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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Darby Bannard's Big Little Book



Those of us lucky enough to have known Walter Darby Bannard (1934-2016) will remember that besides being a very fine painter, he was a witty and articulate writer.  The writing by him that I was initially most aware of appeared in art magazines in the '70s and '80s, when he was in the New York area and exhibiting in galleries on the Upper East Side. However, "Aphorisms for Artists: 100 Ways Toward Better Art" belongs to a later period in Bannard's life – the decades when he was in Florida, and teaching (or having taught) art at the University of Miami (toward the latter part of this period, his paintings were being rediscovered in Chelsea).


It's a small book—only 6 inches high, 4 inches wide, and ¾ of an inch thick. And although it has 223 of these small pages, nearly half of them (on the lefthand side, with odd numbers) are printed with only one one-liner (to use vaudeville slang) or one  aphorism (to use Bannard's more literate term).  


On the opposite (righthand, even-numbered) pages are text-blocks of three or four three-or-four liners apiece.  All these text-blocks illuminate the one-liner opposite them (and thus don't count as one of the 100 aphorisms of the book's title, though they are crisp and sharp as well).


Bannard was a great believer in the adage that brevity is the soul of wit, and he doesn't waste words. "Aphorism" comes from the Greek word for "define," and my Merriam Webster defines "aphorism" as (1) "a concise statement of a principle," or (2) "a terse formulation of a truth or sentiment."  The one-liners on the odd-numbered pages more nearly conform to definition (1) and the text-blocks on the opposite, even-numbered pages more nearly conform to definition (2)


Virtually every such set of aphorisms is controversial – oh, not to thee or me but certainly to those perennially in thrall to the latest fads.


Take Bannard's first aphorism: "Good art is good art. Period."   On the opposite page: "Most people like potatoes, but if I don't like potatoes, it is 'just a matter of taste.' This is how we react to people's likes and dislikes. /However, as Kant said, when a work of art is good, it is good for everyone, good for all people, whether they like it or not, or even care. /Way down deep we are pretty much all the same. Taste, if we have it, is what takes us down to where art lives."


Notice that tiny qualification: "…if we have it …" That's the sting in the honeybee's tail….


Among other controversial advice for artists, and dilletantes like myself: "Art is too popular," "You don't have to be a caveman to appreciate Lascaux,"' "Planning is fine. Preparing is better."  And "When bad use is made of a good idea it is the fault of the user, not the idea." 


The last aphorism is illuminated by saying, "The ache for the ordinary is often cloaked in the guise of the exotic -- a sheep in wolf's clothing." This is strong medicine if you go for the "outrageous" in contemporary art – but should bewelcome to all younger artists trying to make beautiful pictures, whether they are abstractionists or representational painters.


Indeed, Franklin Einspruch, the artist/critic who studied with Bannard in Miami in the '90s, and who is the main man responsible for seeing this elegant little tome published, is himself a representational painter.


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