A leading figure in the development of Color Field painting in the late 1950s and an important American abstract painter, Walter Darby Bannard was committed to color-based and expressionist abstraction for over six decades.
Bannard was born in 1934 in New Haven, Connecticut. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy, and in 1956 graduated from Princeton University. During his undergraduate years at Princeton University, he joined fellow students, painter Frank Stella and art historian Michael Fried in conversations that expanded aesthetic definitions and led to an emphasis on opticality as the defining feature of pictorial art. Bannard continued to explore attributes of color, paint, and surface through innovative methods, striving throughout his career for vital and original expressive means.
The artist, who made drawings and watercolors throughout his youth, was self-taught as a painter. He derived inspiration for his earliest paintings from the art of William Baziotes, Theodoros Stamos, and Clyfford Still. In a 2015 interview with Franklin Einspruch for Artcritical.com, Bannard states, "That's how it is with abstract painting, it just takes you over. I remember looking at one of these little intellectual magazines when I was sixteen and I saw a de Kooning painting, and thought, wow, that's really cool." By the late 1950s, he abandoned the sensitivity inherent in the expressionistic style, instead creating austere minimal paintings characterized by large areas of contrasting color.
In the next decade, he was one of the first artists to blend artist's materials with commercially produced tinted alkyd resin house paints in a search for greater color options. In a 2015 Artforum review of his second solo exhibition at Berry Campbell, Phyllis Tuchman discusses these early paintings: "The bands, circles, and rectangles tend to be shiny and reflect light, while the other parts of these canvases are covered with matte paint. Bannard mixed pinks and beiges as well as light blues and greens with lots of white. These colors are still radiant. And the artist's pale palette is as uniquely personal today as it was fifty years ago. You can't even apply a name to his hues."
Around 1970, Bannard's focus shifted to an exploration of the liquid quality of paint. Drawn to the new acrylic mediums that were becoming available, he began working on the floor using thick gel surfaces and color suspended in Magna or polymer mediums. At the time, he "thought of color as a liquid, flowing over and settling on a roughened surface, changing as it mixed and dried." His method involved stapling his canvases to slightly raised wooden platforms. After tightly sizing his canvases, he scraped on colored gel with squeegee-like tools. When the surface was dry, he poured colored polymer over it in layers, allowing the paint to find its place. He was drawn at the time to close-valued rather than strong colors, and often allowed his pale warm grounds to serve as colors in their own right, rather than acting as supports for other colors. Karen Wilkin stated in Color as Field: "Bannard probed just how subtle chromatic nuances could be before they became unbroken expanse. In these pictures, even composition could be reduced to a kind of near-negative, an echo of something no longer there."
During a painting workshop in Saskatchewan Canada in 1981, Bannard developed a kind of gel "drawing" on canvas, in which he applied his paint on large sheets of fiberglass. By the middle of the decade, he had returned to a slower, more subtle system of marking his gel, while also returning to pouring colored polymer. He also reincorporated expressionist methods in his art. In 1987, he began his "brush and cut" paintings, consisting of large scale canvases in which he applied transparent tinted gel with large street brooms and industrial floor squeegees to make painted "drawings," featuring vigorous brushwork and three-dimensional illusions. After moving to Miami in 1990, he incorporated more color into his large paintings, while producing small mixed-media "landscapes" on paper, inspired by the flat land and water and the lowering sun of the Florida Everglades.
In his more recent works, Bannard increased the intensity and juxtaposition of color. The more neutral backgrounds of the past have shifted to all-over color. The surfaces of the paintings are flat and three-dimensional all at once: hot pink and fluorescent green geometric shapes appear to float above and protrude from the flat canvas. These circles reference earlier days, but added now are hard-edge trapezoids. Flat areas of color are spiked by splatters of sparkly gels and raised areas of large sweeping brushwork creating a dance across the surface. Methods and techniques from earlier paintings are combined and used in unison in these dynamic compositions. In 2015 and 2016, Bannard continued to paint with increased vigor, creating large-scale paintings up to thirteen feet wide.
Throughout his career, Bannard moved between the poles of Expressionism and Color Field, resulting in a body of art that has constantly evolved as the artist forthrightly faced the situations that his art presented, reacting to them with rigor and intuition.
Over the course of his career, Bannard had almost one hundred solo exhibitions and has been included in an even greater number of group shows. In the late 1970s, Bannard was instrumental in the retrospective exhibition of the work of Hans Hofmann. He curated the 1976-77 exhibition and wrote the catalogue that accompanied it.
In 1983, Bannard held an Invitational Residency at the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition to his position at the University of Miami, he taught at many art schools, including the School of Visual Art, New York. He has also been an important writer on formalist issues in art, serving as an editor for Artforum and a contributor to Art International. His extensive publications date from the 1960s up until his death.
Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, 1968
National Foundation of the Arts Award, 1968
"Post-Painterly Abstraction", Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1964
Solo exhibition, Kasim Gallery, London, 1965
Solo exhibition, Richard Feigen Gallery, Chicago, 1965
Solo exhibition, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, 1965
"The Responsive Eye", Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1965
"Post-Painterly Abstraction: Belgium-USA", Roberto Polo Gallery, 2016
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio
Baltimore Museum, Maryland
Blanton Museum of Art, The University at Texas, Austin
Brooklyn Museum, New York
Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Cleveland Museum, Ohio
Dallas Museum of Fine Art, Texas
Dayton Art Institute, Ohio
Edmonton Art Gallery, Alberta, Canada
Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Honolulu Museum, Hawaii
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana
Kenyon College Art Gallery, Ohio
Larry Aldrich Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut
Lowe Art Museum, Coral Gables, Florida
McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas
Museum of Modern Art, New York
National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
New Jersey State Museum, Trenton
Newark Museum, New Jersey
Portland Art Museum, Oregon
Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey
Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, New York
Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts