Vincent Desiderio

Painting with His Head and Heart

by Stephen May

Pantocrator, triptych, 2002 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia  At a time when so much artwork seems haphazard and indecipherable, created by artists with little art history knowledge and limited skills, the art of Vincent Desiderio stands out. Well-versed in Western art history, rigorously trained in this country and abroad, sensitive to the world around him and influenced by personal family history, he creates large, erudite paintings filled with meticulous detail, dramatic lighting and sweeps of emotion. It is art that challenges the eye and the intellect. A thinking man’s painter, who talks knowledegably about a vast array of European and American painters, and freely acknowledges his debt to several, Desiderio applies his keen intelligence and emotional sensibilities to virtuoso representational works that carry postmodernist allegories. His large canvases and huge triptychs offer ambiguous, enigmatic narratives drawn from his life, our times and the history of Western art. Elaborately detailed and astutely lit, they often take years and years to complete, as he wrestles with ideas and concepts while the image evolves.

As art critic Donald Kupsit puts it, Desiderio “integrates modernist spontaneity and sensuousness and traditional descriptiveness and symbolization—modernist fluidity and traditional stability, as it were.” He is, says Kupsit, a “postmodernist master.”1 Some compare the work of the 52-year-old Desiderio with that of Eric Fischl, John Koch and Odd Nerdrum, but none of these comparisons do justice to the quality and challenging themes of Desiderio’s paintings. Art writer Edward Leffingwell claims: “Desiderio stands apart from most colleagues in his depth of feeling, the nature of his iconographic programs, his rejuvenation of the uses of allegory and his command of brush and line.” 2 Desiderio is sharply critical of excesses in contemporary culture, notably the glut of images that people compulsively consume, only to be left hungering for more. In confronting the new century’s plethora of styles and subjects, Desiderio constantly seeks to create art that reflects time-honored standards while remaining relevant to our own time. On a personal level, he is a painter of emotion. Desiderio has grappled on canvas with the suffering, vicissitudes and fortitude of his now 21-year-old, severely disabled son, Sam. His depictions of his offspring are poignant, evocative and thought-provoking.

Desiderio was born in the Philadelphia suburb of Media in 1955, the son of a physician who dabbled in music, and began to draw as an infant under the guidance of his mother, a fashion illustrator for a department store, who taught him basic artmaking techniques. By the age of twelve he was copying old masters. Desiderio took a particular interest in Michelangelo, painting a copy of the Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the family garage, celebrating the artist’s birthday every March 6 and transcribing sections of Frederick Hart’s History of the Italian Renaissance in his school notebooks. Virtually all his early learning came through reproductions in books; he did not visit a museum until his middle teens. 3 Desiderio majored in fine arts, while taking courses in literature, philosophy and religion, at Haverford College. “A liberal arts education,” he says, “was the best preparation for being an artist.” 4 During a year at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, he absorbed a lot of Michelangelo, Titian and Botticelli, while creating paintings that were more directly influenced by Cézanne, Picasso and de Kooning. While studying for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he turned out Abstract Expressionist paintings in the style of de Kooning and Pollock, whom he admired for their “intensity and vitality” and “emotionally driven” work. 5 Desiderio recalls the Pennsylvania Academy as a “terrific painting school.” 6 Toward the end of his stay there, encouraged by painter Sidney Goodman, a figurative artist who combined realism and allegorical motifs in large canvases, Desiderio moved away from abstraction in favor of pared down figurative canvases and images of domestic interiors and urban architecture. Today, he is considered by many the most important painter among living Academy alumni.

During two years at P.S.1 in Long Island City, he began to shape his individual artistic identity with large-scale figurative paintings. Desiderio was among the young artists who resisted abstraction and returned to large, representational canvases dealing with problems of modern life, whose work was often described as “postmodern history painting.” Good reviews for his first gallery shows set his career in motion. Desiderio has shown in New York galleries for over twenty years; since 199l he has been represented by Marlborough Galleries. Since 1990 he has offered monthly critiques for students at the Pennsylvania Academy. He also teaches at the New York Academy for the Fine Arts. Married, with four children, Desiderio lives in Tarrytown and has a large studio in a onetime opera house in downtown Ossining.

