Duncan Hannah, who immersed himself in the boisterous art-and-club scene of 1970s New York – vividly documenting it in a 2018 book drawn from diaries he kept – and then in the 1980s became a well-regarded artist himself, died on Saturday at his home in Cornwall, Conn. He was 69.
His wife, Megan Wilson, said the cause was a heart attack.
As an artist, Mr. Hannah was known for scenes that evoked old films and old Europe and that owed a debt to Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer, whom he admired, but also had a vaguely eerie quality. Michael Kimmelman, reviewing an exhibition of Mr. Hannah’s work at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York for The New York Times in 1988, was struck by a painting called “News of the World.”
“Against a beautiful mauve-pink-gray sky, a boy carries a newspaper through a nearly empty town,” Mr. Kimmelman wrote. “The place is at once ordinary and totally unreal. This is the heart of Mr. Hannah’s terrain – a curious, half-dream, half-nightmare landscape just on the edge of no place. ”
Mr. Barry Blinderman was director of the Semaphore and Semaphore East galleries in Manhattan at the time and was among the first to exhibit Mr. Hannah.
“When I exhibited his paintings throughout the 1980s,” he said by email, “a wide audience responded to their dreamy teleportation to a time of innocence, their Cézannesque brushstrokes, their sense of mystery.”
Many artists were exploring abstraction at the time, and some critics, Mr. Hannah admitted, didn’t seem to get what he was doing.
“They just assumed I was being ironic and this was some kind of critique of art history, which it wasn’t,” he told “CBS This Morning” in 2018. “It was more of a love letter to art history.”
Mr. Blinderman watched as Mr. Hannah’s style gradually attracted a following.
“It took a while before the cognoscenti acknowledged the work’s criticality – its deadpan delivery of displacement through the lens of film, its ‘learned irony,’ as termed by Times critic John Russell,” he said, referring to a 1983 review in The Times . “Duncan now stands at its easel beside Balthus, Hopper, Bonnard and Sickert.”
Before he broke through as an artist, Mr. Hannah was – as he himself would surely have acknowledged – the very definition of a “scene-maker,” logging time at CBGB and other hot clubs and hanging with the Warhol crowd.
“I’ve always been interested in scenes,” he told The Times in 2016, when his artworks were being exhibited at New Release, a gallery in Chinatown. “Even scenes that aren’t mine, like Swinging London, the Beat scene or Paris in the ’20s. So when I got to New York, I wanted to find the scene or make the scene. Whatever was going on, I wanted to find the center of it. And I still do, I suppose. ”
He was a distinctive figure in those years, sometimes working a dapper, attention-getting look that one writer described as “a Bogart-style trench coat and tightly knotted tie amid a sea of torn T-shirts and safety-pinned leather jackets.”
He seemed to be everywhere, yet he found time to keep diaries, from which he drew to create one of the livelier and more explicit portraits of that time and place, “20th Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies” (2018). The anecdote-rich book is full of famous names – Mr. Hannah told of finding himself in a limousine with Warhol, Bryan Ferry and David Bowie; of visiting a friend’s apartment, finding the singer Nico there and making her a cocktail; of repelling an unwanted proposition from Allen Ginsberg. It’s also full of 1970s excesses.
Anna Sui, the acclaimed fashion designer, was, like Mr. Hannah, a native of the Midwest who navigated her way to New York. For a time she lived on the same Manhattan block as Mr. Hannah, frequently attending parties at his place.
“We escaped middle-class suburbia in the Midwest for the ’70s New York underground and lived out our fantasies of rock stars and movie heroes,” Ms. Sui said by email. “Duncan was the prettiest, most stylish and cool guy around during the CBGB’s days.”
In the preface to his book, Mr. Hannah reflected on his immersion in the wild ’70s scene.
“Our quest for authenticity and experience led us in colorful directions,” he wrote. “We had faith in the journey, even if we were unsure of the destination.”
Duncan Rathbun Hannah was born on Aug. 21, 1952, in Minneapolis. His father, James, was a lawyer, and his mother, Rosemary (Rathbun) Hannah, was an interior decorator. He had already begun keeping a journal when he graduated from high school in Minneapolis, and the entries reveal a young man eager to broaden his horizons.
“I’ve been accepted to Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, so it’s the East Coast for me next fall,” he wrote. “I’ll put myself in odd situations. I won’t avoid challenges, I will uncover my true grit. I’ll exhaust my resources and keep pushing through. ”
He arrived in New York in 1971 and after two years at Bard transferred to the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, graduating in 1975.
His activities in the 1970s included appearing in two underground films directed by Amos Poe, both of which also starred Debbie Harry of Blondie: “Unmade Beds” (1976) and “The Foreigner” (1978). He made a handful of other film appearances, but in the “CBS This Morning” interview years later, he acknowledged that his strengths were in other areas.
“I realized appreciating good acting and executing good acting are two very different things,” he said.
If he spent the 1970s sampling almost everything the punk scene had to offer, he left much of that behind when the decade ended and he became more serious about his art.
“I’ve been bathing in the light of sobriety for several months now,” he wrote at the start of an unpublished follow-up to “20th Century Boy” that was drawn from his journal entries from the 1980s. “Off the booze, off the drugs. Taking stock of my life. ”
“It’s not as though I’m without my vices,” he added. “I drink a pot of coffee a day, and smoke 20-30 Camel filters. There is of course sex, although I’m not at all sure that constitutes a vice. ”
His inclusion in the Times Square Show, a seminal group exhibition in 1980 that also included Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, put his art career in motion. In a 2016 interview with The Times, he recalled the surprise of a friend who in the early 1980s had come to his first solo show and seen his throwback works for the first time.
“’Is this what you do? These are like real paintings, ‘”he recalled the friend saying. “His message was clear: ‘I thought you were cool!’ Well, I love painting. To me, Whistler is cool. Vuillard is really cool. ”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Hannah is survived by a sister, Holly Lewis.
Mr. Hannah, who had homes in Cornwall and Brooklyn, reconnected with Ms. Sui years after their shared ’70s experiences. She said he would attend her fashion shows and enjoyed inviting friends to lunch at the Century Association, the Manhattan arts and dining club.
“Duncan had come full circle,” she said, “creating his wonderful life, sober and so proud of the fact that he had always supported himself as a working artist.”