Minimalism Mastered

by John Link

Tridacna, 48" x 71", acrylic on canvas, 1982

Darby Bannard first came to the attention of the art world when he, along with Gene Davis, Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Frank Stella, was included in the Post Painterly Abstraction show organized by Clement Greenberg for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964. The work in that exhibit can be broadly categorized as "Minimal", and, as such, represented one of the two most visible reactions to Abstract Expressionism. The other was Pop. Both approaches parted ways with the painterliness that characterized most Ab Ex pictures. Pop denied the Cubist roots of Ab Ex because they interfered with serving the flippant that Pop adored; Minimalism's reduction of form and use of the hard edge and geometry disconnected from painterliness but not Cubism itself. After all, Cubism flowed through Mondrian, de Stijl, and the Bauhaus, so that the seeming purity of form practiced by these artists was not a denial of Cubism but rather one of its alternative conclusions. Thus, when the Minimalists imported reductive form they imported Cubism too, even though most of them denied it. Like the Cubists, the more severe Minimalists gravitated toward value contrast and geometry as the primary vehicle of visualization. The Bannards shown in Post Painterly Abstraction were among the most severe in the show.

But value contrast and hard edged geometry did not work as well for painting as they did for sculpture so painters became restless. Soon after Post Painterly Abstraction, Olitski re-engaged painterliness with a vengeance, revealing the continuing relevance of the Cubist insistence upon a rich visual outcome. Indeed, Olitski showed that it was necessary to stand on the shoulders of the Cubists as well as those of the Abstract Expressionists if one wanted to reach the place where intense painterly ambition could engage the present. In the late 60s Bannard joined Olitski. Painting with paint rollers, paint-soaked cloth diapers and industrial squeegees, he produced many atmospheric paintings that released his colorist sensibility.

When Bannard saw Olitski's 1972 show at Knoedler & Company he was first startled, then inspired by the rampant painterly richness. After that his work indulged lavish sensation more and more, and it seemed to deny everything he had shown in Post Painterly Abstraction.

But at the Emma Lake Workshop in Canada in the early 80s, Bannard's supplies were lost in transit and Bannard found himself forced to paint with only canvas, acrylic gels, and pigments. These limited means were reminiscent of his early Minimal methods. When applied to his now highly developed engagement with the joy of painting, the result was the inspired series of works we call the scallops, on which he worked for more than two years with more than 100 pictures as the outcome. Seven of them are displayed from February 1 through February 20 in Gallery II on the campus of Western Michigan University. Seen as a whole, the exhibit suggests that we must revise the conventional understanding of Minimalism, especially its relationship to geometry.

The structure of his scallops left Euclidean severity behind in favor of Rococo lush, but nonetheless remained loosely geometric, regular, and above all simple. He showed that painters could master Minimalism if "geometry" was replaced with "directness". His scallops show that Minimalism, at its root, was about reduction to the clear statement, not geometry and not theoretical "content". His color went from restrained to vibrant, almost violently so at times. And his surface went from "dry" to "wet", all without giving up any of the simple clarity that he had taken from Minimalism. The method of most of the pictures in the series, and all of them in this show, was a simple "two-step" application of paint, each accomplished in a single session.

First he laid on a coat of rather 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 when thin it was transparent, so that as the swirls of gel became thicker they gained more and more opacity and color as they built towards the curvy but hard edges of the scallop forms. But where they were thin one saw the background color, and where slightly thicker the mix of the two layers became visible, and where they were thick enough, only the second color can be seen. The utter thickness of the wet gel prevented the acrylic from drying, so that it remained pliable while he worked, allowing him to quickly build up and tear down arrangements of it over and over again without overworking or losing spontaneity and clarity. The gel, looking white when wet, tinted the deep colored pigments he used into pasty looking pastels. The bang-up color we see now only appeared as the gel dried, which could take several weeks. To deal with this he developed color charts of dried gel, with notes about the concentration of pigment in each mix, to guide him as he prepared the paint for the second coats and to inform him as he manipulated the second layer. Because of the variety of transparencies of the gel as it went from thick to thin, the final stroke of the painting tool immediately generated a wide range of color and value as well as a complete range of opacity and transparency, while freeing the paint to manifest its own splendor and thick lavish sensuousness. Two simple steps yielded a plenitude of effect without sacrificing any of the clarity that is found in the most severe Minimal pictures.

The seven pictures in the show are among the best of this remarkable series. It is equally remarkable that an exhibition in a small gallery located in the heart of the Midwest would serve as the occasion to revise a 50 year opinion about the nature of a major movement in Modernist art making.

Posted February 1, 2006

© John Link, 2006

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