New York in the 1970s was the height of Bohemianism and the heyday of the art scene—and artist Duncan Hannah was right in the middle of it, hanging out with Larry Rivers, Julian Schnabel, Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Brian Ferry and just about every other boldface name from that era.
In his new book, 20th Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies, he shares his experiences from that remarkable time. This is not your typical memoir. Hannah kept detailed journals from the ’70s through the ’90s and his details are spot on.
“I was a big reader,” explains Hannah, “and one of my favorite writers was Jack Kerouac, who wrote in a very playful fashion about his friends. So when I was about 17 I started keeping a journal. I decided I should record my youth because it will give me a better handle on it.
“I didn’t like the fact that time slipped through one’s fingers,” he continued, “and I thought that writing about it would preserve it in a way. I had no idea of publishing 45 years later. There is a lot of detail and dialogue I never would have remembered. I had never read (my recollections) before I started editing them.”
The journals themselves are letter-size, bound with unlined pages—standard artists’ notebooks. There are 20 in total and each is titled. Following a family tradition of keeping scrapbooks, Hannah included clippings and photographs that complement the text.
He will be signing his book at the Millbrook Literary Festival on May 19th and will be part of the Sharon Library Author Festival in early August.
20th Century Boy begins when he was a junior in a public high school in Minneapolis, where he was born. He’d just been expelled from a private boys’ school for selling LSD to a fellow student.
Hannah admits that he was not a stellar student, excelling only in English and art.
Growing up in a Midwestern town he knew from an early age he wanted to be an artist.
His father was a corporate lawyer and his mother an interior decorator and coping with their son was not an easy task.
“I was never able to put myself in their shoes when I was a rebellious teenager,” Hannah says. “When I was reading over these journals I said, ‘Oh, my God, what a nightmare.’ No wonder they flipped out. Who wouldn’t? They were frightened about my wanting to be an artist. I was privileged and didn’t really appreciate them.”
“It was assumed that I would become some kind of professional man and that’s not something I wanted to do. I was magnetized by artists and what I knew of Bohemia. There was such a strong pull to push the limits—take drugs, experience everything. I can sympathize now but it’s a little too late.”
Hannah did make it to New York, studying first at Bard College and then transferring to Parsons School of Design in Manhattan.
“I was coming down to the city from Bard to hear bands and to be part of the scene. I transferred to Parsons to study illustration so that I might have some means of supporting myself after graduation. I spent my junior and senior years there and I was doing freelance art for The New York Times by the time I graduated. Then, throughout the ’70s I worked for New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Esquire. All the while I was planning to make my debut as a fine artist.”
He graduated in 1975, steeped in the figurative traditions of Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer and Fairfield Porter. He was invited to join the Times Square Show, a group exhibition organized by Collaborative Projects, Inc. (Colab), where his work hung with the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.
It was a seminal moment for Hannah and he was offered his first solo show at a Manhattan Gallery in 1980. He has since had more than 70 solo shows. His work is in many private collections, including that of Mick Jagger, as well as in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and various other museums across the country.
“I gave up illustration and I’ve been living off my paintings ever since,” says Hannah. “My goal was to never have a job. It’s worked and I feel very lucky.”
As well he should. He was part of the art world when artists mattered and were treated like royalty. The emphasis was on the work and not on the money that it might bring.
“It’s all about money now,” says Hannah. “My paintings are still relatively inexpensive but the overhead of a first-rate gallery is so enormous. They take 50 percent of the fee but they need to to survive. That doesn’t make it easy for the artist. It’s not about the artwork any more, it’s about the art market, not the aesthetics. In the ’70s to want to be an artist was not about wanting to be wealthy; it was following a passion. New York City is no longer an easy place to succeed.”
But Hannah has succeeded and continues to pursue his passion. When not working at his studio in New York, he is ensconced in the one he has in West Cornwall where he spends most of the summer.
“I’ve been there over 20 years. It’s still so unspoiled and authentically New England without being too twee about it. I work until 4 and then go for a swim. Then work until the sun goes down, make some spaghetti, watch a movie—it’s paradise.”
Even though 20th Century Boy is a hit, he still prefers painting to writing.
“Painting is more enjoyable because it’s physical and you are concentrating on abstract things, like how two colors meet and what affect they have on each other which can be very meditative.”
So, can we look forward to the next volume? It’s too soon to tell. But Hannah is looking forward to reliving more of his extraordinary life.
Duncan Hannah is represented by Invisible Exports on Eldridge Street, New York.