Jean Fisher. Photo: James De Quesada. www.jeanfisher.com/. www.jamesdequesada.com/.
I WAS PRIVILEGED TO WORK WITH JEAN FISHER at the Royal College of Art in London while I was head of the department: curating contemporary art. Jean had been teaching art and globalization since the mid 1990s, and I was able to make this a cornerstone of my take on curatorial education. She was an unwavering supporter of our short-lived but extremely successful positive action program, Inspire, which provided scholarships to curators from minority backgrounds. She had no truck with fellow traveling academics who refused to speak truth to power in our struggles within the institution—her excoriating emails were legendary. Her teaching was engaged, scholarly, and passionate. She inspired generations of students (at the RCA, these included Jesse McKee, Núria Querol, and Omar Kholeif, among many others) to continue her interrogations of oppression and inequality through their curatorial practices.
Jean’s early training in biology had made her aware of the ecological destructiveness of both colonialism and capitalism. For her, 1492 was the nakba, the founding disaster of modernity, the effects of which she continued to explore in her various curatorial projects and essays. Through her early collaboration with Jimmie Durham in New York in the ’80s, she had become attuned to the work of First Nations artists whose art refracted the destructive forces released on indigenous communities by colonialism, slavery, and genocide. She argued that the same processes that Columbus unleashed on the Americas and the wider world are still in process in the attempts to subjugate the Palestinian people today. Jean was a natural partner for a series of conversations in 2010 at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, exploring the continuing repression of the work of indigenous artists and curators. In seeking to reconcile the very different political legacies of colonial treaties with First Nations people in Canada and the United States, her diplomatic skills were keenly felt.
The quality of Jean’s writing and thinking was exemplary. Perhaps her most enduring contribution is not her essays on individual artists (such as Edgar Heap of Birds, James Coleman, or Steve McQueen), important as those are, but her insistence on combining engaged political analysis with respect for the autonomy of the work of art, its mode of engaging the individual “spectator participant.” For Jean, art and politics were inextricably linked. In her own words: “The aesthetic sense of the work draws the viewer into an engagement with its contents, which open up a perspective to the ‘ethico-political.’”
Those of us who were privileged to know and work with Jean have many regrets. We were often unable to pry her away from her commitments to write “yet another” catalogue introduction. She treated writing requests from artists to whom she was committed as a form of “social command,” which she accepted selflessly. Always apologetically about to return to her “real work,” she downplayed the originality of this form of engaged writing.
As we worked together, we discovered shared histories: an earlier training in biological and ecological science, a love of the marine environments of Suffolk, where we planned a reunion with like-minded colleagues, which, sadly, could not be realized. While we never got to fully explore the potential of Félix Guattari’s notion of the three ecologies, her work, more than that of any other contemporary practitioner, perhaps, demonstrates the interconnection of the ecologies of the personal, subjective, and affective realms with those of the political and social, as well as that of the so-called natural world. As Jean reminds us, the work of the artists she championed can enable us to reflect on our own position within the complex processes of contemporary capitalism and neocolonialism, restoring some element of agency and reparation. We will miss her voice—she was one of the most original and urgent writers on contemporary art—but her influence will, hopefully, continue to grow as her work is more widely appreciated, particularly through her recently established website.
Mark Nash is a curator and writer based in London. His exhibition “Things Fall Apart” is currently on view at the Galeria Avenida da Índia, Lisbon, and travels to Open Society Archives, Budapest, in April.
For additional Jean Fisher Passages, see the forthcoming April issue of Artforum.
I REMEMBER GOING AROUND to my dear mentor Jean Fisher’s house on an average bleary London night to get my education. This wasn’t the education of textbooks or customary art history but a journey into the late 1980s and early ’90s in Britain, where many a queer writer and artist had spent time sitting in the very same seat as me. Hamad Butt and Stuart Morgan were but two examples whom Fisher cited as close. After Butt died from AIDS-related causes, she fought tooth and nail, lobbying the art world to get his archive and artworks into the Tate’s collection.
Now that tragic time has come, and Jean is gone. I sit here with a heavy heart, wondering who will fight for her legacy. Certainly, there has been an outpouring from people on social media, especially Facebook, talking about how dearly and fondly they held her, but we know that these moments pass all too quickly, as more of our idols die and as we fall into a state of perpetual dissolution, our everyday world consumed by Brexit and Trump politics.