Desiderio’s first solo show at Marlborough Gallery in 1991 featured haunting images of his oldest son, Sam, born in 1986 with water on the brain. When he was four, Sam suffered a stroke as a result of a medical procedure, leaving him with severe brain damage, unable to breathe on his own and in need of constant attention. The pictures of his son show suffering, but Desiderio says he does not pretend to know exactly how Sam feels during seizures and other events. An Allegory of Painting (2003, 4 by 6 1/8feet oil on linen) depicts the artist seated in his studio holding and kissing his son, while shocked faces are projected on the wall behind. Desiderio apparently has stopped work and laid aside his spectacles to cradle the young man, whose disability is underscored by breathing and feeding tubes attached to his naked body. An eerie light and old master tonalities focus attention on the tortured body. In Aria (2006), an effulgent bunch of flowers contrasts with a touching view of a preoccupied nurse seated next to Sam, nearly helpless in bed, hooked up to equipment that keeps him alive. “I do want to keep Sam alive,” the artist says, “but I also want to keep painting alive….I am keeping Sam’s sensibility alive in my images. But they’re just images—constructions, artifices, but of powerlessness and vulnerability, not power and strength.” 7

Aria, 2006 Courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York CityPerhaps Desiderio’s most interesting and art historically resonant work takes the form of expansive triptychs that pay homage to the role of three-panel altarpieces and portable devotional objects. They feature seemingly unconnected plots, often allegorical in nature, which play out in each panel. Desiderio emphasizes that his selection of images is far from random. “They are subliminally connected and created,” he has said, “sometimes over a year’s time.” 8 Leffingwell observes: “Desiderio uses…unexpected and ambiguous juxtaposition[s] in his triptychs to lead viewers, encouraging their active attempts to create a story or a reference that would link the panels.” 9

Isthmus (2000) deals with issues of life, hope and death. The left panel shows a tabletop littered with signs of a finished meal; the central image is an illuminated overhead view of strewn, open books and art images; on the right is a closeup of a fearsome human skull. The artist says he likes Isthmus because “it’s so Pop on one side and so spooky on the other—both funny and scary. It’s a grave painting, but the odd opposition of the flanking images mitigates its gravity.”10Academy (2001) appears to explore issues of art history, fecundity and death. On the left a man lies dead or sleeping on a mass of scattered books and art pictures; in the center is a frontal, full-length view of a beautifully formed, nude young woman; on the right is a ghostly, skeletal human form. The most prominent artwork in the first panel is a reproduction of Édouard Manet’s The Fifer (1866) in an open book. Desiderio, who uses the image as a recurrent theme in his art, has said that if he could own only one painting, this portrait of a young soldier in the Imperial Guard would be it. He sees The Fifer as “a personal touchstone, an emblem of art’s continuity with the past.” 11

His most impressive triptych is Pantocrator (2002), measuring roughly a whopping 7-by-16 feet, in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The title of this meditation on the past, present and future refers to depictions of Christ as ruler of all. The large central section features a spaceship loaded with apparatus, including a camera with a large, eyelike lens, whirling through a starry night. The left panel shows the back of a curvaceous woman in a shower, glimpsed through a shower curtain decorated with images of tropical fish. It is balanced on the right by a vertical view, in light and shadow, of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the great architect of the Early Renaissance.

Many of Desiderio’s themes and issues are summed up in his masterpiece, Cockaigne (1993–2003), an 111⅞-by-153⅛-inch extravaganza, in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. It was inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Land of Cockaigne (1567), a tumultuous scene of debauchery in which three men are passed out around a tilted tabletop littered with remnants of their gluttonous meal. Working in fits and starts over a decade, Desiderio struggled to create his own contemporary version. He retained Bruegel’s leaning tabletop, splattered with wine stains, bread crumbs and scattered bowls, plates and glasses. But rather than people in a stupor, Desiderio’s table is surrounded by hundreds of meticulously rendered art historical images in a haphazardly scattered array of books, plates and postcards that cascade as far as the eye can see. A cursory glance reveals familiar images by Velázquez, Van Eyck, Ribera, Vermeer, Courbet, Whistler, Manet (The Fifer), Matisse, Henri Rousseau, Giacometti, Picasso, Magritte, Mondrian, Whistler, Cassatt, Gabo, Motherwell and Noland, to name a few. Desiderio included a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s Chocolate Grinder No. 2 (1914), which he cites as a “model” for Cockaigne, in the extreme lower right hand corner.12

 

Cockaigne, 1993–2003 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Washington, D.C.  Referring to Cockaigne, Leffingwell observes: “There are no chance inclusions in this brooding museum of the mind; Desiderio lays out his influences.”13 Indeed, in an essay for a Marlborough Gallery exhibition catalogue, Desiderio describes the work as a reflection of “conflicts, allegiances, separations, groupings, etc., threaded through channels that recall manners of social interchange.” The canvas is “an organic document, a self-contained, interactive arena of thought, capable of sustaining one’s attention to a plethora of ideas.”14While working, Desiderio juxtaposed reproductions of Bruegel’s image and Willem de Kooning’s Excavation (1950)—“I subsumed his gestural fragments in the images of my strewn books,” he says—and Max Beckmann’s The Night (1928). He adds, “Beckmann’s claustrophobic space—it’s crowded the way de Kooning’s is—informs mine.” 15 Noting the way Bruegel’s table tilts toward the viewer, Desiderio observes that Cockaigne incorporates “medieval perspective, Baroque atmospheric perspective, and modern absence, or at best, evocation of perspective—what could be more complex postmodern reconciliation?”16

