New York

Walter Darby Bannard

Tibor de Nagy Gallery

For the past number of years Walter Darby Bannard has been one of the most promising and one of the best young artists in North America. On the basis of his recent exhibition at the Tibor De Nagy Gallery, I would suggest that he is now something more than that. In the past I have been perplexed and excited about his paintings, but not without reservations. His pictures, for all their quality, seemed restricted by their formats, although from exhibition to exhibition that restriction seemed to steadily lose weight. In these new pictures that restriction seems to have been turned to real advantage. This is not to say I have no reservations about the limitations of that structure, it is simply that the sheer quality of many of the new paintings probably makes those reservations academic.

Two facts about these pictures shouldn’t be ignored. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is that they are composed upon, or rather in terms of, a rectangular grid, in this case obtained by dividing the width and height of the canvases into thirds to produce nine equal-sized rectangles of the same proportion as the total picture. The second is that Bannard has restricted his palette to very light, but very intense, pastel colors—decorator colors. While these two characteristics are almost Bannard trademarks by this time, it does not obviate the fact that they contribute to the challenge and difficulty of his paintings. The decorator colors, for example, are not simply pastels. They are quite different and far less superficially ingratiating than the colors, for example, are not simply pastels. They are quite different and far less superficially ingratiating than the colors Kenneth Noland has used in a number of his recent paintings (not that Noland's paintings are easier; a good deal of their difficulty, not to mention their quality, is concealed by their apparent blandness of color), and they lack the dazzling intensity of hue that has emerged in Jack Bush's recent paintings (which, unfortunately, have not yet been exhibited in the United States). Bernard's color is generally light, high-keyed and strident, the kind of colors we normally associate with “fuchsia” and “chartreuse” and “avocado” and, because they are so familiar and so tasteless, his pictures are difficult to grasp and easy to dismiss. In contrast to their stridency of color, their structure appears bland and unchallenging. Superficially it seems to represent no more than a tacit acceptance of picture shape, something that has characterized a good deal of trivial painting in the sixties, particularly run of the mill hard-edge painting. To complicate matters, Bannard’s acceptance of the rectangularity of his pictures seems on the surface to place him squarely within the Cubist tradition. I have described these two characteristics at some length because it seems to me that effrontery of color and obviousness of structure can engage a pictorial prejudice. (For example, I don’t doubt that the blatant grids in Gottlieb’s pictographs have, in too many cases, delayed their recognition.)

The grids in Bannard’s pictures do not operate in a Cubist fashion. For one thing, they are too regular, too explicit. For another they do not assist in organizing the painting around a central core; the paintings do not gather towards the center. If anything, Bannard reverses traditional Cubist procedure, in effect using Cubism against itself to create all-over pictures. In most of the works in this exhibition, large swaths of color extend across one or more grid divisions, at times, as in Viola Sudan #6, asserting a strong, stepped diagonal across the picture surface. Other’ rectangles in the grid are at times painted rather solidly. As a result of this and as a result of the loose, thin paint handling, neither the swaths of color nor the rectangles read as foreground or background. One does not obtain the impression of “structured” painting, but of a kind of painting in which two different kinds of structure interact.

The other striking thing about these paintings is the curious sense of the paint being flattened up against the surface, as though it has been pressed up from behind. I suspect this has to do with the kind of color Bannard uses and with the fact that he seems to have lightened relatively large areas of it with white. With darker or more saturated color this would simply turn into a kind of dark-light scaffolding, into chiaroscuro with local color (this is exactly what happens in most of Rosenquist’s paintings). However, because Bannard’s color is generally pastel to begin with, the darker valued areas read more strongly as color than do their lighter centers. As a result they appear to spread out around the lighter areas rather than fall back into space. Color, as a result, seems to press up to and spread across the surface rather than fall back from it.

The real difficulty with the Bannard show was that of distinguishing the successful paintings from the unsuccessful ones. Pictures like Viola Sudan #6 and Chamoline appeared, at least at first, to be the best works in the exhibition, but they were simpler and perhaps more straightforward than some of the others. The least successful pictures seemed to me to be those like Amazon #4, where the grid became difficult to distinguish because of a rather haphazard arrangement of small grey shapes which tended to confuse one’s perception of the grid. But something leads me to believe that this painting (and others like it) is better than I suspected, perhaps because its hot pinks against greys were so offensive and perhaps, too, because I remember it so well.

Terry Fenton