Legacy, for a writer on art, is something that is often formed through very specific modes of affiliation and citation. Jean, however, spent most of her life working as an adjunct professor at universities across the US and the UK, and it wasn’t until later in life that she gained a permanent position at Middlesex University and a visiting professorship at the Royal College of Art in London. Her writings, because she did not subscribe to the logic of academia—or rather, cared more about erring on the side of the artist—were not in standard, peer-reviewed journals, but in every kind of publication that you could imagine: pamphlets, artists’ books, monographs, exhibition catalogues, edited collections, and in Third Text, where she was an editor for over a decade.
Throughout her life, Jean collected material. She would dig, as Michel Serres would say, and find, and dig and gather; much of it remains unseen or difficult to access. In the final year of her life, Jean created a website to bring back the work that was out of print or produced in esoteric publications. Jean had spent the past twenty years writing about the figure of the trickster in far-flung places; she would speak to me of the subversive potential of such a symbol, of how such a character, as personified in the likes of Jimmie Durham, might lead to a mode of inquiry that could yield true social and political insight and perhaps even change. In her final days, she collected many of these writings into a book-length monograph, as yet unpublished. We must, of course, collectively strive to bring this writing to life through print.
Her research on this topic led her to a variety of places, real and imagined. Jean always spoke of the potential of imagination to conquer the physical realm of reality. She would refer to Jorge Luis Borges and Richard Kearney and the tension of being able to imagine free from the tainted ills of corrupting media bias. However, she was never a pessimist; she loved the rise of the internet and was an enthusiastic emailer, even when she had suffered a hand injury. She loved the instantaneous nature of this communication, the ability to rally and gather online when physical health would prevent one from being able to take to the streets.
I’ve written elsewhere of Jean’s style of radical will and her commitment to human rights. This persistence may well have come from her background. She was no ordinary art historian (in fact, she loathed to be called one!). She held a BSc in zoology and a PhD in medical research, which she attained while also studying for a BA in fine art. One can draw a correlation between Jean’s education and her study into the anthropophagic nature of the violent history of colonialism. She spent most of her life looking at artists whose works dealt with the caging, shackling, and chaining of the colonized voice, which she often fought to unlock through her writings. I told Jean once that her background in zoology gave her a unique lens onto art; she responded that I was a classic bullshitter of the highest order, the kind, she said, who would make it in this harsh world.
I laugh now, but through tears. These are not hopeless tears, of course, but fighting ones. Jean was modest, far too modest. I discussed this with our mutual friend Judith Barry constantly. Jean never laid claim to anything. She never laid claim to being the first to write about artists (though she often was) or of being the one to dig the deepest. She never claimed to change the way that we imagine art writing. (She would say people like Adrian Stokes did that.) Nor would she readily admit that she changed the discourse on art and postcolonial theory.
But the reality is that she did. She chose a clan and she stuck by them: Durham, Steve McQueen, James Coleman, Jack Goldstein, Willie Doherty, Emily Jacir, Tania Bruguera, Hamad Butt, Susan Hiller, Minerva Cuevas, the Black Audio Film Collective, Gabriel Orozco, to name but a few that come to mind. She wrote about many of these artists persistently, championed their work from when they were students to art-world stars, and never wavered in her support. She wrote like no other, merging poetry, political philosophy, and close textual analysis with a lyrical grace and, at times, whimsy, that would make any writer, in any forum, envious of her craftsmanship. She oversaw numerous volumes as an editor as well as a writer on postcolonial discourse and its progression from the ’70s into the ’80s and ’90s, and into the birth of the new internationalism, a tendency that she foresaw.
I am personally indebted to Jean. She wrote more reference letters than anyone has ever authored for me. Not because I wanted to tire her but because she knew me best. She took me under her wing. These were tumultuous times, but she gave me words and courage. We read the Arab poets and writers together, Adonis and Mourid Barghouti being two examples. We talked about generations who had suffered and died, and we talked about queerness as a concept, a concept bound up with dissidence. She always told me not to be afraid: “Omar, your queerness is a liberation into a community.” I simply needed to embrace it.
