Vincent Desiderio: Painter and Theorist

Vincent Desiderio, whose work is on view at Marlborough Gallery through February 8th, is a painter and critic whose works balance a cerebral, theoretical sensibility with powerful emotional cues. In particular, Desiderio's recent paintings incorporate notions of reification, a theory that refers to making something real or concrete despite an absence of evidence. The rich, heavily worked surface of the artist's paintings -- and his interest in sculptural forms -- demonstrate an engagement with materiality and process that vivify his ideas.

I recently spoke to Desiderio and was able to ask him about the sources and meanings of a few recent works and also about some of his key theories.  

John Seed Interviews Vincent Desiderio
Vincent Desiderio teaching at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
One thing you talk about in relation to your work is reification. I'm starting to understand it - it's a process making something abstract concrete - but perhaps you can tell me more about it.

There is an ironic edge to the use of the word reification in terms of making paintings because for me a successful painting remains in constant motion; evoking a sense of the perpetual present tense of being. It remains open ended, thus facilitating the flow of artistic thought that is always and everywhere streaming through the history of painting.

However, painting's greatest strength lies in its stasis, its capacity to produce the coup d'oeil, the momentary freezing of this motion. Recently my work has taken on a density that underscores the materiality of the image, a move diametrically opposed to the screen image or the photograph. I see this as related to the radical materiality of Courbet and his Socialist concerns. My pictures now have a technical weight, and so, a palpable presence that I feel more comfortable with. I tend to dwell on the staging of the technical procedures so that visual information is emitted at varying degrees of intelligibility and speed.

From the start, I recognize that the real idea of the picture resides in the way materials are coaxed into meaning.

Vincent Desiderio, Transubstantiation, 2013
Oil and mixed media on canvas mounted on board, 68 x 111 inches
Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York
Surface detail of Transubstantiation: Photo - Thomas Wharton
The subject of sculpture comes up in your recent work: it is a subject that seems to lend itself to reification. 

 Yes, certainly. As subjects they lend themselves well to the way in which I want to paint. But all of the subjects that I paint are inextricably bound to the evolution of material manipulations; their organization constitutes a narrative in its own right. One might call it the technical narrative. This may or may not be at odds with its dramatic narrative ( the recognizable elements in my work that seem to be engaged in one activity or another). The sculptures in my paintings are frozen forms but are imbued with motion by the way they are contextualized by the paint itself.

Vincent Desiderio, Hitchcock's Hands, 2012
Oil and mixed media on canvas, 64 x 66 inches
Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York
What can you tell me about the painting Hitchcock's Hands?

To tell you the truth, that image is the most appropriated of any of the images in the show. It's taken from one of the opening sequences of the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show. I wish I could tell you I own this image completely, but by painting it the way I painted it I wanted to own it; changing its scale, context and scumbling the hands until they seemed sculptural. I don't often do that kind of thing -- appropriate images directly -- but I simply couldn't resist. The eye in a box looks so much like an old box camera. Enucleated, it becomes a mere artifact.

Vincent Desiderio, Study for Hand, 2012
Oil on board, 23 1/4 x 20 3/4 inches
Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York
Another image in your Marlborough show that intrigues me shows of a single hand with stitches and a dressing. How did that image come about?

That was a study for a picture that never materialized. I didn't spend much time on it before I realized it was going nowhere: a sutured stigmata.

 In another interview you did, there was a mention of a quote that inspired you: Everything should be painted as if on a grey day...

It's from Delacroix. On May 5th, 1852, he made a curious journal entry describing color's relationships in terms of the optics of illumination, which anticipated the eventual subversion of form by color in avant-garde painting. Its substance is absolutely central to the artist's conception of color: both optically and as an allegorization of the exotic.

You see, for Delacroix half-light of a grey day represented an exotic realm where color was free to demonstrate its highly reflective propensity, undisturbed by incidents of direct light and shadow. In describing shadows as mirrors, Delacroix inferred that the reflective potential of objects untouched by direct light is obliterated by direct illumination. I think it is remarkable that Delacroix not only accords half-light privilege over classical light mass, but endows it with both optical truth and symbolic meaning. This was later fully played out in the divergent interests of the Impressionists and Post Impressionists.  

One of your former students - Timoty Stotz - suggested I ask you this question: What is the difference between and symbol and an emblem?

