“ARTFORUM wishes to ask you, as a painter, what you consider to be the prospects of painting in this decade.” So began a survey circulated by the magazine in advance of a painting-themed issue published in September 1975. The prefatory note explained that, “it appears that painting has ceased to be the dominant artistic medium at the moment,” adding that, “those understood to be making ‘the next inevitable step’ now work with any material but paint.” Painters were then queried about “general morale in the field,” “possibilities, not found elsewhere” offered by the medium, and painterly ideas “worth attention.”
The survey, the results of which were published in Artforum’s special issue, was clearly a provocation (which elicited some noteworthy rejoinders, including Pat Passlof’s assertion that “a friend of mine threw his [questionnaire] away angrily convinced that all this software would be run through hardware to become some Conceptual artist’s next piece”). But the magazine’s public taking of inventory also unmistakably reflected a false narrative about painting that had gained traction in the wake of Clement Greenberg’s essentialist stranglehold on the medium, a belief in painting’s irrelevance that grew in tandem with the rise of Minimalism, conceptual art, video art, and performance.
Particularly among Minimalists, whose shaped canvases and freestanding sculptures often took formal issues of painting as a starting point, the notion that painting’s “prospects” were dubious verged on doctrine. “If something’s used up, something’s done, something’s over with, what’s the point of getting involved with it?” Frank Stella asked in a radio interview in 1964. “Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface,” Donald Judd declared in his 1965 essay “Specific Objects”; in an article published two years later, the sculptor noted that working in three dimensions with new materials in bright colors was a tendency “common to most of the best artists.”
Between the apex of Minimalism in the late 1960s and the emergence of Neo-Expressionism in the late 1970s, factors including programmatic injunctions against painting, the ascent of other media, and what Peter Schjeldahl characterized as an abstract-painter-led turn against the art world machinery all pushed painting to new places—sites of nuance, invention, and synthesis—as they predisposed it to historical neglect. With so much exploratory painting left critically unexplored, the legacies of the period’s most salient painters are ripe for reconsideration. One such artist who emerged in this interval, going against the grain when he pivoted from Minimalist sculpture to abstract painting, is Robert Duran.
Duran arrived in New York City in the mid-1960s. The young artist came from the West; he was born in Salinas, a fertile hub of agriculture and farm labor organizing in Northern California, in 1938, and studied at the San Francisco School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) from 1960 to 1961. He quickly became enmeshed in New York City’s artistic community, part of a milieu that included Paul Mogensen, Brice Marden, Richard Van Buren, Al Loving, Alan Uglow, Melvin Edwards, and David Novros. Duran met Novros at the Museum of Modern Art, where Novros, who was making modular panel paintings at the time, was working as a museum security guard. Duran moved into the studio below Novros’s at 431 Broome Street in SoHo, and Novros encouraged Klaus Kertess, the gimlet-eyed Yale art history graduate who had just cofounded Bykert Gallery, to take a look at his friend’s work.
Located on West 57th Street, and then East 81st Street, in its nine-year run (1966–75) Bykert Gallery—unusually for the time—focused on work by a younger crowd. The gallery fostered the careers of then emerging artists, most of whom are associated with Minimalism, Postminimalism, and Process Art, including Marden, Novros, Van Buren, Mogensen, Ralph Humphrey, Deborah Remington, Dorothea Rockburne, Alan Saret, and Chuck Close. The art world was paying close attention; in a New York magazine article from 1968, art writer Rosalind Constable described Bykert Gallery as “the hot one” where “something fresh is going on.” As Novros had anticipated, Kertess was drawn to Duran’s work. Bykert Gallery gave Duran his first solo exhibition in 1967, followed by five more solo shows over the course of the next seven years.