Over the years, I often reproduced and published Jean’s writings and invited her to speak. When asked for her biography, she would always produce the same single line: Jean Fisher is a writer on contemporary art and post-coloniality, based in London. But Jean Fisher was so much more. I will never forget her, and neither should we. We should open our hearts and minds to her legacy and ensure that it is preserved for another generation. Let us begin to fund projects in her honor, let us endow scholarships and lectures, let us preserve her archive, let us memorialize one of the great figures of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art history.
Omar Kholeif is a writer and the Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
For additional Jean Fisher Passages, see the forthcoming April issue of Artforum.
Peter Blundell Jones, 2009. Photo: Peter Lathey.
PETER BLUNDELL JONES WAS A RARITY: an architectural historian who could read technical drawings. This ability wasn’t simply a hangover from his professional training at the Architectural Association in London in the late 1960s, but an important aspect of the kind of historian he was. Peter believed in history as a means to enlighten the present moment. He believed that the study of the past could provide a wide-angle view critical for understanding the fluctuating but enduring responsibilities of architecture, to ultimately make it better. Early in his career he brought to the attention of English-speaking audiences the work of German architects outside the established twentieth-century canon—most notably Hans Scharoun and Hugo Häring—because he found in their anxious modernism a more meaningful engagement with the persistent dilemmas of our time.
The value of architecture remained rooted in a social context for Peter, who had little time for the self-indulgences of taste and genius. He used to say that the main role of history in architectural education, and in the lifelong education of architects, was to get them away from the personal and the subjective, from the uncritical “I like,” and to lead them to the serious business of relevance. The spectacular products of corporate architecture and the obscure constructs of disembodied theory would provoke Peter’s ire in equal measure. For him, architecture was first and foremost a physical reality to be experienced with the whole body moving through it, rather than something to simply look at or think about. As his influential books on modern architecture show, it is through such engagement with the actual and the specific—building, place, detail—that the depths of architecture’s social and cultural purpose can be accessed. And just as he always organized his own historical studies around the in-depth analysis of specific case studies, he urged architecture students writing their dissertations to stay focused and resist the urge to produce what he called a “discourse of everything,” as the grand ideas that youth laudably seeks to convey turn to nonsense outside the specificity of situations.
Between social anthropology and tectonics, idea and building, language and drawing, through countless collaborations in print and in person, from the Architectural Review to the Royal Institute of British Architects, and throughout his long teaching career in Cambridge, London, and Sheffield, Peter’s project had an impeccably humanist pedigree. Architecture and Ritual (2016), the last book he was to publish, is focused, in his own words, on “how architecture affects people’s lives”—but this could have been a caption for his entire oeuvre. The bravery—some might say foolhardiness—of seeking ritual in the architecture of modernity, discussed side by side with traditional non-Western examples, is characteristic of a mind that refused to be pigeonholed, persisting with the quest of architecture’s relevance for humanity at its broadest, while remaining grounded in the concreteness of reality.
Scharoun, a seminal influence on Peter, built his Philharmonie and Staatsbibliothek at a time and place of fractious divisions and illiberalism—’60s West Berlin, abutting the Wall, as part of an ill-conceived Kulturforum that the West Germans planned to show their eastern neighbors how much more civilized—and affluent—the western side was. Yet Scharoun managed to produce buildings of great optimism, eschewing monumentality and creating wonderfully inclusive, exuberant spaces, celebrating community through the sharing of art and knowledge. It is a great loss for the architectural community that Peter is no longer with us to give his legendary Scharoun lecture, and to inspire with his conviction and generosity. But his work lives on, suddenly more relevant than ever, to remind us just how important such deeply humanist architecture is in these strangely regressive days.
Alexandra Stara is associate professor and reader in the history and theory of architecture at Kingston University, London.
Peter Blundell Jones, 2014. Photo: Jan Woudstra.
PETER BLUNDELL JONES was an important architectural historian who died from cancer at the age of sixty-seven following a short illness. PBJ—as he was fondly known—is widely recognized for bringing an alternative history of twentieth-century architecture to public attention. The standard histories of modern architecture shuffle the same pack of cards—Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Gropius, Mies, et. al.—in various orders according to stylistic and formal preferences. PBJ’s version of architectural history does not concentrate on form or style, but investigates the social purpose of architecture. The stable of architects with whom he is associated—Hans Scharoun, Peter Hübner, Hugo Häring, Giancarlo de Carlo, Lucien Kroll, David Lea, the Graz School, Gunnar Asplund—all root their practice in a deep understanding of its social and physical context.