A symbol is a representational tool, meaningful either through convention or association as a condensation of a more complex idea. An emblem -- as I have coined it -- is something that precipitates out of a soup of continuity, disrupting the viewer's suspension of disbelief.

When I have used the terms emblem or emblematic I am generally speaking of types of pictorial discourse. I distinguish between two types of technical narrativity: sequential and emblematic.

Sequential narrativity is a form of pictorial construction that privileges a continuity of effect linking the viewer, through the painting to the artist and his intention. It creates a seamless fictive whole characterized by a rapture or trance of viewing. The optical field opens before the spectator, inviting a kind of surrender to the picture's illusion (here used in a broad sense, inclusive of all sensually transmitted visual ideas). As such, he/she enters in to a kind of optical complicity with the work and through this complicity participates in a picture's narrativity. A visual experience of this nature suggests an orchestrated disclosure of intention -- on the part of the painter -- and an uncanny capacity to follow/participate in its unfolding (on the part of the viewer).

Conversely, the optical field can be made to shut down before the spectator, discouraging direct sensual participation. A visual event of this kind is interrupted by the presence of an element (emblem) removed from the sequence of normal comprehension or cultural utility and inserted within the visual field: like throwing a wrench in the works. This forces a more detached reading, emphasizing a critical model of experience over an undisturbed complicity. The expected meaning of an object and that meaning's continuity with experience are at odds with one another: essentially a re-contexutalization inviting redefinition. This de-familiarization signals a rupture in the stream of sequential disclosure. I call narratives of this type emblematic.  

Can you give me an example of emblemization in a painting? The development of emblemization is brilliantly demonstrated in Manet's three versions of The Execution of Maximillian, all date around 1867.

Édouard Manet, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867)
Oil on canvas, 195.9 x 259.7 cm., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
In the first (in Boston) a full-blown Romanticism is evident in the dense, smokey haze and swift and brutal brush strokes that speak directly to the violent death of the Emperor and his aides. Borne on a whirlwind of empathic disclosure, its reality contrasts sharply with the second version (in London) which is oddly dispassionate. Our spectatorial view removes us from the brutality of the action. The technical narratives of either picture offer no real surprises in terms of their sequential expectation: both are firmly rooted in pictorial practices that would have been instantly recognizable to their viewing publics.

Édouard Manet, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1868-69)
Oil on canvas, 252 x 305 cm., Kunsthalle Mannheim
The third version (in Mannheim) is a different story entirely. The detachment already discernible in the London version attains a level verging on visual agnosia. The figures are pure synthetic creations -- almost like decoupage -- lifted from one context and reinserted into another. One might interpret the abbreviated brushwork as lively reductions of form into the service of optical illusions, the way that works by Velasquez or Hals dissolve into vigorous masses of color at close range, while space is solidly established from a few meter's distance. The forms in the Mannheim Execution, however, un-resolvable at any distance, are marks isolated from their utility in the accomplishment of illusion. One is tempted to see them as signifiers detached from the onus of the signified: misquotations from the index of recognition.  

Current Exhibition:  
Vincent Desiderio
January 8th - February 8th
Marlborough Gallery, New York 40 W. 57th St.  

Upcoming Exhibition:
THE BIG PICTURE Desiderio, Fischl, Rauch, Saville, Tansey
January 28 - March 2, 2014
Opening Reception: Tuesday, January 28, 6-8 PM
The New York Academy of Art Wilkinson Gallery

Vincent Desiderio will be resident Guest of Honor at the JSS in Civita Summer Art School & Residency 2014

Keep the Frames: A Few Tips for MOCA Director Philippe Vergne

Dear Philippe Vergne,

Congratulations on your new position as the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). I was a MOCA staff member in the early years -- first as a member of the installation crew, then as bookstore manager -- and I have an enduring love for the place. You must be getting a lot of well-meaning advice right now, and I hope you won't mind if I offer you a few tips to aid you in your success. My advice is meant both to be helpful, but also to make you smile.

Here you go:

1: Keep the Frames
MOCA Directors and Their Glasses: Koshalek, Strick, Deitch and Vergne

Over time, MOCA has alternated between Directors with round eyeglass frames and rectangular frames. MOCA's Founding Director Pontus Hulten vacillated between the two: could that be why he didn't last long? The rectangular frames work for you…

2: Cherish your curators

Goldstein and Schimmel - The Dearly Departed: Photocollage by Photofunia. com

It goes without saying that one of MOCA's great strengths has been its curators. Honor the memory of your departed curators -- and support your existing curators -- by hiring more and supporting them in every way you can.

