Contributed by Barbara Kerstetter / Vincent Desiderio is a powerful, unique voice in the contemporary art world. His paintings have commanded an international following for more than two decades. Born in Philadelphia in 1955, Desiderio graduated from Haverford College, where he studied painting and art history. Today he is a senior critic at the New York Academy of Art and is represented by Marlborough Gallery in NYC. He paints images that are puzzles more than stories, permeated with an ineffable sense of mystery that lifts them above the nominal subject matter and imbues them with a deeper set of values. I sat down with the artist and asked him about his relationship to narrative and Postmodernism, and about how he found his way from early abstractions to representational painting.
Barbara Kerstetter: How did you become interested in art, at what age?
Vincent Desiderio: I was about 12 years old and, for some reason, probably related to adolescent sublimation, I developed a fascination with the Renaissance. I began reading and transcribing Frederick Hart’s History of the Italian Renaissance in my school notebooks and made numerous copies of drawings by Leonardo, Raphael and, in particular, Michelangelo. I even went so far as to paint a copy of the Creation of Man from the Sistine chapel on my garage ceiling, ignoring my parents’ disapproval of the idea.
BK: You had the same inspiration that I did, but I didn’t paint any ceilings of our garage.
VD: I painted it in acrylics, and my parents said, no you can’t do this. I wanted to build a scaffold, so I could be like Michelangelo. They said no, no, you can’t do this. They went off somewhere for a couple of days, and while they were gone, I began painting the ceiling of the garage, and when they came home, they were very pleased. They were always very supportive.
BK: You have six children, right?
VD: Yes, well, four of my own and two step children from my wife Roxanne, who is also a painter and teacher.
BK: Are they all artistic?
VD: Yes, but mine have all favored music over the visual arts. Oscar is a teacher and composer, Ian is a singer-songwriter, as well as a chef, and Lily does everything. She is my only adopted child. My first wife, Gale, and I got her from China when she was 11-months old – one of the happiest days of my life. My stepson, Blaze, is a filmmaker and his sister, Azure, works in Public Health.
It’s really interesting to watch the lights go on in the brain of a little kid. All of them have had this sort of moment where everything coalesces into a possibility for the organization of thought. With Sam, it was the most amazing of all, as he was multiply handicapped because had a stroke when he was three years old, so he still lives with me; watching his little brain develop, because it was so badly damaged, and watching it reconfigure itself so now he can do a lot of things. However, there are still a lot of things he can’t do. The aspect of his mind that is empathic, and gregarious, friendly and social, is beautifully developed! He can read and do other things, but his capacity for empathy, and his concern for other people, is just so intact, and he has a great capacity for fun, for laughing all the time about the silliest things. Watching his progress has saved our lives, really, though he remains multiply handicapped.
BK: What was your home like when you were growing up; do you have any siblings?
VD: I have four brothers. We were, and still are, very close. We were a fairly nerdy group, generally wrapped in conversation about art, literature and music. My father was a physician and an operatic tenor. My mother was a commercial artist, until she began having children. She then devoted herself to managing a rather rambunctious crew of five boys; we were each two years apart in age. What I remember most about my upbringing (aside from the chaos) was that music, especially opera, provided the constant backdrop to everything that we did.
BK: Do you play an instrument, yourself?
VD: I play the piano, or at least I played the piano before my youngest, my daughter Lily, began shoving me off the piano stool, claiming the instrument for herself. She has far surpassed anything that I could do with the instrument. She also plays the cello beautifully.
BK: When you were in school, you studied abstract painting. What led you to work in the manner that you do today?
VD: Among my favorite painters are the Abstract Expressionists. Their work is always in the forefront of my thought as I paint. My love for them and, in fact, for the entire history of modernism, informs everything that I do as a painter. Back in the ’80s, however, I lost faith in the historical inevitability of pure abstraction. I began to question the clear formal development of Modernism and felt a desire to investigate history as a source for renewed expressive vitality. In a sense, this is what the artists of the ’60s, such as Johns and Warhol, had done, evoking the rage of their immediate predecessors, the abstract expressionists.
BK: That’s really fascinating! It’s like what Bernstein said about Mahler, leaving the traditional German romantic era, and going into a world that was atonal, and where he didn’t know where he was going.
VD: From an historical perspective, I am fascinated with the shift from the Modern to the Postmodern, and yet I have lost all patience with the recurring snide attitude and arch cynicism of so much Postmodernist painting. It implies a fait accompli that is more the characteristic of critical thinking, and less the fluidity of a “present tense” of being that all great painting evokes.
In order to emphasize the reality of our moment in time, it became imperative for me to work in a manner that flew in the face of the cultural ennui and intellectual stagnation that is ubiquitous in the world of contemporary art.
At first, I decided to paint the very thing that was generally considered anathema to modern art. I painted huge “history paintings.” They were triptychs that, though fully fleshed out figuratively, implied a program of signification that existed outside of the subject matter or as I call it, the “dramatic narrative.” In this way, I was able to begin my re-education in regard to technique as the primary vehicle for meaning in the painting.
BK: Was it difficult for you to work counter to the abstract agenda?
VD: Yes. I left Modernism with tears in my eyes, just as a young man or woman bids adieu to their parents and leaves the fold of their family to embark on a new life. I sense this sadness in the works of Jasper Johns, whom I admired. In his paintings, I sense a longing for a time characterized by an enduring faith in the dignity of man, the very man that Foucault proclaimed as dead by 1960. The feeling is summed up for me in the words of John Donne, as he wrote in his poem, “A Valediction of Weeping.”
It goes like this:
LET me pour forth
My tears before thy face, whilst I stay here,
For thy face coins them, and thy stamp they bear, And by this mintage they are something worth.