PBJ would be much more interested in a building’s threshold than in the overall form of the building; the former represents a human encounter, while the latter can be abstracted from human experience. His focus on understanding the human experience of architecture meant he would only write about buildings that he had visited and generally would only use his own photographs in his publications and lectures, knowing that in normal architectural photography the life of the building is severely edited.
PBJ’s output was prodigious. Apart from monographs and book chapters, he was also a regular contributor to the Architectural Review and other journals. His writing was crystal clear, and so was his eye. He was educated as a designer at the Architectural Association in the 1970s, and remained a designer, most notably in the beautiful conversion of an old mill into his home in the Peak District. This meant that his historical analyses were always framed through the lens of a designer.
He was brilliant in front of a plan of a building, explaining exactly how bare lines constructed a density of social relations. PBJ presented these explanations most influentially in his teaching, first at Cambridge University, then at South Bank University, and finally from 1994 at the University of Sheffield. Although I was nominally his boss at Sheffield, such relationships did not really fit with Peter, a displacement of power that I have learned much from. He was a natural collaborator: with his colleagues, with his students, and with other academics. This was thanks to his insatiable curiosity, in my book a marker of any great intellectual. Academic life for him was not a matter of hoarding knowledge and claiming authority; it was about the sharing of ideas with the widest possible constituency. It was natural therefore that he should collaborate beyond architecture, because his understanding of the subject always placed it in a wider intellectual and social context.
His loss is profoundly felt at Sheffield and beyond, but it is not simply a commonplace to say that his legacy will live on: through the thousands of students whom he taught, and through his writings. We are lucky that he completed before he died what may turn out be his most influential book. Architecture and Ritual (2016) is in many ways a summation of his life’s work, interpreting as it does “how the rituals of life—from the grand to the mundane and everyday—are framed and defined in space by the buildings which we inhabit.” In the current era of an increasing capitulation of architecture to neoliberal forces, PBJ’s insistence on the ethical imperative of architecture—where ethics are understood in Emmanuel Levinas’s terms as one’s responsibility for the other—becomes ever more important.
Jeremy Till is head of Central Saint Martins and pro vice chancellor for research at the University of the Arts London.
Walter Darby Bannard. Photo: Kathleen Staples Bannard.
How can we demonstrate that Mozart is “better” than Salieri or, for that matter, better than Elton John? Well, we can’t. . . . Mozart thrills me. . . . Elton John does not thrill me. . . . I suppose all we really can have is a Mozart fan club, which will grow or diminish with time.
—Walter Darby Bannard, artcritical, 2002
WALTER DARBY BANNARD WAS BORN TO WIN. He was the perfect American, a taller, more physically imposing but equally charming version of Warren Beatty, smiling and savvy, brilliant but mischievous. He could have been a movie star, a tennis pro, or at the very least a successful banker sporting a navy blazer and Exeter and Princeton degrees. But he wanted none of what the world could offer him.
At Princeton, he played the banjo, studied philosophy, and was a member of the most exclusive eating club. He set out to be a scientist, and the love of experiment and discovery stayed with him. However, by the time he graduated in 1956, he knew he wanted only one thing: to be a great painter. Sixty years later, I believe that when he died on October 2, 2016, he knew he had accomplished his goal. But the road was not easy, nor was it without its bumps and detours.
Self-taught as an artist, Bannard looked hard at the paintings of William Baziotes and Clyfford Still, whose influence is reflected in his student work. However, Barnett Newman’s 1959 French and Co. show, curated by Clement Greenberg, was the turning point that lead to Bannard’s early stripped-down-to-a-minimum holistic images produced between 1958 and 1965. These works, which now look incredibly prescient, were not immediately recognized for their radicality. They alternate reflective enamel and matte pigments, causing the hard-edged geometric shapes to appear to float on the surface. To get the reflective effect of Chinese lacquer, Bannard applied layer after layer of paint. By now, these single-image paintings with their original pastel palette have entered the canon of Minimalism.
