New York

Walter Darby Bannard

Knoedler Contemporary Art

In 1972, Walter Darby Bannard changed the style of his paintings. He stopped alternating matte and shiny passages on smooth surfaces, and started to make the entire surface shiny and rough. This new look was gotten by covering the canvas with an ooze of alkyd resin, then inflecting it with long, narrow, squiggly, scraping strokes. In his next show, these strokes got wider and more carefully aligned with the vertical edges of the canvas. In his most recent show, the alignment is more careful and the strokes wider still. Colors extend in layers across the surface, as Bannard’s scrapings reveal. They are decorator colors, offered in combinations so cheaply “daring” they become, simply, decorator colors.

To say anything more about Bannard’s new work requires one to raise questions about its connection to certain other painting—by “color field painters,” so-called—and to the criticism in support of this group of artists. Such criticism used to hold out the ideal of “opticality.” This ideal was to be achieved with color relationships able to expunge linearity from painting. Linearity brings with it “tactility,” which is no good in painting: it belongs in sculpture. Without dwelling on the fundamental incoherence of these notions (as elaborated by Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried and a host of others), I would like to point out that the pursuit of “opticality” led, in the sixties, to canvases stained with high-keyed colors or covered with very smooth layers of paint. The latter was the option Bannard took. At any rate, the effect of “opticality” appeared to require the fact of uninflected surfaces.

Then Poons, Olitski, Christensen and others, praised for escaping “tactility,” began to produce canvases so heavily laden with paint that a variety of low-relief effects appeared. Along with this came a willingness to allow relatively sharp value contrasts. Where did this leave “opticality?” With Bannard and, more recently, Noland, letting their surfaces get weighted down with inflected pigment, the question remains and grows more insistent. One answer is that the effect of “opticality” has nothing to do with the actual condition of a painting’s surface. Another answer is that no critical dictum has anything to do with any aspect of a painting’s actual qualities. All right. Both these answers have a certain authority, in spite of the fact that the painters in question have sometimes parroted the dicta of their sympathetic critics rather closely.

Let’s put the question this way: why did the so-called color field painters make their surfaces so smooth in the ’60s? Did that mean anything? Does it mean anything that many of them have, in a crowdlike shift, started to inflect their surfaces very heavily? Surely the character of a painting’s surface means something. However, it may mean nothing from the point of view of criticism insisting on “opticality.” If that is so, as I think it is, then criticism of that sort shows itself to have been grievously incomplete: it had no ability to account for an important characteristic of style—uninflected surfaces—employed by the painters it supported. Nor do the latter-day derivations from that criticism have any ability to account for the fact that those same painters have nearly all changed their styles in very similar ways.

This is the place to point out that Bannard’s own critical writings also fail to provide such an accounting, whether in regard to his own painting or that of the “color field painters” in general. His writings do—or did—provide a set of rules that require a painting of “quality” to avoid sharp tonal contrasts, “incorporate the [formal] features of the edge,” reduce “specificity of shape,” employ color “spread out to show itself fully,” and so on. (See his “Notes on American Painting of the Sixties,” Artforum, January, 1970.) The relationship of an artist’s writing to art is, of course, elusive. In Bannard’s case it should be pointed out that his rules for painting were derived from Greenberg and Fried, that he followed his own rules in the ’60s, and he is still following them—having made fundamental stylistic changes more or less in concert with Poons, Olitski, Christensen and others.

Since the sympathetic criticism of these painters (Bannard’s criticism included) shows so little ability to account for the changing actualities of their styles, it still remains to be asked: what is the meaning of the stylistic holding patterns these artists take up? It looks to me as if, shielded by the incomplete and incoherent judgments of “their” critics, they are maneuvering to take advantage of shifts in taste; or it may be that they are maneuvering to create shifts in taste. Perhaps I am wrong about this. Perhaps sympathetic critics will be able to endow these clustered styles, Bannard’s among them, with some other meaning.

––Carter Ratcliff