Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art

The following are two excerpts from the book Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art, in which Poets/Artists contributor Daniel Maidman interviews painter Vincent Desiderio about his general thoughts on art, and in particular about Theseus, a new body of work presented at Marlborough Gallery in New York in January of 2018.


VD: Rembrandt as a young man as opposed to Rembrandt as an old man, Titian as a young man as opposed to Titian – Velázquez as a young man – these are examples of development. It’s not as if they changed and lost faith. They amplified. They simply augmented and enlarged the apparatus. I’ll tell you, that painting of the wool merchants, that Rembrandt painting [Syndics of the Cloth Merchants’ Guild]… I saw that in person, and nothing prepared me for it. It’s huge. The figures are larger than life size, and it’s painted like a rock, and the table’s off kilter, but it’s like hey, who cares. It actually adds to the whole fluidity of the picture. Or the Julius Civilis [The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis] – 

DM: Actually, I stole that for a scene in my book, so there’s a scene, that if you know the painting it’s based on, you’re like oh, OK, that’s obviously this scene.

VD: That’s cool. That’s very cool, that’s embedding a visual event within the structure of the narrative.

DM: I do that all the time, because there are these great paintings that make for a great visual in a book. 

VD: The technical narrative should be the preeminent voice of the picture. That if you can merge what’s happening dramatically with a very powerful technical narrative, it’ll lead you to more places. There’s a painting that is, really, poor guy died young and I think he really would have been much more accepted and great, it was Bastien-Lepage. That painting in the Met, of Joan of Arc –

DM: Oh my God, yeah. 

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Joan of Arc listening to the Voices, 1879, 100” x 110”, oil on canvas

VD: This is a masterpiece. And one of the things that are so unbelievable about that picture is the idea of the detail. Now, when you obsess with the detail like that, you could just say I’m doing that because that’s the way it looks, or you could say that the obsession with that detail puts my mind in a particular place where suddenly spirits are possible. And so in that painting, in the tree, in the bizarre chaos of the leaves and branches, suddenly a specter appears. And it feels so natural to have it appear at that moment because it seems so linked with his own deep belief that in the obsessive working of this, he’s arriving at a place that he could not have arrived at otherwise. 

There was a man at the Pennsylvania Academy when I was there named Arthur de Costa. And there were a lot of students who were always in his presence, taking courses with him. I never took a course with him but I had lunch with him every day. I really liked him and I loved talking with him. He spoke about painting the way Sir Charles Lock Eastlake talked. He had descriptions for things, events, that happened in the course of a painting that were no longer defined, described in terms of words. A couple things he said really stuck with me. One is the logic of the paint, which I referred to in regard to impasto. If a painting fails for me, it’s because it stops and starts, it stops and starts. It doesn’t have a thrust to it. 

The painting over there, with the anamorphisms?

Vincent Desiderio,  Pontormo in Hell , 2016, 73” x 142”, oil on canvas

Vincent Desiderio, Pontormo in Hell, 2016, 73” x 142”, oil on canvas

DM: Oh yeah.

VD: It was like the fastest painting I’ve ever done. I usually work forever, but that just sort of happened.

DM: How long did it take you to finish Theseus?

VD: A year. A solid year.

Vincent Desiderio, Theseus, 2016, 62” x 164”, oil on canvas

DM: Wow. And then this one took only seven days?

VD: Seven days.

VD: There are some people out there who are really good painters. But it’s such a rare thing to find a person whose work is totally organic and unofficious in regard to their technical demonstration. They make work that indicates the enigmatic nature of being. Antonio López García is a man like that. Do you know his work?

DM: Yes I do.

VD: Well, I love him. To me he is the truest perceptual painter that I know – I adore him. There’s something deeply existential about his concern for locating a mark. It’s almost as if he dares himself to believe that the mark does, in fact, refer to the thing. And you see it with every mark he puts on. Eventually it adds up to this sort of crisis of being. “Am I alive? Am I actually standing here? Am I seeing this?” You know, that level of intensity, people try to fake it, but you can’t fake that level of intensity.