In 1967, Duran presented a deliberate, stark spatial arrangement of Masonite slabs on the floor. In 1968, he exhibited a compact labyrinth of Novaply blocks, with each individual element spray-painted in a different atmospheric color. The color stuck. Duran, who had been working out his ideas—and exploring new ones—in striking watercolors all the while, began to make Liquitex paintings, painting onto unprimed canvas laid on the floor. Following his receipt of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Painting in 1969 and his inclusion in the Whitney Museum’s Annual Exhibition that same year, the artist debuted a cycle of canvases in a solo show at Bykert Gallery in 1970. The sweeping, vibrant paintings were populated by idiosyncratic floating forms, sometimes each painted a different hue. Drifting in saturated fields or luminous billows of color (poppy, carmine, cobalt, marigold), these flat Delphic glyphs evoked states in a map, pieces in a puzzle, or elements in a floor sculpture, yet were unmoored from geography, gravity, and other grounded logics. Like patterned textiles or aerial topographies, the paintings had no center, no destination. What was Duran charting?
Robert Duran, Untitled, 1977, Watercolor on paper, 22 x 30⅛ inches, 55.9 x 76.5 cm. Courtesy the Estate of Robert Duran and Karma
Robert Duran, Untitled, 1977, Watercolor on paper, 22 x 30 inches, 55.9 x 76.2 cm. Courtesy the Estate of Robert Duran and Karma
“Lyrical abstraction,” a short-lived term coined that year by Larry Aldrich to describe a phenomenon of “lyrical, sensuous, romantic abstractions in colors which were softer and more vibrant” by young painters reacting against the strictures of Minimalism and hard-edge painting, partly fits the bill. But there was a sculptural sensibility to the forms in Duran’s pictures, as well as the sensation of an underlying grid—the grid of Minimalism, the grid of Manhattan—subordinate to color and form but nonetheless present. Between the 1970 solo show and 1973, when Duran had a painting in the inaugural Whitney Biennial and was honored with his first South Central solo show at the Texas Gallery, the artist explored different border treatments and incorporated more lurid hues like chartreuse and aquamarine into his canvases; painter Bruce Boice, reviewing Duran’s 1972 exhibition at Bykert Gallery in the January 1973 issue of Artforum, described “bright juicy colors.” The glyphs softened and expanded, as if the hard little sponges of shapes from prior paintings had been left to soak; prompted to jostle, overlay, and rhythmically seep into one another in surprising and delicious ways, they gave rise to colors for which there are no names.
Art critic and poet Carter Ratcliff, writing on the same exhibition for Arts International, framed Duran as antithetical to “practitioners of the explicit,” or artists who follow an “art idea” until it achieves meaning. Tapping into something essential about Duran’s work and practice, Ratcliff surmised: “What Duran understands—from the viewpoint of his intention to paint—is that meaning is always provisional; that is, it is a reflexive coming to terms with the ‘non-explicit’ in experience; and that painting is valuable, meaningful, when it invites this reflexiveness on the part of the viewer.” This receptivity to fluctuating and inconclusive meanings, this poetic capaciousness, is part of what makes Duran’s paintings inexhaustible.
In 1974, the artist’s forms began to adopt a more vertical orientation while maintaining some of the blockiness or stepped rectilinearity that had characterized their predecessors. Razor-thin channels of bare or lightly stained canvas separated one color-shape from another, as luscious seepages of color occurred within the expanse of a single form (often a sunset palette: magenta giving way to lilac, or orange to red). In addition to producing related compositions in watercolor with relatively subdued hues, Duran also made hatched or outlined black-and-white ink drawings of the same shapes—complicating the sense, so robust in many of his paintings, of form and color’s inextricability in his compositions. Rendered entirely in sober shades of gray and black, Duke Ellington (1974–75) is an achromatic outlier among Duran’s acrylic paintings from this period. The 15-foot-long painting pays homage to the late jazz legend, whose death in the spring of 1974 was perhaps most keenly felt by creative artists of the global majority in the United States, such as Duran, who was of Filipino and Shawnee heritage. Developed through the application of paint atop a stained base, the work’s sooty forms—which evoke the gray cast of a cityscape, smoke in a jazz club, or inky musical notation—are imbued with a magnetic interior glow.
