The magnificent painter Elisabeth Condon, who in early October met me at her show at Lesley Heller Workspace, did her best to console me when I broke into tears. I had been expressing my hope, shared among all of us who cared about Walter Darby Bannard, that he would be able to attend the opening for his exhibition of recent paintings at Berry Campbell Gallery, eleven days away. Those hopes had been banished that morning. He had succumbed to complications ensuing from treatments for liver cancer. Elisabeth remarked sagely: “He’ll have the last word. That was always his way.”
Darby did make it to his 2015 opening at Berry Campbell, which featured his reductive work from the late 1950s and the early- to mid-1960s. That’s how I’ll remember him, standing near the front desk in his suspenders, smiling triumphantly. He had, after all, outlived three decades of undeserved critical disregard. And he had spent the meantime doing what he loved best, painting.
His painting continued unabated until shortly before his death. Brian Curtis, his colleague at the University of Miami Department of Art and Art History, spoke with him several days prior in the hospital, and Darby expressed eagerness to get back into the studio and the classroom. It gladdens me that his spirit was on a forward trajectory even as his body failed. That suited him far better than a maudlin decline, though it cruelly got our hopes up that he’d recover this time like he did every other.
His 2015 exhibition occasioned my interview with him for artcritical, in which he described his particular take on abstraction embodied in the reductive paintings. “There was this impulse to put a simple thing right in the middle of the picture and it wasn’t Cubist simplicity, it was presentational simplicity. Something was staring right back at you like it was another person. That idea just fascinated me. I thought, this is the best way to present color – make it into a painting, but just barely.”
That this was not a Cubist approach (nor, as he later mentioned, a Bauhaus one) was an important distinction, and I should have asked him to explain it more thoroughly because he would have done a better job than I’m about to do: there was a crucial relationship between materiality and opticality, and with the possibilities of gesture having been temporarily exhausted by 1960, minimalist simplicity was necessary to make that relationship plain again. Cubism was an unrelated optical process, and Bauhaus was an unrelated formal process. The problem that needed solving was how to get the effect of gesture without resorting to gesture, not the superficial brushy effect itself, but the goodness that resulted from it in the hands of the more able Abstract Expressionists.
His paintings at the time hinged on that material-optical relationship and that alone. (It’s possible that any painting made for visual reasons hinges upon it.) As Darby wrote for Artforum in 1968, “if the art-making attitude assumes that art quality arises from the use of the materials of painting to make the painting, then the artist will strive to equip himself with a method of picture construction contrived in terms of these materials, and develop, discover or invent material units of construction – pieces or parts from which the painting can be made.”
Last year’s reconsideration of his 1960s work seems to have refreshed those concerns for him. Of course they never left – he noted that his interests had hardly varied since he arrived upon them at Princeton. But the big, obvious, presentational shapes re-emerged from the brushed-out textures of gel and poured medium over the last year. Trapezoids, circles, even a couple of rounded rectangles pop back up into the foreground in a way that recalls the pieces from fifty years ago.
Though it’s not officially in the exhibition, Orange Blacksides (1959) is hanging nearby, and it’s instructive to compare it to Recamier (16-10A) (2016). If you can perceive the circle in each of them as a material phenomenon with an optical effect – that is, a presentational shape – then the other features of Recamier appear as further variations thereof. For that matter, Recamier recapitulates his entire oeuvre. There is the presentational circle from the ’60s, the materially distinct foregrounds and backgrounds from ’70s, the scalloped shapes he developed in the ’80s by subtracting from deposited areas of gel with a squeegee, the taste for intense chroma that had always affected his work but became a permanent feature in the ’90s, the aggressive, multi-directional application of broom-strokes that appeared in the 2000s, and the linear, wet-into-wet pours that he began using as an organizational element in the Teens. The whole army of his talent was on the attack.
There remain significant distinctions between various optical, formal, and material approaches in abstraction for artists to explore and critics to ponder. That of course depends on seeing them and reflecting upon them in a productive way, both for which Darby had stellar capacities. But those powers are rare, and remain scattered throughout an underground that he described in the interview: “The abstract painters ought to recognize that they have their own art world, and should have their own magazines and have their own critics and all that so they don’t have to reconcile what they’re doing with everyone else. If that could come about you could get a Renaissance of abstract painters competing against each other, not giving a damn about the other stuff, and you could start getting abstraction to take advantage of all the things that got cut off back in the early sixties when Pop Art and Minimalism took over the market. There are a lot of people not in the market who understand good painting and can recognize it. They’re all over the place and they just need their own family.”
That family just lost a patriarch. But it grows, and its members quietly find each other and connect over shared affinities. The opening at Berry Campbell wasn’t a wake, it was a reunion. What Darby practiced, which we call “modernism” as a shorthand but is more fundamental to human existence than the term connotes to most people, is as robust as ever.
Modernism isn’t a style, he insisted, it’s a working attitude oriented toward visual excellence. “Modernism is aspiring, authoritarian, hierarchical, self-critical, exclusive, vertically structured, and aims for the best,” he wrote in 1984. But the aspiration has a terminus, as he clarified in his aphorisms: “Great art is immutable, placid, complete, unchanging, and content to let life rush around it in its perpetual race.” That exquisite union of journey and goal is preserved in his paintings, each which stares right back at the viewer as if it were another person, having the last word.