While Bannard never formally studied painting, Hans Hofmann’s theories regarding the relationship of color to space were clearly foremost in Bannard’s mind as a young artist. However, his deliberately artificial acid and pastel palette could not have been more different from Hofmann’s opposition of warm and cool colors. In fact, Bannard was interested in developing a different kind of space from that created by Hofmann’s essentially Cézanneseque formula of color contrast. (Bannard expressed his lifelong admiration for Hofmann by curating his retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, in 1976.)
Walter Darby Bannard, Cherokee Blanket, 1964, alkyd resin on canvas, 67 x 63".
In 1964, Clement Greenberg included Bannard in his landmark Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition, “Post Painterly Painting,” and took Bannard under his patriarchal wing. But that protection turned out to be more of a liability than an asset. Bannard was too quirky and independent to be in the inner circle of Greenberg’s initiates. Bannard also stayed in Princeton rather than move to New York, the first of a series of really bad career moves. Greenberg persuaded André Emmerich to show the stained Color Field group, including Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski, but he did not officially anoint Bannard. Instead, Bannard showed with John Bernard Myers at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery between 1965 and 1970, when Myers left the gallery. Fortunately for Bannard, Myers’s departure coincided with the return from Europe of Lawrence Rubin, who became his dealer in New York.
In the mid-’60s, Bannard abandoned the single image for more complex structures that evoked and contradicted volume but were still explicitly flat. By 1969, he had given up hard-edge geometry in search of something more complex and ambiguous. Always restless and incapable of turning out a branded product, he kept trying out new mixtures, blending fine-art oil-based pigments with commercially produced alkyd-resin house paints. These plastic-based paints were easily mixed with large quantities of white to create brilliant, light-emitting tints and a vastly expanded, nuanced, artificial, unnatural palette. He searched for a new way to present color and structure, incorporating more chance elements until the implied grid finally dissolved, as if falling apart—precisely what happened to art in general in the US during this period of angst and confusion, as all certainty gave way in the wake of assassinations, riots, and the Vietnam War.
By the mid-’70s, Bannard gave up referencing an invisible grid and returned to pouring paint. Working on the floor now, he suspended color in a medium thickened by gel to create a raised and tactile surface that emphasized literal flow. His objective was to project radiant color in a form that was not minimal and static but moving and dynamic. During this period, he was also involved with curating an extensive collection of scrimshaw. The delicate engraving relating to whales and whaling on bone or tooth of this distinctly American art focused his attention on detail and drawing as a kind of incision and had a definite impact on his work as he tried to unite drawing with painting.
Walter Darby Bannard, Beeline, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 21 x 52".
These were difficult goals to achieve, and he spent more than a decade searching for that synthesis. Like Dante, Bannard entered the “dark wood” in which the pathway out was blurred. His friendship with Greenberg continued, but Greenberg was no Virgil, and Bannard had to find the way alone. So he turned his studio into a laboratory for experimenting with a variety of formats, surfaces, textures, techniques, and above all coloristic effects that were unprecedented and often depended on advances in the technology of paint chemistry.
During the period that Larry Poons called the “vodka wars,” when Greenberg’s alcoholism increased while the insightfulness of his writing declined, Bannard wrote regularly for Art International, Artforum, and other art magazines, championing quality and the cause of high art in an atmosphere increasingly hostile to the idea, as if to make up for Greenberg’s absence in the critical dialogue. However, like Poons, Bannard never was or wanted to be a stained Color Field painter like Frankenthaler, Noland, Louis, and Olitski, who dyed pigment into raw canvas so that the surface was indistinguishable from the support. Like Poons, Bannard’s point of departure was Newman’s resonant fields, not Frankenthaler’s dying and staining in a way that implied blown-up watercolor. This is an important distinction that separates both Bannard and Poons, who were of a younger generation, from color field stain painting. The fact is, Newman did not stain or dye his canvases. He used highly diluted oil paint thinly applied on top of carefully and classically prepared canvas sealed with gesso so that the paint would not soak into the support. Because of the transparency of the medium, the white of the canvas creates an effect of light coming from within the painting as opposed to reflected from an outside source. In a letter of August 9, 1955, Newman objected to Greenberg’s description of his technique as pigment soaked into the canvas. He wrote: “To a reader, the words, ‘soaked, dyed’ imply that the surface is as if stained by dye-like color. This may be a description of Rothko’s surface but it is in error and entirely misleading as a description of my work. You know that my paint quality is heavy, solid, direct, the opposite of a stain. If you wanted to describe the sense of the single total image my pictures make, you should have made the distinction between something that is ‘dyed’ and something that is whole as if cut or stamped by ‘dies.’ I think that this play on your vocabulary gives a clearer picture of my paint quality than the erroneous link you made.”
