"Virtually every one of his paintings shows, comewhere
in it-somewhere quite centrally-an uneasy truce
The last chapter in Donald Kuspit’s The Rebirth of Painting in the Late Twentieth Century, a volume of critical profiles including selections on Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, and Picasso, is about Vincent Desiderio ’77. Titled “Vincent Desiderio: Postmodern Visionary Painting,” the piece begins with a detailing of three similar paintings where art books are spread across the floor, open pages revealing great works. Such a backdrop is appropriate for an artist who was and continues to be passionate about history and precedence.
His was a career begun at age six. “The energy was there from when I was a little kid,” Vincent says, remembering his earliest paintings. By 12, he was copying Renaissance masterpieces. Throughout high school, he independently explored mediums in oils and acrylics, carved marble, plaster, wood, and clay. Even though his talent was sparked in youth, Vincent believes that unlike mathematic prodigies, visual artists acquire greatness with age and maturity and thus he has continued to blossom.
Coming to Haverford from Media, Pa., Vincent set himself on a course in pursuit of a major in fine arts, while also taking courses in philosophy, literature, and religion. “I am grateful for my experience at Haverford,” Vincent says. “A liberal arts education was the best preparation for being an artist.” It was not the fine arts experience that would have the most valuable influence on Vincent, but his intense study of art history at Bryn Mawr. “Overall [art history] had a profound effect on my ability to think critically, which became increasingly important as I advanced as an artist.” For Vincent, such knowledge became applicable to his own style as he worked on expressing but not repeating universal themes.
Vincent was a challenge to the fine arts faculty at Haverford, and his senior thesis project, highlighted by paintings, assemblages, and installations, did not culminate with acclaim. “I was learning how to paint in a way that was believable,” he says of his work that followed a tide of redefinition and deconstruction in the modern art world. Refusing to back down, Vincent entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It was a significant four years in which his talents were cultivated and polished. With a certificate in hand, Vincent came to New York and found P.S. 1 in Queens, a veritable paradise for the art community. Spending two years at P.S. 1’s studio program, Vincent encountered a plethora of creativity and ideas, meeting prominent artists from the world over. “It was a terrific place for exposure.” Leaving P.S. 1 after two years formed a solid trajectory for Vincent as he gained his own sense of artistic identity.
Throughout the 1980s Vincent began showing at galleries in New York; his first show was at the Lawrence-Oliver Gallery in 1986. Today he teaches at his second alma mater, the Pennsylvania Academy for the Fine Arts, where he has been since 1990. Working also at the New York Academy for the Fine Arts and living in Westchester, he lectures often at numerous art schools. In addition to two National Endowment for the Arts grants, Vincent became the first American to win the International Prize of Contemporary Art in 1996, awarded by the Prince Pierre Foundation of the Principality of Monaco.
Family has a continual influence and takes many forms in Vincent’s work. In a classic Haverford fashion, Vincent married a woman from Bryn Mawr, Gail Organist ’78. Together the couple has four children and the youngest, eighteen month-old Lilly, was adopted from China. Ian and Oscar are the boys in the middle, and Samuel, at 16, is the oldest. It is Samuel, a boy with multiple handicaps, who remains a frequented subject of Vincent. In Elegy, a 1995 painting, a boy, presumably Samuel, lies uncomfortably in bed, respirator tubes connecting at his neck. Books are strewn on the floor near a fire extinguisher and a cup of coffee, and in the next room light filters from a window arriving as layered shadows upon the boy. Such is the premise for many of Vincent’s evocative images.
Most often referred to as realist or postmodern “history” paintings, his work is at once intimately photographic in detail and luminous with sensitively painted colors. The scenes are raw, gathering many seasons of feeling. “Desiderio is not just a painter” Kuspit writes, but “a poet-painter—a painter who is able to condense into a single hallucinatory work a contradictory variety of emotions and ideas, in a way that makes it clear that painting has a unique power of subliminal, imaginative communication.”
Many of Vincent’s paintings are triptychs, multiple splices of a moment played out in three differing venues. Figures are often lying in the most human of positions—a father sleeping on his side, a man squatting before a window, a woman propping her head up with her hand. The paintings are narratives, sometimes allegorical, sometimes intriguing and engaging as if they were ripped from page 38 of a pictorial novel. “Virtually every one of his paintings shows, somewhere in it—somewhere quite centrally—an uneasy truce or standoff between the experience of art and the experience of life.”
Appearing on the walls of the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, the Walker Art Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Haverford’s own Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, among many others. Vincent’s work is now universally renowned. In January 2004, he will be showing a series of new large paintings at the Marlborough Gallery in New York. Currently he is hoping for a piece to be displayed in his hometown venue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Vincent Desiderio has been setting his own precedence as a contrmporary
artist and inspiring professor. With his paintings continuing to appear
in the world's most celebrated museums and galleries, Vencent has assured
himself a splendid niche in the history of art.