It is with great pleasure that we announce Vincent Desiderio as the 2014 JSS in Civita Master Class Guest-of – Honor. Vincent will be in residence July 14th to August 4th.

For details contact us at

JSS in Civita Master Class Guest of Honor 2014, Vincent DesiderioA short documentery film by John Thornton


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Interview with Vincent Desiderio

January 15, 2014 by Larry Groff

Original Interview appeared on Larry Groff’s Painting Perceptions Blog for the JSS in Civita Summer Art School & Residency in Italy

vd_01_610Vincent Desiderio, Hitchcock’s Hands, 2012 oil and mixed media on canvas 64 x 66 inches (Courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough Gallery)

Vincent Desiderio is widely considered to be among America’s most preeminent living painters. He is currently having his eighth one-man exhibition of new work at the Marlborough Gallery 40 West 57th Street, NYC this show is up until February 8, 2014.

Vincent Desiderio is also the 2014 JSS in Civita Master Class Guest-of–Honor. He will be in residence July 14th to August 4th. More information can be found here.

Desiderio is a senior critic at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the New York Academy of Art. He lives and and works in Sleepy Hollow, NY. Desiderio received a BA in fine art and art history from Haverford College in 1977. He subsequently studied for one year at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy, and for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts between 1979 and 1983.
He 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.

His works are included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, the Denver Art Museum, the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Galerie Sammlung Ludwig in Aachen, Germany, the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina and the Indiana University Museum of Art in Bloomington, Indiana.

According the Marlborough Gallery’s website, Desiderio’s current show of paintings are based on a common theme that the artist calls “reification” – defined by the Free Dictionary as: “the conversion of an abstract concept into something concrete; a viewing of the abstract as concrete.

Donald Kuspit remarked in his 2011 essay Pitiless Pathology: Vincent Desiderio’s Paintings

…There is a profound ambivalence at the core of Desiderio’s pictures, suggesting that he does not so much unite the classical and modernist opposites as tie them in a Gordian knot, making his paintings uncannily eloquent.

Painting Perceptions greatly thanks Vincent Desiderio for taking the time away from his busy painting schedule for this email interview.

Larry Groff: In your 2005 interview with Donald Kuspit you talked about your start as an abstract expressionist painter. Since then you’ve become one of the world’s most respected figurative painters. I’ve read that your studies sometimes involve drawing and painting abstractly and that you attach great importance to abstraction in the structure of your completed paintings. What thoughts or advice would you give someone seeking rigorous figurative training but also wants to be a 21st century painter painting modern concerns.

Vincent Desiderio: I really cannot speak to the idea of figurative painting as something apart from abstract painting or conceptual painting. It would be nice if I could but I don’t really think in terms that make a significant distinction between these approaches. I wince when I am referred to as a figurative painter. I am a painter.

As a result, I have difficulty identifying what exactly constitute the fundamentals of drawing and painting. I know that a so called classical education can be beneficial when one wishes to acquire certain types of skill and that programs that offer this type of training are enjoying a renewed popularity among young artists. However I am wary of the rote academic (in the pejorative sense) nature of such an approach. More often than not this pedagogical method tends to imprison student forcing them to force their imaginations into forms that may be inappropriate.

When we make a painting we are building a psychologically charged sensual space of possibilities. We can build it as a prison of as an observatory. I prefer the latter.

vd_02Vincent Desiderio, Exodus, 2013 oil and mixed media on canvas mounted on board 59 x 145 inches (Courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough Gallery)

Vincent Desiderio, Study for Exodus: Burning Chair, 2013 oil on paper 16 x 13 1/2 inches
(Courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough Gallery)

LG: Some complain that universities and art schools don’t focus enough on the fundamentals of drawing and painting anymore, that student graduate without strong figurative skill. Others feel that the emphasis on art theory, art history and critical thinking is more desirable. What do you think is a healthy balance between theory and practice in the education of figurative painters? Is there too much talk or not enough?

VD: The encounter with theoretical readings by students who have not learned to think critically about them generally leads to the creation of “theoreticisms” or illustrations of ideas already expressed verbally. This is usually accompanied by a stunning ignorance of the history of art. For me painting itself is a theoretical vanguard.

Painting is painting. It is all an artifice—a lie through which the truth is revealed, as Picasso famously said.

It is always and everywhere representational, conceptual, ironic and abstract. That these components have, over the last century, precipitated out of the vast soup that constitutes the historical practice of painting finding expression in a variety of new media, does not mean that they have not always been at play within painting.

Students should be aware of the histories of these components and how they came to be identified with intellectual developments in other disciplines.

Vincent Desiderio, Abstract Study After Michelangelo, Study for Sleep I,


sleep-desiderio-all_bigWebVincent Desiderio, Sleep, 2008 oil on canvas 52 x 252 inches. Note: click on image for larger view

(ed. note: great read on this painting, excellent essay Unfinished: On Vincent Desiderio’s ‘Sleep’ by Lawrence Weschler in the Nov. 9, 2005Virginia Quarterly.)

LG: I understand that you paint in an indirect manner, starting with many drawings and oil studies before making an underpainting. Which you then build up the painting with glazing and scumbling. I’m impressed with how open the painting remains throughout this process, right up until the end you are able to make major changes to the painting. I would think that direct painting is better suited for keeping the painting open like this, why do you prefer this manner of working?

Also, please tell us something of the technical side of your painting process and how this technique influences the painting’s evolution. How important are your oil sketches to your larger work?

VD: In regard to my technical practices, I am all over the map. 90% of painting is direct. Indirect methods appear and can be utilized at any time in the course of a paintings development.

Look at the pentimenti that we find in Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio. They didn’t paint like the so-called northern primitives. They repainted but still maintained the ultimate balance.