For Bannard, the ’70s and early ’80s involved a search for a new way to use color not as field but as a source of light emanating from within, as well as a support for highly textured surfaces. His breakthrough to a new synthesis of color, form, and drawing came at the Emma Lake Workshop in Canada in 1981, an artists’ colony where Newman summered in 1959. Bannard’s supplies were lost in transit, and he had to paint with only acrylic gels and pigments, which made him focus on surface and images emerging from process. The works were virtually monochromatic, and gesture became a focus that contradicted the stasis of his Minimal works.
Walter Darby Bannard, Blue Bounce, 1983, acrylic on canvas, 33 x 81 1/2".
The results were not entirely resolved until he mastered the properties of new mediums to create the effects he desired. In a review of Bannard’s 1981 Knoedler Gallery show, Vivien Raynor wrote in the New York Times: “Basically, the image consists of lumps of impasto strung together in roughly parallel arcs, as if they were large beads in a necklace. . . . The focus of each canvas is more or less the center where the yellow is strongest, and the impression is of cosmic explosions with bits of matter flying through space.” This image of flux is hardly that of the stable certainty of his early geometric paintings.
Bannard found his way out of the “dark wood” in swirling and moving activated gestures and surfaces that stress matter and its application, from transparent to solid color. By the mid-’80s, Bannard returned to pouring colored polymer as well as recording gesture not with the fine-art brush but with cloth, brooms, and mops used to spread paint on surfaces. Here, gesture became not the record of the movement of the hand or arm, but the result of the way paint dries, which gives a sense of both anonymity and surprise. Look, ma, no brushes! In the series of so-called scallop paintings that resemble clamshells where edge piles up paint, he found a way to reconcile painting and drawing, through the process of acrylic paint drying when mixed with malleable gel. In these works, paint is pushed with a template so that pigment piles up at the edges. The raised curved marks that remain once the paint is dried act like drawing, although edge is created by the process of paint drying rather than by the hand depicting line. Now the highly textured surface is integrated into structure. Geometry—although not of any kind Euclid would have recognized—makes a comeback in the form of the curve made by the structuring template.
The stylistic twists and turns Bannard took as he went his own way baffled the market. However, the work is not really eclectic: It’s always Bannard, the empirical experimenter. Though his work changes, it is unmistakably his style and approach to structure and color. First he laid on a coat of thin water-based acrylic loaded with pigment, using paint rollers and sometimes his hands. Then a second layer of acrylic gel was applied with squeegees. This layer had so little pigment in the gel that it was virtually transparent, but the swirls of gel became thicker and more opaque toward the curving hard edges of the scallop forms. The thickness and materiality of the wet gel prevented the acrylic from drying, so that it remained pliable (gel takes weeks to dry completely). This permitted Bannard to build up and tear down passages without sacrificing the clarity of color.
Using the studio as a laboratory, Bannard developed color charts of dried gel, notating the amount of pigment suspended in it as he mixed concoctions worthy of a mad scientist. This information allowed him to change the final effects by going back into the painting a second time. It’s no accident that the detailed charts resembled the periodic table’s arrangement of the elements, ordered by their atomic numbers, electron configurations, and recurring chemical properties, since he had originally aspired to be a research chemist.
In 1987, Greenberg proclaimed Bannard one of the six greatest living painters. It was the kiss of death. By that time the critic had become a parody of his former self, pontificating to the faithful and anathema to a younger generation. Bannard’s refusal to break with Greenberg cost him dearly, in terms of his work as well as his reputation.
