One popular axiom has it that if you can remember the Sixties or Seventies, you didn’t really participate in them. Artist Duncan Hannah did take part, but he doesn’t need to remember what went on in the latter decade — he kept extensive journals at the time, now published by Alfred A. Knopf as “Twentieth-Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies.” His studio in Brooklyn has piles of the originals stacked neatly in a corner. And he still keeps journals today.
Hannah, who was born in Minneapolis in 1952, has had more than 70 solo shows of his paintings, collages and drawings since 1981. His work is in a number of private collections and museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hannah is a figurative painter, influenced by Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, Balthus and Fairfield Porter. His work also recalls Vanessa Bell’s Charleston portraits. But he grew up in a period when critics considered that the only important art was Abstract Expressionism. He says that he spent a couple of years when he was first at Bard College trying to become an Abstract Expressionist, but gave up. He finished his degree at Parsons.
In the Seventies, Hannah was a long-haired, winsomely pretty young man who resembled the leader of a boy band. In fact, he was sometimes taken for David Cassidy and once or twice even signed autographs in that guise.
While Hannah was only attracted to women, he had many gay male friends. His looks, charm and artistic talent allowed him access to elite gay and bisexual circles despite being the proverbial starving artist. He found himself spending time with some of the most talked-about artists of the day, including David Hockney and Allen Ginsberg. He might begin an evening at a party at Larry Rivers’ loft; a fete attended by Rudolph Nureyev, Andy Warhol, the Warhol drag queens, Bryan Ferry and David Bowie, and then head down to Club 82 with the whole group.
At a party given by Norman Fischer, he met Robert Frank, Henry Geldzahler and Robert Palmer. He hung out with Amanda Lear, who was then Ferry’s girlfriend, but who seemed to be quite attracted to him. He was a regular in the back room of Max’s Kansas City. He made a couple of underground movies with Debbie Harry. Hannah sometimes took pictures, including a series of photos of the band The Talking Heads, which can be seen in the book. He photographed Warhol, who returned the favor by taking Polaroids of him. He also performed with the band Television very briefly. At another point, Patti Smith gave him a shoutout mid-performance from the stage.
He recalls an exchange with Warhol in which he told the artist that he had decided to start painting like Balthus. Warhol responded, “That’s a good idea,” then asked his assistant if he could start painting like Balthus. The aide agreed. Hockney also gave him advice about his painting.
Hannah was included in the infamous Times Square Show that also launched Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, which got his career off to a good start.
“Hannah” is not a particularly common surname, and at one point the painter was at a party with actress Daryl Hannah — then at the height of her fame — and thought he would try to find out whether they were related. He says, “She acted as if I were a stalker.”
Hannah was always a bit of a dandy — showing up, for example, at a party outfitted a la Alain Delon in “Purple Noon” or in black tie and tails. He is still handsome and still dresses like the stylish idea of an artist in a biopic, sporting a vest and jacket.
In the Seventies, male friends and acquaintances occasionally made passes at him, but he didn’t care unless it went too far — he was sometimes accused of being a tease and one rejected suitor threatened to kill him.
But that doesn’t mean that Hannah didn’t have his own indiscretions. While working on his painting, he found opportunities to indulge in the decade’s freewheeling sexual scene, and the book details many a tryst. He has a sister who’s six years older, and he remembers her being concerned about her virtue as a young woman. By the time he came along, he says, “nobody cared about their virtue. There was no more stigma — and they were so aggressive.”
The artist also got up to mischief when drunk, which he often was. It wasn’t until 1980 that he had to acknowledge that he had developed a drinking problem and stopped imbibing.
In “Twentieth-Century Boy,” Hannah provides lists of books he’s read, records he’s listened to and movies he’s seen — providing a salient reminder of the cultural richness of the period.
The book is nothing if not picaresque. In a passage that evokes the zaniness of his days then, he writes, “Drunk. Empty Kenwood house. I knocked over an Xmas tree. I cracked my head on a radiator. Blood. Woke up and ate an omelet, then drank some more while I smoked a cigar in the tub with Kramer. Later, all of us naked boys in the living room, listening to a parakeet training record. ‘Hello, baby, want a kiss?’…‘Hello, baby, want a kiss?’…Later, it kept slipping on the word ‘Henry.’ ‘Henry, Henry, Henry,’ over and over again.”
Then there’s this: “Rainy Sunday night. Reno Sweeney. Anita O’Day onstage singing some junkie scat. At the table next to us were Colacello, Warhol, Keller and Amanda Lear. She was telling them how disgustingly drunk I was the other night. Andy turned to me and said, ‘Oh, I always thought you were British.’ They left without finishing their drinks. Never understood how anyone could do that. It’s the Scotsman in me.
“The following afternoon she called, told me to meet her at 5:30 at the St. Regis for drinks with Dali.” Lear arranged for him to model for Dali, but when he rejected the idea that they have a tryst, she cancelled the session.
Hannah has a house in West Cornwall, Conn., that he shares with designer Megan Wilson, but he works in his Brooklyn studio, which features an easel and other painterly accoutrements. Surprisingly, there are almost none of his own paintings on the walls. Only a portrait of Italian actress Elsa Martinelli can be seen. A recent obsession has been minor beauty queens. There are several drawings of cats, but they aren’t by him, although he has two felines.
Hannah seems somewhat bemused by the fact that his Seventies journals have become a book. This happened because he often told stories of the old days in New York at parties, which people enjoyed. And then Gerry Howard, a friend who worked for Doubleday, suggested that Duncan try editing them and seeing if they could be put together as a memoir. So he looked at them for the first time since he had written them. The painter thought that, at most, the book would come out from an obscure art publisher, and he was astonished when Howard helped him get a contract with Knopf.
“There’s so much interest in the Seventies — art and rock ‘n’roll, sex and booze,” Hannah says. “He [Howard] did it, and I couldn’t believe it. He had a go at it [the book] and it’s still 400 pages. We just chopped it, but it got the flavor. The Seventies is poignant. Innocence meets experience.”