The year that Bykert Gallery shuttered, 1975, Duran had the first of two solo shows with Susan Caldwell Inc. on 383 West Broadway. Founded in February 1974 by former newspaper columnist and architectural designer Susan Hanes Caldwell, the contemporary gallery had already presented painting by the likes of Frances Barth, Vincent Longo, Doug Ohlson, and Stephanie Rose. Duran’s SoHo debut featured Duke Ellington alongside other new and recent paintings, many of which exhibited a softened palette; taupe and sage surfaced amid sun-bleached variations on the artist’s prior bright reds. In his write-up of the show in Arts International, Ratcliff noted that the works managed to avoid démodé Greenbergian flatness because their compositions were receptive to both vertical and topographic readings, a “both/and” logic that kept the paintings perceptually complex and open-ended.
From stained acrylic canvases to watercolor pieces, water had long been integral to Duran’s process. But in 1976, a year in which the artist had work on display in institutional group shows in Georgia and Ohio, the aquatic seems to have been newly front of mind. Suddenly, his paintings were full of abstracted rivers: irregular snaking zigzags—some soft and wet, others exacting and self-contained—in a rich range of blues, rhythmically nested within gray, brown, and black counterparts. The pulsating forms often stretched from the top of the canvas to the bottom, an expanse that, in the case of Aqua (1976), measured an imposing six feet. Two untitled paintings from 1977, one dominated by gray tones and the other characterized by flashes of color peeking through black overpainting, conjure up urban waterways like Manhattan’s East River, the skyscraper-lined estuary once limned by poet Lola Ridge as a “Dour river / Jaded with monotony of lights.” In Untitled (1976), achingly lovely strips of peach and green nestled amid the blue and grey seem to gesture elsewhere, perhaps westward, to the more fertile corridor of Salinas. Paintings and works on paper from this period were exhibited in Duran’s second solo show at Susan Caldwell Inc. in 1977; the New Yorker’s blurb of the exhibition described the artist as a “painter who specializes in jagged vertical stripes,” suggesting that the form had become something of a hallmark.
Duran’s zigzagging verticals increasingly featured disconnected graphic outlines and sharpened corners, as if the plane itself were cracked. In 1979, roughness by way of scumbling, as well as the (re)introduction of more ersatz colors like chartreuse and mauve, tinged his paintings with a feeling of fracture and friction, a more syncopated rhythm. In a group of paintings from 1979 through the early 1980s, the shards of the graphic lines that had demarcated the zigzags were pushed to the fore, as if the techniques of analytical Cubism had been applied to a pattern, a textile, or an aerial topography. Sometimes the lines became emphatically hatched, opening a dialogue with contemporaneous work by Jasper Johns, an artist notably celebrated for his continued innovations in painting during a moratorium on the medium.
Duran’s 1977 solo exhibition at Susan Caldwell Inc. would be his last, in New York City or anywhere, until 2019, when Karma mounted a posthumous show of his early paintings. Critical attention, press, and academic consideration were likewise thin for some four decades until the exhibition at Karma—though Duran, an artist’s artist, was regularly referenced in oral history interviews with members of his artist cohort from 1960s and ’70s New York (among them, Novros, Marden, Edwards, Lynda Benglis, and Robert Zakanitch). Why this lacuna?
The answer is both multifactorial and ultimately unknowable. The discourse and conditions that adversely affected the canonization of much abstract painting in the period in which Duran was working (perhaps, particularly, painting that could fall under the broad umbrella “lyrical abstraction”) certainly play a part. Further to that, in the early 1980s, Duran left the New York City art world, entering a lineage of artists who “dropped out,” including Agnes Martin, Lee Lozano, and Lee Bontecou. Duran moved to New Jersey, where he focused on raising a family, worked odd jobs, and continued to quietly make abstract paintings in his garage—paintings that he did not exhibit or otherwise share publicly—through the 1980s and ’90s. Now, seventeen years after Duran’s death, the stage has been set for his work and legacy to be widely recuperated, as is so clearly his due.
Cassie Packard is an art writer with bylines at publications including Architectural Digest, Artforum, BOMB, Bookforum, Financial Times, and frieze. She has contributed writing, editing, or research to catalogs published by Phaidon, Hauser & Wirth, the RISD Museum, and Ki Smith Gallery.