, often featuring nudes set in some distant, dreamlike past--and have been collected by the likes of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Chicago Art Institute. At the time of my visit, Hannah was into minor actresses and Italian beauty queens from the 1960s, shown in various states of undress. They stare past the viewer with slightly vacant expressions, as if they were looking back on their own reflections through the mists of time. Eros and melancholy swirl together.

“I would think I’m a scopophiliac,” Hannah said of the peeping Tom streak in his work. “But I think most painters are. Looking is the engine of it all.”

Recently, Hannah had set aside looking to take up writing. Or more accurately, he’d been busy editing his old journals. Since moving to New York to first attend Bard College in 1971 and then Parsons School of Design in 1973, Hannah had been a fixture of the downtown scene, rubbing shoulders with some of the most notable figures of the city’s avant-garde. In 2018, he published a memoir culled from recollections of those wild years, 20th Century Boy.

In the book, young Hannah shoots pool with Richard Hell and pals around with Patti Smith. He blacks out with David Bowie, and the next bleary morning, finds himself wandering the hellscape of a construction site in Battery City. In a darkened booth of the infamous Max’s Kansas City, Lou Reed, whom Hannah describes as “looking like a skinny chimpanzee” makes an extremely rude proposition. The whole city, it seems, was in love with this beautiful young man, except for a butch bouncer at the 82 Club, who tosses our frail young man out in the street “just like in the movies,” writes Hannah. “The famous gutter that I’ve heard so much about. I made it!”

The contrast between the artist’s former debauberchy (he got sober in 1980) and his comparatively low key work has long interested his admirers. During a time when abstraction and then neo-expressionism dominated the artworld, Hannah’s straightforward landscapes and portraits were rendered with care and candour, suffused with an eerie light that suggested there was more to see here than just paint on a canvas. In a 1984 issue of Artforum, Glenn O’Brien called him “the Henry Mancini of the New Wave, or the power-pop Balthus.”

Hannah’s sense of fashion has followed a similarly zigzagging path. In his hometown of Minneapolis, he was a longhaired freak; among punks, he dressed a dandy. That evening, Hannah was scheduled to attend the premiere of Jim Jarmusch’s new zombie flick, The Dead Don’t Die and had laid out on his bed a brown and white striped seersucker suit, paired with brown and white spectators. For the average civilian, it may be difficult to imagine pulling off an outfit like this one, but Hannah insisted that each person needed to find their own style, regardless of what everybody else was doing.

He told a story of when he taught at an art school in New York a few years ago, in which, as a “get to know you” exercise, he had instructed students to draw somebody they admired. “A dream assignment,” Hannah said. There were no rules about subject matter or approach — it was meant to be an expression of personality.

“Who should it be?” one student asked.

“I don’t know. It could be your grandma, John Coltrane, whoever,” Hannah explained.

“Does it have to be Coltrane?” asked another.

“No!” he said. “You can do whatever you want! It’s about what you love!”

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