DM: No. One of the problems with a lot of current representational work, including a lot of mine, is that the emotional and moral gravity of the work has to be in what it’s a picture of, because the means of making the picture are ruled out as a mode of expression. López does not rule that out, so the paint itself speaks in the sense that you want paint to speak. 

VD: People ask me what I think good technique is. I tell them that there is a difference between “skill” and “technique.” You can be highly skilled but have no idea of technique. I say great technique is usually on the cusp of failing, of collapsing under the weight of its own ambition, under the weight of its own aspiration. It’s like walking a tightrope without a net. You know? That is great technique. It’s not that, every turn you’re safely coddled into a kind of being. It’s more like listening to Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, where the music is about to just fly into cacophony, and yet it doesn’t. The beginning of Bach’s Saint John Passion, just a swirl of voices, and concurrent with this perfectly balanced double helix of sound, at the same time there’s also this sense of voices wailing, they’re crying. You almost can’t remove the cry from the structure, they’re so perfectly entwined. And driven by deep, deep emotion. How does one achieve this level of emotion perfectly pitched to the complexity of structure? All I know is that I must paint with ice water in my veins to make something emotional. It’s like Motherwell said, it’s an intellectual decision to paint emotionally. But you know, that level of intensity. On the last day of class with my students sometimes we talk about film, and we talk about music, and I play bits of music for them. Some are familiar with the music, but most are not familiar with it. In one class after doing that we went into the library and watched Joan of Arc by Carl Dreyer.

DM: I saw that on a screen. The one time I’ve seen it was on a screen, it was great.

VD: Ah, you’re giving me tears.

DM: It looks modern now. It looks like it was shot yesterday.

Carl Theodor Dreyer,  The Passion of Joan of Arc , 1928, film still

Carl Theodor Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928, film still

VD: Yes, yes. I was watching TV and I was flipping through and I saw this black and white thing and I said, “This is really contemporary.” I could not believe my eyes.

DM: It has nothing in common with other silent films. The grammar is different, the faces are different, the acting is different. It’s an astonishing film.

VD: Really astonishing film. The white, the white… did you ever see his Gertrud?

DM: No. I went around looking for all his films. I might have seen Getrud, this is a very long time ago, I saw a number of his films, nothing blew me away the way that Joan of Arc did –

VD: Nothing. But Gertrud! I thought I was looking at a Saturday Night Live skit. The characters sit and speak while looking past each other into space. Very strange. And the sets look like they’re made out of cardboard, but they’re all white, like Hammershøi. It is the weirdest film I’ve ever seen.

DM: I don’t think I’ve seen it, because I would remember that.

VD: Nothing compares to Joan of Arc. That scene, that one moment at the end where the guy’s tying her, and he drops the cord, and she bends over and picks it up for him and gives him the cords to tie her up. Heartbreaking.

DM: So you showed this to the students?

VD: Yeah. And we were talking about, what do you aspire to as a painter, and how do you achieve this level of excellence. I wanted to show them something that did not seem to fit a normal narrative pattern and a normal visual pattern, and to show them how effective that was. And that they had to be highly focused on that in order to make a work of art, rather than just learn a skill, and slavishly try to fit every idea into a set of predetermined skills. It doesn’t work that way. The technique has to be born of your aspiration as a human being.

DM: One of the things that is always clear in your work and which I like very much is the ambition. 

VD: I have one chance in life, one life to do these paintings. This is the only chance I’ll get to do it.

Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art (hardcover, 164 pages, 5 x 8 inches, 30 illustrations, $30) is available for preorder from the publisher, Griffith Moon, at

Matt Talbert

Matt Talbert

The New Religion by Conor Walton reviewed by Joseph Bravo

The New Religion by Conor Walton reviewed by Joseph Bravo