3: Los Angeles is not New York

LA is not New York: Photocollage by Photofunia. com

MOCA has often inadvertently re-provinicialized itself by emphasizing New York and international artists while overlooking native talent. There are so many great artists here in Los Angeles ready for MOCA to shine the spotlight on them: don't overlook them.

4: Don't Underestimate the Broad

The Broad is Coming: Photocollage by Photofunia. com

The Broad Museum -- scheduled to open this Fall -- is going to be a huge hit. The opportunities for MOCA to interact and piggyback are tremendous, but The Broad just might outshine MOCA if you aren't careful. I think of Mr. Broad as an immensely positive figure on the LA cultural scene and his museum is a healthy challenge to MOCA. 

5: Street Art: Its been done

It's Been Done: Photocollage by Photofunia. com

Art in the Streets was a lot of fun: time to move on to something else now…

6: Avoid the "Olive Garden" syndrome

MOCA/Olive Garden: Photocollage by Photofunia. com

The artist Graydon Parrish recently commented on my Facebook status that contemporary art museums (OCAs) across the country strike him as being a kind of chain that offer a strikingly consistent menu of contemporary fare: " the Olive Garden." You should prove him wrong by added new flavors to the mix at MOCA, especially including contemporary representational painting. If you are still smiling, I had more to say about that in a previous blog. 

Good luck and welcome!

Artists Respond: Can a Nazi Painting Be Seen With Fresh Eyes?

Adolf Ziegler (1892-1959)
The Four Elements: Fire (left wing), Earth and Water (center panel), Air (right wing), 1937, Oil on canvas
Pinakothek der Moderne, Bayerische Staatsgemaeldesammlungen, Munich
Photo credit: bpk, Berlin/Art Resource, NY

Earlier this week I came across The Four Elements by Adolf Ziegler on Twitter, and was struck by its odd blandness. I soon learned that it was once owned by Adolf Hitler and that the artist who created it -- called by some the Master of the Pubic Hair -- was a close associate of Hitler's who played a role in the persecution of Germany's Degenerate modern artists. The painting will be on view at New York's Neue Galerie this spring where it will provide a striking contrast to the assembled collection of Degenerate works.

For a variety of reasons -- including the fact that I am very interested in the damaged status of representational painting after World War II -- I posted the image on my Facebook status and asked a question:

Can a painting so tainted by history ever be seen with fresh eyes again?

The conversation took off quickly and over 250 comments later I am still thinking over what the many artists who responded had to say. The blog that follows gives just a few highlights from the conversation. The flavor of dialog has been lost as I have consolidated much of what was said, and re-ordered for clarity. That said, I have chosen what I think are some outstandingly interesting points.

I have also linked the name of each artist who commented to their personal website so you can reference their comments to their art. A huge THANK YOU to everyone who had something to say, and especially to those of you who allowed me to include your comments in this blog.

Craig Banholzer 

If we step back far enough, the answer has to be yes. The magnificent portrait busts of Roman emperors were used as propaganda for an autocratic regime, as well as for such particularly unsavory characters as Caligula, Nero and Caracalla. On the flip side of it, a handful of artists who worked for repressive regimes in the '30s should not be allowed to taint an entire movement, or for that matter, Classical art and architecture in general.

As for the painting in question, I've seen it, and it's no great shakes. it was actually used as the centerpiece of a very tendentious show the Guggenheim held a few years ago, the entire point of which was to demonstrate the supposed Fascist orientation of all Classical art.

Fascism probably does not have a very defined aesthetic. There were a variety of styles used, by artists with different backgrounds. The points of contact between Fascist art and non-fascist art during the same period are extremely plentiful. In a way, exhibitions like the one currently at the Neue Gallerie do nothing but perpetuate a rift, created by the Nazis, between orthodox and unorthodox, official and unofficial. All that's changed is the allegiance expected from us.

Nicola Verlato 

I remember when I saw this painting in a show at the Guggenheim few years ago, it was part of the last section, the one devoted to the horrors of Nazi propaganda. I thought it was sincerely ridiculous to consider this painting propaganda: just because the girls are blonde?