“There are no second acts in American lives,” that other Princetonian, F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote. In Bannard’s case, he was wrong. In the “brush and cut” series beginning in the late ’80s, Bannard began thinking of color “as a liquid, flowing over and settling on a roughened surface, changing as it mixed and dried.” In 1989, he moved to Miami. His work was not selling, and he needed the security of a full-time job, as he was not about to join the celebration of vulgarity and nouveau riche social life that New York had become during the reign of Schnabel-style neo-expressionism.
His first decade in Miami produced some truly extraordinary paintings that were both daring and confident. He had learned how to express what the old masters have to teach: The eye must travel; it is part of the brain but also part of the body. To reconstitute gesture within a highly structured context required reconciling Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. This was no mean feat. Beginning in 2007, he produced a string of major works, totally resolved and totally original, that brought together detail and variation of line and surface relief in majestic synthesis. He began to use iridescent pigments that caused light to bounce off them. Colors sparkle, gleam, and dance across the surface.
Bannard’s work took another significant turn in 2009. He decided that the “brush/cut/fill” technique he had developed was producing forms that started looking organic and figurative. He felt he needed some kind of centering element, and he found it, of all places, in George Herriman’s drawings of Krazy Kat. Bannard began photocopying Herriman’s drawings. “I love the drawing, the weird forms and landscapes, and the eccentric color. It was a kind of surrealism that got to me much more than ‘art’ surrealism ever did,” he remembered.
Walter Darby Bannard, Untitled, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 56 x 48".
There is no doubt Bannard was an elitist, but a very democratic kind of elitist—always available to his students who came from every social class. In a statement written for the catalogue of the recent exhibition I curated, “Painting After Postmodernism,” he wrote: “In the early 1940s, when I was seven years old, we lived in the country, at the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill was a church where the black farmworkers went on Sunday. One Sunday, I wandered near the church and heard music that was like nothing I had ever heard before. It was utterly compelling.” He loved authentic folk music, especially the blues and early jazz, as much as Mozart. “Painting survives,” he wrote, “because it retains the power to do what that church music did to me, and it has that power because it has spent hundreds of years building conventions around a simple, supportive, expressive process—using colored materials to organize a visual image on a flat surface with four edges.”
Bannard felt abstract painters had been limited to using familiar colors to denote areas rather than for their pure coloristic effect. Phyllis Tuchman described his palette as being as uniquely personal today as it was fifty years ago. “You can’t even apply a name to his hues,” she wrote in Artforum. In the last decade, Bannard expanded his range to include surprisingly garish tropical, floral colors that were acidic, brilliant, and dazzling. He also began to reintroduce geometric forms that seem to float in an amorphous atmosphere.
In the new paintings exhibited this fall in New York at the Berry Campbell Gallery, which sadly became a memorial show, there is an intensity and sense of risk that is impressive and exhilarating. The geometric motifs of his early works now combine flatness and volume in challenging contradictions, which are finally resolved by his ability to synthesize the apparently contradictory through a mastery of technique, form, and new materials. In these ambitious works, the mad scientist as artist, through constant experimentation, had discovered a completely new way of painting, fusing drawing and painting in a truly different kind of space with cosmic overtones reminiscent of the metaphysical works of early Kandinsky and Klee.
Bannard was the hipster’s square. He enjoyed the appearance of conformity and pursued a life that looked conventional. But, in truth, he was neither conventional nor a conformist, in either his life or his art. Aware he was not well, he continued to paint with increased vigor, creating large-scale paintings up to thirteen feet wide. The last time we spoke, he confided, “I’m channeling my inner Miró.” The jaunty triangles and comet trails of dripped paint dancing across the surface do not suggest this is the work of an octogenarian. The Minimalist had begun to embrace the freedom and zany poetry of Surrealist automatism and an atmospheric, extraterrestrial space that give his last works the radiance, spontaneity, immediacy, and freedom he had searched for all his life.
Barbara Rose is a critic and curator based in New York and Madrid.
THE PAIN OF LOSS seems to pervade every corner of my life at the moment. Everything feels more precarious than ever before. I sat and watched the US election results from a hotel room in Berlin after having spent the day shivering in a bitter-cold forest fifteen miles outside of the city, where Marwan had just been buried.
Marwan Kassab-Bachi, known simply as Marwan, was an artist whose imagination captured the minds and hearts of many. But he also moved beyond the limits of art, the limits of painting or canvas, indeed the limits of our imaginations.