For thus they be Pregnant of thee ;
Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more ; When a tear falls, that thou fall’st which it bore ;
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.
So, though I felt the necessity to embark, so to speak, to a “divers” shore,
my longing is still consumed by the greatness of the Modernist endeavor.
It may be said that I have the heart of a Modernist and the mind of a Postmodernist.
BK: You have spoken about the “technical narrative.” Can you explain this?
VD: Well, first of all, I need to express that all work is narrative, despite the denigration of that concept in Modern times. Certainly, the resurgence of representation in contemporary art is indicative of this. It is part of an anti- formalist program that is everywhere in contemporary art. But I tend to consider the shifting locus of the narrative from within the picture, where, in the most limited way, the subject matter illustrates a story, to a locus outside of the picture plane, where artistic creations themselves are identified as protagonists within the stream of culture. This is certainly not an original idea, but it coincides with the identification of art as history and the critical thinking that attempts to account for the changes in codes that are emblematic of the avant-garde.
Teaching painting today is a tricky business. We have become obsessed with the new, as if painting has developed historically in the same way that technology and science have evolved. We have been schooled in this by pedagogical practices that are informed by the tremendous momentum of the 20th century. However, when faith in the inevitability of such development wanes, how can we, as professors of art, structure our curricula? This is particularly problematic in regard to painting.
BK: And how have you approached this problem?
VD: I try to do this in a variety of ways, generally focusing on the intellectual history of the last century – the philosophical and theoretical developments, while never considering painting as slavishly illustrative of these ideas. I encourage students to think of painting as a theoretical vanguard, not as mere theory. To do this, I often have to delve into the psychology of creative thought. We speak of the anxiety of influence and the “ghost allegory” of the avant-garde perpetuated by the market, from which we endeavor to disentangle ourselves.
One of the things I focus on is a triad of narrative elements that are always present in the conjuring mind of the painter. These are: the “dramatic” narrative (or subject matter), the “technical” narrative (or the story of the evolution of the paint as it proceeds from inception to terminus in the final picture), and finally “narrativity” itself (the intended effect that the work will have when released into the stream of culture at large). Of these, the “technical” narrative is perhaps the clearest evidence of the painter’s thought and the seat of signification. Nonetheless, these three elements stand in dynamic suspension in the painter’s mind and remain plastic throughout the course of the picture.
For me, the “technical” narrative is the usual starting place for a picture. I imagine qualities of paint application, optical mixtures and strategic layerings of opacity and transparency. I paint the picture in my mind a thousand times, never having a clue as to the “dramatic” narrative or subject. As I do this, the technical processing, as I imagine it, links up with memories, associations and particularly, at this stage, with thoughts that I recognize as encoded within the history of marks on canvas. In a sense, I give to these shards of fleeting thought, a name which hardens them into allegories of method.
BK: Do you identify in the work of previous artists a similar tendency to “allegorize method” as you say?
V – As a matter of fact, I have been contemplating writing a book, a series of short essays about this very thing. It would revolve around the imaginative process by which artists identify and celebrate inclinations or intentions in the work of their predecessors. I refer to this as “heuristic plasticity.” I would like to explore previously unrecognized pairings of artistic intention. For example, history painting through Manet’s Execution of Maximillian coupled with Duchamp’s Large Glass, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, or an open discussion of form that would link Caravaggio to Picasso via Delacroix.
BK: You mentioned that you grew up surrounded by music. Do you listen to music when you paint?
VD: No, I can’t. It’s too powerful and distracting. Oddly enough, I have no problem with the spoken word, but music takes over my thinking. The memory of music that has influenced me, however, is always with me and poses a challenge, as it were, to what I am capable of producing as an artist. I refer to certain pieces of music when I teach. I also encourage my students to draw connections between the painting of any given time and the music that was created during that period. I am often surprised that students have had little exposure to music outside of contemporary popular stuff. For example, if I ask a student if they have seen an image by, say, Gustav Klimt, of Judith (1901) or Aubrey Beardsley’s Salome (1893), chances are they would say yes. However, if I play for them the last scene of Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905), they are astonished to learn, first, that it is based on Oscar Wilde’s play, and also that the final musical moments reveal a degree of sweet perversion, so disturbing within the context of the drama, but all the more disquieting for its association with a fin-de-siecle culture at the point of decay. The subtlety of the expression is a lesson in technical narrativity, as is the opening chorus of the St. John Passion by Bach.
BK: You are a devoted teacher. Do you enjoy it?
VD: Yes, I enjoy it a great deal. I learn so much from my students!
BK: And you teach quite a bit. I understand that, aside from your responsibilities at the New York Academy of Art, you conduct workshops annually in Orvieto, as well as in other places, for example, China.
VD: Yes. In China I have a three-year appointment to teach at the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts. This will be my last year. I have thoroughly enjoyed my contact with the faculty and students there and hope to visit again in the future.
BK: If you could give one piece of advice to students, what would that be?
VD: I guess that I would encourage them to take heart against all impediments to their development. When we begin our journey as painters, we proceed from a large body of land filled with a cornucopia of information, examples of greatness – of brilliant successes and dismal failures, all contributing to the decisions we make to move forward. As we proceed, we notice, to our dismay, that the body of land is shrinking into a thin and treacherous path. It is often at this point that most of us turn back to the comfort of our native land mass. But if we persevere and keep going, we inevitably arrive at a new body of land, connected to the old by the finest of routes. The journey is the passage over an isthmus, whose final destination offers all of the hope for the renewal of painting.
About the author: Barbara Kerstetter is a painter and occasional arts writer. In 2017, she studied painting in Orvieto with Vincent Desiderio and Bernardo Siciliano.