My sketches familiarize me with the problems I will encounter in the final work. They are experiments in the technical narrative, which I feel is the preeminent narrative in painting.

I don’t know why students don’t prepare themselves more before they begin a larger picture. Charcoal drawings won’t suffice. The management of the surface must be considered as well as the evolution of the paint.

My pictures, more often than not, begin with considerations of the technical narrative. I sense a quality of paint and the possibilities for its evolution and generally out of this the dramatic narrative emerges.

All painting is an intellectual activity. As Motherwell said, it is an intellectual decision to paint emotionally. I would add that it is an emotional decision to paint intellectually.

When painting manages to access the “real” in our existence, when it evokes a perpetual sense of being and does not allow itself to be relegated to the category of artifact, when it pushes its aspirations to the brink of total collapse but remains intact – then it will find its subject. And its subject will be important as equipment for ours and all times.

vd_06Vincent Desiderio, Study for Circular Staircase, 2012 oil on board 19 x 13 3/4 inches (Courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough Gallery)

vd_07Vincent Desiderio, Study for Exodus: Stairs, 2013 oil on paper 16 x 18 1/4 inches (Courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough Gallery)

LG: I understand that in your master class workshops you have exercises where the students observe a model for a short period of time and then paint the model without the model present. This sounds like a great way to help students learn to paint the model from memory.

VD: All of my paintings are inventions. I rarely work with live models so I have been forced to learn to paint from my imagination. I construct the pictures in spite of they way things might actually look. But I am always looking at things and asking myself if I need the information at the moment or not.

The incidences of pure memesis, purely perceptual works are few in the history of western art.

vd_08Vincent Desiderio, Transubstantiation, 2013 oil and mixed media on canvas mounted on board 68 x 111 inches (Courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough Gallery)

LG: I’ve read that Delacroix’s paintings and writings about light and other matters have been very influential to you. If I understand this correctly, you try to keep much of the painting in a certain range of relatively close values, like the light seen on a grey day and then orchestrate the contrasts of light and dark almost as if the clouds parted and a blast of full sun fell on the desired area of focus. Can you tell us more about how you invent and use light in your painting?

Delacroix is a great hero of mine, especially as he allegorizes technique.

Among the romantics, who frequently sought insight and inspiration in exotic places, terrifying emotional states, and the sublime exaltation of nature, Delacroix located this experiential narrative within the act of painting itself—specifically, within the optics of illuminations zone of greatest chromatic activity: half-light. Through its emphasis, Delacroix would enact one of the greatest disturbances in the continuity of forms privilege within the rational structure of painting.

In Delacroix’s paintings light filters onto scenes in a mottled fashion, punctuating a visual field already established in half-light. On may 5th 1852, he made a curious journal entry (below) describing colors 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.

a picture should be laid-in as if one were looking at the subject on a grey day, with no sunlight or clear-cut shadows. Fundamentally, lights and shadows do not exist. Every object presents a color mass having different reflections on all sides. Suppose a ray of sunshine should suddenly light up the objects in this open-air scene under grey light, you will then have what are called lights and shadows, but they will be pure accidents. This, strange as it may appear, is a profound truth and contains the whole meaning of color in painting.

For Delacroix half-light of a gray 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. Remarkably, Delacroix’s not only accords half-light privilege over the classical light mass, but endows it with both optical truth and symbolic meaning, later fully played out in the divergent interests of the impressionists and postimpressionists.

The Awful Indifference, 2013 oil and mixed media on canvas mounted on board 60 x 144 inches (Courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough Gallery)

vd_11_lgVincent Desiderio, Cockaigne, Cockanigne, 1993-2003 Oil on canvas 112 1/8 x 153 3/8 Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Courtesy of the artist and the Hirshorn Museum)

LG: Have you ever copied masterworks in museums and do you see that as an important activity for students?

VD: I’ve actually never painted in a museum. I’m too timid. But you might know a painting I did a few years ago called “Cockaigne” in which I painted about 300 reproductions in books strewn all over a floor.

It is really a good idea to copy paintings. It’s strange to me that students will use models and photographs as source material but they shy away from studying how a master would have handled a certain passage.

Vincent Desiderio, Study for Hand,2012 oil on board 23 1/4 x 20 3/4 inches (Courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough Gallery)

Vincent Desiderio, I’Liberati, 2011 oil and mixed media on canvas 66 x 88 1/2 inches (Courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough Gallery

LG: Is there a relation of your paintings to film? Some of your paintings seem evocative of the staging of a movie set. Your 2011 painting, I’Liberati, has art historical references but also prompts me to wonder if it might have also been inspired by the 1966 French film, “King of Hearts”, where escaped mental patients during World War I take over a town? I heard that at some point you considered making a film that somehow involved your 2008 painting “Sleep”.

I was not thinking of the “King of Hearts,” though I know the film. Cinema is as big an influence on my work as is the history of painting.

If however the influences are apparent it is through sublimation rather than imitation. For me film is closer to painting than anything else. I have experimented with film and video and just recently worked as the production designer for a Canadian film project…a crash course on film making if ever there was one.

Vincent Desiderio, Study for Exodus: Gramsci, 2013 oil on paper 16 x 18 1/8 inches (Courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough Gallery)

Vincent Desiderio, Study for Ear, 2012 oil and mixed media on board 23 3/8 x 20 7/8 inches (Courtesy of the artist and the Marlborough Gallery)

Vincent Desiderio will be in residence July 14th to August 4th at the 2014 JSS in Civita Master Class in Civita Castellana, Italy. More information at the JSS in Civita.

Also see: Vincent Desiderio: Painter and Theorist by John Seed in the Huffington Post