I will begin by explaining how I met Marwan. It was in London at a hotel on the eve of an exhibition. I was charmed. Charmed by his desire to continue chain-smoking throughout our conversation despite the weather conditions and despite his seemingly frail health. He was a true rock star in my mind.
Days later at the Whitechapel Gallery we were to meet where I had installed a suite of his 1960s paintings, which extended from political figures to self-portraits. His works captured the imagination of over three hundred thousand visitors.
From then on, I followed Marwan as much as I could. I went to his studio in Berlin, where I sat in awe of a man who had consistently decided on a subject—the body, the face, its deconstruction, its reanimation. The human face as it appeared in Marwan’s work was one of violence and of beauty: a face that could look into and unfold the intangible qualities of what might live and breathe behind the formal confines of a traditional face. He once said to me, “I paint souls.” Marwan’s faces became landscapes, worlds that we could enter and let ourselves be free to dream within.
Next I followed him to Hamburg to an exhibition. Following Marwan was like following a godfather I had only just met. He would regale me with stories of Damascus, of Arabic folklore, of his tense relationship to the New Figuration movement in Germany. He spoke of feeling accepted and then rejected in the Western world, but he was never bitter. Indeed, his meditative resolve made him ever more endearing.
Following Marwan became my key to unlocking my own pain, which was rooted in the absence of a father figure I could relate to. I imagined and fantasized what my life would have been like had I grown up with Marwan. His beautiful wife, Angelika, a former student of Marwan’s, would sit with him and act as translator whenever he struggled to articulate an idea or lapsed into German.
I realize now that we spend our lives following certain people. Sometimes we follow too late, sometimes too soon. I do not know if I started following Marwan at the right moment, but I will continue to do so from this day forward.
Marwan was a figure that was kindred to many. At his funeral, I saw hundreds gathered from every walk of life. Yet what has always been clear to me was his hold on the Arab community. I had grown up in this population, and as a young boy I found myself struggling to find inspirational idols, figures that could contend with masters we had studied in our international schools, and so I fully understand his powerful appeal; he was, after all, a painter of our time, tackling the human subject like no one else. The pages of art history were for so long devoid of Arabs—people with names like my own, people who tackled or represented our world.
Marwan became an idolatry figure for me.
Death means nothing at all to an artist like Marwan. Indeed, he will continue to pulse not only through memory but also in the work that I will fight to exhibit—to illustrate his legacy to the world—a world that has still much to discover.
Marwan lives on in art as in life.
Indeed, he was, if anything, a historian of art. His faces, in particular, are an examination of the entire history of portraiture: from discombobulated heads to abstract bodies, from caricature to surrealist wonder. These faces embody and are in dialogue with a genealogy of composition that stretches from the Egyptian pharaohs to the Greco-Romans to the tight close-ups of the digital era. For Marwan, the face is the most expressive of all landscapes; it is a universe whose emotion requires continual unfolding.
Having begun his work in earnest the late 1950s and early 1960s, Marwan soon began painting figures in a post-Surrealist style. His evocative bodies displayed likenesses of friends, poets, politicians, and the artist himself. The moods of his subjects, often a mix of somber and desirous on inspection, pierce through the fourth wall of the canvas, presenting us with an uncanny vision of the interior composition of a conflicted being.
Born in Syria and having spent the majority of his adult life in Germany, Marwan remained a proud Arab to the end of his life—someone who believed in and followed political struggle and voiced his opinion about human-rights issues not only in his native Syria but in Iraq and Palestine as well—a subject that he continually returned to in his painting, such as in his epic canvas Three Palestinian Boys, 1970.
In the end, though, the impact of Marwan’s work extends beyond any single identity, whether Syrian, Arab, or German. He was someone who asked us, indeed begged us, to think about representation, to think of art, to think of our bodies and our relationship to the canvas in new ways. He was, quite simply, a master artist.
Marwan’s art will continue to act as a portal into a familiar yet uneasy territory—a topography of the human condition’s pleasures as well as its traumas.
Marwan, to quote Dylan Thomas, will not go gentle into that good night; he will continue to live and breathe in this world. He will “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” He will never go gentle into the night, or from this world. But rather his artistic spirit will continue to ignite generations of us, from darkness and into light.
Omar Kholeif is a writer and the Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.