My room contained a bed, 30 or 40 Penguin books stacked on the floor, my duffel bag and suitcase, and a single light bulb of clear glass hanging on a black wire at the exact center of the room. Three strides and I was at the door.
Duncan Hannah is in his element with "Poems and Poets," his recent show at Turtle Point Press in the luxurious, Gothic Revival Woolworth Building on lower Broadway in Manhattan. The artist has long had close ties to the New York literary world, contributing to the Paris Review, taking part in the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, collaborating with writers Michael Friedman and Max Blagg, and making numerous paintings for the covers of books by William Boyd, John Banville and other artists. The diminutive "gallery" is actually the office of Jonathon Rabinowitz, the charming director of Turtle Point, a small publishing firm.
Hannah’s work conjures up a sense of intellectual and bohemian New York of the previous midcentury (think of Gotham Book Mart with a tweedy Left Bank vibe). The show consisted of paintings on paper of fictitious Penguin book covers of classic design --Collected Poems by Dylan Thomas, Life Studies by Robert Lowell, The Lost World by Randall Jarrell -- hung on the wall above casual stacks of books published by Turtle Point (whose authors include Lawrence Durrell and James Schuyler). Also on display were Hannah’s portrait drawings in pencil of authors, including a pensive Joe Brainard and Eileen Myles writing, dressed as a schoolboy.
The paintings are executed in faded tones of peach and rose, permeated by a golden ground color that simulates the foxing of aged paper. It is an appropriate coincidence that the walls of the office are painted a soft pink, an ideal background for Hannah’s work -- the exhibition would not have had the same warmth and intimacy on white Chelsea walls. The ephemera of the publisher’s office further enhances the installation, and even adds to a kind of portrait of the artist himself. The exhibition further hints at a solution to an art world smacked down by the bleak financial winter: casual displays of artworks in unofficial settings, a situation that brings art back into everyday life as it also conveys the devotion of a genuine eccentric.
For Hannah’s works cherish their subjects. Whether it is a tender homage to the tragic (Ernest Dowson, Harry Crosby) or a celebration of the odd (Ray Johnson), it’s as if he is saying, "These are some of the people who made me who I am." Much has been made recently about this sort of hero worship in the work of Elizabeth Peyton, but Hannah has been doing it much longer (his Kerouac portrait is from 1979), and doing it better.
The drawings are accomplished in a deft, yet deadpan hand not unlike that associated with the drawings and prints of Andy Warhol. Indeed, the Penguin cover is Hannah’s Campbell’s soup can, iconic and expressively useful (the two designs share a simple formal resemblance, with their graphic bands of red and white). Drawings are $600, and paintings on paper are $1,600.
Duncan Hannah, Jan. 7-Feb. 6, 2009, at Turtle Point Press, 233 Broadway, Room 946, New York, N.Y. 10279
JEFF JOYCE is a painter who exhibits with Winston Wachter Fine Art in New York.