While some feel Cockaigne signals that the party’s over, symbolizing the end of painting, Desiderio denies that it carries that pessimistic message. “I painted the wasteland,” he has said, “transforming it into a harvest.” The very fact that he worked so long and hard to create the work suggests that painting is alive and well. The work itself demonstrates, he has observed, the “power of painting.”17 Desiderio talks passionately and perceptively about the dilemma facing contemporary artists, confronted by such a plethora of possible styles and idioms and in danger of being overwhelmed by art information. The computer and video art explosion has triggered a battle between “painting and anti-painting,” with some saying they want “to rid the art world of painting, as though what anti-painting has to offer is automatically important just because it is not painting.” Desiderio contends there is a fresh surge of interest in painting, particularly serious painting, because “painting is a medium that underscores the individual voice at a time when most areas of expression are dominated by the kind of generic stylization or generic manipulation of found materials….Painting is a sanctuary for the individual voice at a time when individuality has become as manufactured as found materials that most art uses today.” 18

One of Desiderio’s most unforgettable—and largest—paintings is Sleep, an 8-by-24-foot tableau depicting, from above, in eerie light, a dozen mostly naked, slumbering figures arrayed among rumpled sheets. This vast picture grew out of the artist’s traumatic experience in 2000, when he lay prone in bed and staring up at the ceiling for months while being treated for cancer. Desiderio cites as inspirations Van Eyck’s The Last Judgment (c. 1430), with its vast jumble of bodies beneath a giant skeleton, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel and graphic images of shackled slaves in the holds of slave ships, as well as Pollock’s Mural (1945) and de Kooning’s Excavation (1950). Called a “work in progress” when shown at Marlborough in 2004 and sold to the Seven Bridges Foundation in Greenwhich, Connecticut, Sleep has since returned to Desiderio’s Ossining studio for further work.

Desiderio’s paintings are a response to what the artist sees as the crisis of modern painters, beset by so many stiumuli. He seeks, he says, “a painting that unfolds, that pursues out its information gradually, beyond glib ironic hipness and, I hope, toward a sort of enigmatic mystery.”19 Concerned about the “cynicism and snideness” of much current artwork, Desiderio wants to make his voice heard “above the narcissistic voices that make up what art is now.”20 On the basis of his output thus far, his voice is being heard, loud and clear. At 52, Vincent Desiderio is surely one of America’s most interesting and gifted painters. With head and heart firmly rooted in a tradition that stretches from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century, he seems certain to continue creating paintings that will astonish and move viewers.

Notes

1. Donald Kupsit, “Sleeping and Waking: Vincent Desiderio’s Visionary Paintings,” Vincent Desiderio: Paintings (New York: Marlborough Gallery, exhibition catalogue, 2004), p. 3.
2. Edward Leffingwell, “Allegories of Painting,” Art In America, (February 2005), p. 100.
3. Mia Fineman, “The Young Master of Media, PA,” Todd Bradway (ed.), Vincent Desiderio: Paintings, 1975–2005 (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc. and Marlborough Gallery, 2005), p. 26.
4. Brendan Watenberg, “Vincent Desiderio ’77: Contemporary Realism, Historical Breadth,” Haverford Alumni Magazine, (Summer 2003), p. 6.
5. Interview with Donald Kupsit in Bradway, op. cit., p. 128.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., p. 141.
8. Ibid., p. 130.
9.Leffingwell, op. cit., p. 101.
10. Interview with Kupsit, op. cit., p. 148.
11. Quoted in Fineman, op. cit., p. 31. Painted as a homage to Velázquez, Manet’s full-length portrait is also a statement of commitment to modernity, linking the past to the future. Desiderio sees the face of The Fifer in works through history, from Murillo, Caravaggio and Ribera to Picasso and Gorky’s self-portraits.
12. Desiderio regards Duchamp an “amazing figure,” who usefully challenged and shook up traditional painting. He cautions, however, that he and other artists “have to come to terms with…[Duchamp]—not be sucked into his academy.” Interview with Kupsit, op. cit., p. 130.
13. Leffingwell, op. cit., p. 98.
14. Desiderio, “Notes on Narrativity,” Marlborough exhibition catalogue, op. cit., p. 17,
15. Interview with Kupsit, op. cit., p. 137.
16. Ibid., p. 139.
17. Ibid., p. 140.
18. Ibid., p. 130.
19. Quoted in Lawrence Weschler, “Unfinished (on Vincent Desiderio’s Sleep)” in Bradway, op. cit., p. 23.
20. Interview with author in Desiderio’s Ossining studio, June 12, 2005.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2007, Volume 24, Number 4