I think Craig is right: Nazi art is such when it regards Nazi subject matter. In the same period of time there were tons of figurative paintings made with the same kind of style by people which had completely different political orientations. I sincerely don't care if Hitler owned this painting. He owned Paintings by Boecklin and Rubens and Rembrandt: should we also consider those to be Nazi works?

Richard Meyer 

If you don't like the painting, the Nazi link makes it worse. If you do like it, and then hear it's a Nazi painting, it's uncomfortable. But it's an uncomfortable thing about art that it's difficult and maybe impossible to find a connection between quality (or taste) and morality. Over time, the political associations, no matter how awful, can be forgotten, like anti-Jewish references in earlier European Christian art.

Plenty of people who aren't Nazis have tastes that other people think are mediocre. We have good reason to presume that the painting above deliberately represents Nazi/Aryan ideals of beauty, but painting of all eras is full of good looking white people, often nude, that in no way are Nazi, and which would be indistinguishable from this painting. As for the exclusion of figurative art, there are many reasons... it looks Nazi, it looks Stalinist, it looks mid-western, it looks like illustration, it's mediocre... find the excuse

Amber Aguirre 

Aside from the discussion about the work itself, as to whether it is good or bad art, I believe that the most important thing is to consider the art by itself without the taint or influence of who owned it and liked it. All of my grandparents were killed in the Holocaust (as well as many other relatives) and my mom is a survivor or Auschwitz, yet I still feel that one has to look at the work without the influence of that. There are many artists that I personally do not like, but I can still view their work as fabulous. I feel one must view each piece of art as a visual experience without the taint of where it has been or what it was made for

Domenic Cretara 

So, what if it turns out that Hitler didn't really own it? Or what if the painting somehow survives a nuclear war and the survivors find it in the ruins. Will people see it for what it is, then? Is there, in fact, a what it is? Does the painting on its own somehow embody or communicate Nazi doctrine? Even if it did, does the doctrine, if there is one in a painting, make it good or bad? By the way, Anne Harris, I'm not arguing that irony redeems this painting.

Postmodern irony can't redeem anything, as far as I'm concerned. What I'm trying to provoke is a discussion about whether we are so brainwashed by the idea that "everything is political" that the accident that Hitler liked this painting automatically makes it evil, somehow.

Frankly, I think it is a competent piece of painting, the artist knew how to model and foreshorten a form. Compositionally it is certainly undynamic -- Fascism admires violent change and power but this painting communicates predictable balance, quiet and polite decorousness -- and no one would ever accuse the artist of being a colorist, for sure. What connects it to lots of current ideas about painting (and disconnects it from Modernist ideas about painting) is that it is not ABOUT painting. It is about the subject.

Anne Harris 

Domenic Cretara, you ask an interesting question: is it possible to see a painting for what it is, rather than seeing it always in context. Actually, I would say no. We exist in context, so much so that we can never completely distinguish ourselves from our culture. A parallel: we can't hear our own accents. We will always bring our history, our experience, our knowledge and our ignorance to any work of art: we're not brainwashed, just human.

A work of art exists in relationship to its audience and to its context. It's art because we think it's art. It has value because we give it value. There is no what it is without us, unless we ponder what it physically is: paint on canvas.

That said, I don't think this painting is evil, I just don't think it's very good. Competence alone doesn't matter much, it simply indicates the artist was able to learn a predetermined skill set--no great achievement. The only reason we're discussing this piece is because Hitler owned it.

 Never mind the taint, it started off stale, minus the notoriety, it remains stale

Kurt Kauper 

While I would say that if individual iconographic elements are excerpted -- such as light skinned nude, for example -- they don't necessarily communicate Nazi doctrine. But when the painting is taken as a whole -- the four nudes used allegorically, the Aryan features, the idealization, symbolic elements such as the wheat and torch, it seems pretty stridently Nazi to me. While I knew this was a Nazi artist before this thread, I think if I hadn't I would have identified it as such nevertheless. That doesn't, in itself, mean it can't be admired for its artistic value, if it has any. I don't think it has much, but…

Israel Hershberg 

The Ziegler painting could only seem benign figuration if you are utterly unfamiliar with Nazi mythology and its manifold manifestations. There is plenty of Holocaust and WWII literature around that will help anyone get their mind around why this painting fills the nostrils with the stench of Nazi violence. The interesting thing about evil is not its villainous or monstrous mien but that it all seems like a perfectly good idea.

