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!)
2. OPTIMISM IS A DISCIPLINE
This idea crops up a couple times in Hannah’s journals. First, here is after hanging out with a musician friend named Kristian:
His cynicism wore me down. If there is nothing redeeming in anything, okay then, but I don’t want to be reminded of it. Get off of my cloud. Don’t rain on my parade. My own optimism is a discipline that I practice.
And here is near the end of the book, after a 1980 concert:
Saw Tom Waits on stage. He sang, “If I exorcise my devils, well my angels may leave too.” I used to think that too. I don’t anymore. Suffering is not imperative. Being cynical is a cop-out. Hip negativity is just another form of conformity. If I feel the world is horrible, to be horrible myself would just be adding to the problem. The path of least resistance would be to submit to the inevitable course, and just become another fatality of bohemia’s wicked ways. As if I was passively going along with the downward flow. That’s not me, not who I was, not who I want to be. I have a choice in the matter. I can fight back. Wouldn’t the brave option to be to try to live a positive life? Wouldn’t that be rebellion?
3. CONFIDENCE IS ALLURING
OK, here Hannah had a leg up, because he was a very attractive young guy (a couple times in the journals people mistake him for David Cassidy) and no doubt that gives one a certain confidence. But I like how Hannah writes about its utility for an artist:
People who buy modern paintings are very often more interested in gaining admittance to the world of young artists than they are in the piece in question. Confidence is the essential prop. Confidence is alluring. Finding no nucleus with which to cling, we become a small nucleus ourselves. Gradually we fit our disruptive personalities into the contemporary New York scene.
4. IT’S OK TO BE A BIT OF A MESS
This goes with the previous point about having confidence. Hannah is not a perfectionist or a control freak; he’s eager to try out new things, and he’s OK with things getting pretty messy along the way. And that sloppiness can actually be charming. For instance, here’s Hannah bringing his portfolio to show to the art director Paula Scher at Atlantic Records, in hopes of securing some freelance illustration work:
I went up to Atlantic Records with my portfolio to show [Paula Scher]. She was nice. When I unzipped it on her desk, three cockroaches dashed out. She shrieked. I said, “Sorry.” She went through carefully, said it was the sloppiest portfolio she had ever seen. “I like that, but you may have gone a bit overboard. I like that your collages are on such shitty paper.” She went on to call my work magnificent and amazing, but I will have trouble with art directors taking a risk with me, because of the recession. . . . While I was jotting down her suggestions, my Pelikan 120 exploded in my hand, showering sepia ink everywhere. I held up my paws for her to see, and said, “Do you have a Kleenex?” She shook her head and said “God, you’re too much!” We both laughed.
5. BEWARE OF GOOD TASTE
This one doesn’t need much introduction, I just think he’s so spot-on with this observation, from 1975:
Beware of good taste. So many friends of mine fall into the trap laid by the crossword puzzle of New York culture. Taking their media injections of reviews, trivia, in-jokes, and fashionable opinions. Sliding into the niche of the preordained chic taste, with its comfortable boundaries, a schematic reference point from which to stand above it all. Get your hands dirty! Nothing ventured, nothing gained! There is no empirical truth. Good taste can dampen creativity. Make you inhibited. Make you shy away from out-of-reach glories.
6. THE TRICK IS TO KEEP ON WANTING SOMETHING
Back at the NY Public Library, atoning for my sins. Looking up files on attics, the sides of ships, tunnels, movie theaters, burglars, military schools, gates, garages, poplars, lion tamers. I’m gonna try painting with spiritual butter. The trick is to keep on wanting something.
That really is the trick, isn’t it? As long as you’re after something as an artist—and you keep after it, even if you can’t quite say what “it” is—I think you’ll end up in an interesting place.
(Special thanks to Ed Park for highlighting this last quote on Instagram, inspiring me to pick up 20th Century Boy in the first place.)
7. YOU DON’T NEED PERMISSION TO BE AN ARTIST
At the end of 20th Century Boy, Hannah has his first solo show, at the Stefanotti Gallery on 57th Street. He shows seventeen paintings, and thirteen of them sell before the show opens. “Success!” he writes. “I am a professional painter at last! It’s like a fairy tale with a happy ending.”
At the opening, a group of art students approach Hannah. The following is the last paragraph in the book, and a fitting closing statement from an artist who always followed his interests wherever they led:
Some students came up and thanked me, saying this show gave them “permission” to make pictures. Their teachers told them they “weren’t allowed.” I told them, “You never need permission to be an artist. It’s a calling, and if you feel the need to wave your tattered banner, then wave it you must. Look for what you love.”
BONUS ADVICE FROM DAVID HOCKNEY
In the journals, Hannah mentions a few times his admiration for the work of David Hockney, so of course he ends up meeting Hockney and getting the older artist to come by for a studio visit. But Hockney comes and goes without saying anything about Hannah’s paintings. Later, Hannah works up the nerve to ask him what he thought. Hockney’s response is amazing:
We’ve been talking for a few days now. You’re obviously a very smart guy. I don’t have to tell you about your work. You already know. I’ll just say this… you’re selling yourself short in an attempt to be stylish. There’s something of the zeitgeist in your work that weakens it. You’re probably worried about having a look. Don’t worry about that. That will come by itself. Just work hard, and you will evolve into yourself naturally. Don’t choose who to be—grow into yourself through hard work. All will be revealed. I guarantee that if you paint a still life, it will have your personality in it. You have to trust that. The best things I saw by you today were your self-portrait drawings, because they had no artifice. . . . If I was you, I would strip away all your flashy gimmicks and dare to make “plain” paintings. You will be original, you have to take it on faith. You know what to do. You’ll get where you need to go with time and hard work.
ONE LAST THING
I enjoyed this clip of Hannah talking to CBS This Morning in 2018, especially the part where he says of his journal-keeping, “I had a good discipline. I guess I have some kind of puritan work ethic where if I didn't I’d feel guilty.” Even the bohemians turn out to be puritans!
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