Seven lessons in being an artist from Duncan Hannah
From the late painter’s irresistible journals of 1970s New York
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Duncan Hannah (1952–2022)
Hannah’s 20th Century Boy, published in 2018, is one of those books that I remember thinking I should read when it came out but never got around to—and I’m sorry that it took the sad news of Hannah’s death at age 69 for me to finally pick it up. But what a book! It collects the journals that Hannah kept between 1970, when he was a high school junior in Minneapolis, and 1981, when he had his first solo show as an artist, in New York. I devoured it in a few days, reveling in its behind-the-scenes anecdotes from 1970s NYC, including Hannah’s run-ins with David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, the New York Dolls, Talking Heads, David Hockney, Andy Warhol and his entourage, and many more. But even more appealing was Hannah’s voice on the page; he is an exuberant, hungry-for-life, lucky-and-he-knows-it rake, extremely reckless at times but possessing just enough work ethic to make steady progress from art student to actual working artist. I found it wildly inspiring and also very wise about what it takes to make that transformation. Here are seven insights in particular that spoke to me.
1. The fun is in getting there
As an aspiring writer or artist or musician, it’s easy to get so focused on “making it” that you forget to properly enjoy your long, strange apprenticeship. Hannah knew better. Here he is at 20 years old explaining things to his dad, a lawyer:
It’s back to Minneapolis for Christmas. Dad and I go skiing. Sitting in the chairlift, Dad is worried because I don’t know about economics or electricity or insurance or nuthin’. So I tell him that he don’t know what I know, and if I’m gonna make it as an artist, I gotta be really good. And maybe the fun is in getting there. I’m not worried about money, I’ll figure something out along the way.
(Hannah does eventually figure things out with money, though it helps that his dad agrees to give him an allowance while he does so!)