Art like Ziegler's though, or any art sanctioned by totalitarian systems, or that identify with them, seem to prefer, because of the nature of such art, the purpose of which is a definitive declarative message, a graphic or poster-ish modus - the message is in the absolute forefront plane of intent and such art, if you can call it that, cannot be equated with the great art of the Classical Humanist ethos and tradition. The longer you you look at something like Ziegler's painting the less you see (because it is only narration), while the longer you look at an Ingres, the more you see (even when Ingres gets stupid). This distinction is important here…

The Ziegler may or may not have been a commissioned work, it makes no difference, it is without doubt a Nazi catechism if it is anything at all; it embodies that ideology and one can nail that from a thumbnail a mile away or is supremely ignorant. It has no relation whatsoever to Classical Humanist values, not in the internal formational layer as it exists or the stylistic one. Humanity is impoverished for it's very existence. If there are those who sympathize with the aberrant figurative aspects of this work or paint like this, don't look up and don't look down... Still ambivalent?

And John, it is not the painting that is tainted by history - it is history that is tainted by this painting

Margaret McCann 

Kurt and Israel, I agree it is clearly a Nazi painting - but especially to Western, American-centric perspective, which saw most realist figurative art after Modernism as having possible ties to Fascist Neo-classicism (while ignoring our own politically-charged art). But a lot of good paintings also got lumped in with that unfairly. If a Chinese collector bought this they might find its allegory an exotic curiosity, mostly - and probably not feel any connection to, or sense of ownership of, its Nazi roots.

Jeff Tolbert 

OMG the woman painted on the right looks a lot like a John Currin Painting!!! If you swim in a polluted lake, you are polluted. in my view the work is the all important master... Andy Warhol put Chairman Mao in industrialists and bankers abodes. If the work is profound then it exists outside of it's relationship to being a commodity! That is why we have museums.

Lawrence Gipe

The triptych is the best known piece by Ziegler -- one of Hitler's favorite painters -- although in the course of time Hitler became increasingly disappointed with painters in general and saved most of his enthusiasm for monumental sculpture. Some of Hitler's disenchantment may have stemmed from Ziegler himself - an opportunistic and ambivalent artist of limp family values scenes who fell from grace and eventually served time in Dachau for his expressed doubts about the war. Like Nolde, he was more Expressionistic in his youth apparently…

A few years ago, I made a painting of an image that I sourced from a photo essay on Munich in 1937. I was attracted to the light and way the galleries receded, and the curious blend of fucked-up art contained therein.
Lawrence Gipe, "Kunsthalle, 1937," 2009, Oil on panel, 56 x 49 inches

The caption labeled it part of 1937 Great German Art Exhibition at the House of German Art. Apropos to this, Ziegler would have debuted a suite of new works there, for certain. What struck me about it was that the sculpture and painting in the show wasn't historical, it was all Contemporary art by contemporary hacks (and a rigged deal to decorate new Nazified offices). Has Realism ever really recovered from this beating?

F Scott Hess 

The Nazis owned (stole) and liked an awful lot of paintings that are also masterpieces of Western Art. Mussolini and the Italian Fascists loved Modernism and Abstraction. Communism utilized Social Realism because it was effective at delivering it's message to the people.

The CIA bankrolled Abstract Expressionism because it delivered the desired face of America to the rest of the world. Michelangelo and Raphael were in the employ of a perennially bloodthirsty and corrupt Catholic church. Successful artists always seem to be in bed with power, because that is where the money is. This mundane fellow, Ziegler, just got caught on a losing side, one that has become synonymous with evil. This status transfers to the work, and makes it far more interesting than it would otherwise be.

And what about artists working today (including all of us on this thread)? Our works hang in the homes of the rich and powerful, and in the institutions they support. They got rich from the fruits of Western Capitalism, which dominates the world, and is responsible for horrendous ills on this planet. How should those people on the receiving end of our capitalist shitstorm view artists like Warhol or Basquiat, or more recently Hirst or Wool? How should they view us? I think we all have a little Ziegler in us, as much as we might like to think otherwise.
The Four Elements will be on view as part of this exhibition:

Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937

March 13-June 30, 2014 On March 13, 2014

Neue Galerie New York will open the exhibition "Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937." This will be the first major U.S. museum exhibition devoted to the infamous display of modern art by the Nazis since the 1991 presentation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.