Annam, one of our De Laszlo scholars writing about her favourite artist Vincent Desiderio.
Among the art realm there lies a notion that you either belong to the modernists or the classical and that the two are warring or incomparable. Vincent Desiderio has managed to marry the two perfectly within his paintings which makes his work stand out from other artists. His classical training is prominent in his paintings in nature and appearance. However, the way he translates his inspirations – which surprisingly include the likes of Pollock and Jasper Johns – on canvas is what I believe makes him truly unique. There is a mastery of lighting, realism and storytelling in his images that is a real banquet for your eyes and mind. In a world saturated with images and art Desiderio’s work has a clear message that challenges his audience not only emotionally but morally.
Desiderio was born in 1955 in Pennsylvania, USA. He graduated from Haverford College in 1977 and later attended the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy followed by four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Desiderio is a Senior Critic at the New York Academy of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He lives and works in Sleepy Hollow, NY.
Desiderio is a recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, two National Endowment for the Arts Grants, the Everson Museum of Art Purchase Prize, a Rome Grant from the Creative Artists Network and a Cresson Traveling Scholarship from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1996, he became the first American artist to receive the International Contemporary Art Prize awarded by the Prince Ranier Foundation of the Principality of Monaco. The prestigious Marlborough Gallery currently represents the artist.
Desiderio’s mother was a fashion illustrator who taught him to draw in his infancy. By the age of 12, he was copying old masters and was fascinated by the scholarly history of art. During his education, he claims he was obsessed with replicating the drawings of Michelangelo and read incessantly about the history of art as well as art theory. Particularly keen on Michelangelo’s artistry at sixteen he recreated ‘The creation of man’ on his parent’s garage ceiling despite their disapproval of the idea. While studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts he painted in an Abstract Expressionistic way in the style of de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, whom he admired for their intensity, vitality and emotionally driven work. Towards the end of his education there, Desiderio was encouraged by artist Sidney Goodman, who redirected his painting style into figurative, domestic interior and urban landscapes on large canvases.
Desiderio now challenges viewers with emotional narratives drawn from his life, modern day, and Western art history. In 1991 his eldest son Sam suffered a stroke at the age of 4, leaving him severely disabled due to a medical procedure. In his paintings, he depicts his son in an evocative, thought-provoking way with meticulous detail. Incredibly, these paintings are created almost entirely without reference. ”People say to me my paintings look emotional, but I say I paint them with ice water in my veins”, Desiderio says. “It’s impossible to feel the full weight of what you are doing at the same time you are executing it because you are really making an artifice that describes or conveys the emotion, the sense of what you want the picture to generate, and to do that you need to be very cunning,’’ Desiderio explains in a lecture at Laguna College of Art and Design that his choice to portray his son took on an obsessive nature of its own brought on by tremendous grief. He simultaneously worked on two paintings of his son in 1991. The first depicts his son in the hospital and the other shows Sam walking. He switched between the two paintings believing, in his madness, that if he worked on one, Sam might recover and on the other, he would further deteriorate. Desiderio would circulate between the two paintings in this fashion and later acknowledged this was of course madness brought on by his son’s condition at the time. Both images were constructed from memory and imagination. Desiderio began to use the image of his son Sam to symbolise the sickness of culture. His thoughts have evolved since. Here, we see the two paintings the artist worked on of his son during that time.
Desiderio uses a combination of direct and indirect painting in mixed media, changing elements and figures in his paintings until satisfied. His work can take up to a decade to complete and he has been known to use materials such as roofing tar, shellac and beeswax with oil paints. ”When we make a painting, we are building a psychologically charged sensual space of possibilities. We can build it as a prison or as an observatory. I prefer the latter.” He describes his approach to painting as clinical yet an intellectual decision to paint emotionally.
Desiderio’s most recognisable and largest painting was inspired by his own traumatic experience of being treated of a rare form of cancer in 2000, and the months he spent lying in bed staring at the ceiling. ‘Sleep’ is an 8-by-24-foot tableau painted from a Birdseye view, depicting more than a dozen nude figures asleep in bed among rumpled sheets. Portrayed in a haunting light, the painting leaves viewers with a sense of invaded privacy and voyeurism.
Desiderio worked on and off for 10 years on the below painting, titled Cockaigne, reproducing miniature versions of his favourite works by artists ranging from Masaccio, Vermeer and van Eyck to Matisse, Jasper Johns and Chuck Close. This 13-by-9-foot painting depicts six centuries of western art scattered across the floor like the aftermath of a party. This title is a reference to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Land of Cockaigne” (1559). The subjects in Bruegel’s painting was based on gluttony and sloth, a metaphor in which the characters were set in a land where the houses are tiled with cakes, the fences are made of sausages. Desiderio’s version of this is a critique of what he calls ‘cultural bulimia,’ generations obsessive need of image consumption that only leaves us ravenous for more. Cockaigne is also based on the predicament of painting in the 21st century, the idea that with a plethora of styles and formal idioms, how can it be possible to create something new and distinctly relevant in today’s society?
Vincent Desiderio’s paintings are masterful works of art with an enigmatic mystery. The painter hopes to have his voice heard ”above the narcissistic voices that make up art now”. He believes that what counts is not the story the artist tells but the way the audience interprets it. His work is undeniably emotional, driven by the narrative with a texture that brings his large canvas paintings to life. Vincent Desiderio is a fascinating painter, an artist who is intellectually charged and highly philosophical, which makes his viewers think, question and feel with each of his pieces.