The Barque of Theseus: An Interview with Vincent Desiderio

Written by Daniel Maidman

Vincent Desiderio was born in 1955. He graduated from Haverford College in 1977 and later attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He is a Senior Critic at the New York Academy of Art and has been a visiting professor at numerous universities, most recently at the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts in China. Desiderio has received several grants and painting awards, including the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant and two National Endowment for the Arts Grants. His work can be found in many public collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, among many others.

Artist and writer Daniel Maidman visited him at his studio in Sleepy Hollow, New York, to talk with him about his current work. The following is a part of that very long conversation.

Vincent Desiderio in his studio, August 2017. Courtesy Daniel Maidman.


Daniel Maidman: Could you go over for me, and for our readers, the concept of technical narrative?

Vincent Desiderio: First of all, when I was painting back in the 80’s, in art school and afterwards, the idea of narrative in painting was anathema. And I was kind of a modernist at the time, I wasn’t painting figuratively at the [Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts], I was painting abstractly. The paintings that I thought were my most serious ones were abstract. The notion of narrative always struck me as being kind of a straw man, because when I thought about it, everything, in a sense, is a narrative of sorts. But I thought more about it, and really realized that there are three kinds of narrative at work, at play in the artist’s mind when they’re making work. The first one is the dramatic narrative and that’s simply the subject matter, that’s basically what people call narrative art. The second one is the story of the evolution of the technique, and that is the technical narrative. It’s really the movement of the painter’s mind through the course of the picture, arriving at its terminus, and in the terminus the implication of everything that went into it is there, even though it’s not necessarily decipherable by everybody.

DM: You know, you’re actually describing something that I’ve discussed with a painter friend [Stephen Wright] a lot which I call the ghost of information.

VD: The ghost of information?

DM: Yeah.

VD: That’s right, and it’s encoded in the work. It informs the painter at every step of the way, it informs the painter about decisions. But there’s a third kind of narrative, which I call narrativity. And that is the presumed effect that the work will have within the narrative of the stream of history. So you’re gauging the work on three levels at one time throughout the course of the work in terms of the narrative, there’s the dramatic narrative, then there’s the evolution of the story of the paint, the ghost of information that’s inside of it, and then all of that is being tweaked here and there by the idea of the painter thinking, “What will this do in the world when it’s released? How does it stand next to work that’s being produced right now?” So really you see the history of art is a narrative too, and your works are protagonists within that narrative. You have the opportunity to actually shift the course of that. I call it narrativity because that’s a film word that refers to the placement of scenes between other scenes.

The Barque of Theseus

VD: Also the idea of ekphrasis has always been really interesting to me.

DM: – a description of an artwork by means of a text –

VD: That’s right, in the Iliad the narrative goes, and then it stops abruptly and there’s this lengthy description of the shield of Achilles, then after that the narrative continues. One can, when you think about film, how you watch a film, then suddenly there’s the insertion of something that qualifies what happened before and anticipates, or allows you to qualify what’s going to happen after. So I think in painting, especially as painters, we’re face to face with an art world that is filled with everything but painting. And so when you paint, you can actually sort of comment on that condition –

[Maidman examining Theseus]

detail, Theseus, Vincent Desiderio. Courtesy Daniel Maidman.

– don’t look too close, what did Rembrandt say, paintings are not meant to be smelled.


DM: Did he say that?

(referring to the painting)

The ability of a painter who knows what he’s doing to let things go is one of my favorite things, so it’s such a pleasure to see where you understood what the eye would see from here, indicating a distance, so you didn’t screw around overmuch with what you see here, indicating close by.

Theseus, Vincent Desiderio, oil on canvas, 2017.

VD: And that happens over a very long period of time. This painting’s called Theseus, and it started out on another canvas. I was making The Barque of Theseus. I do this whenever I start a painting, I tend to be far more illustrational than I want to be and I abandon it and go to another level and critique it and take the opposite side of the coin. So I began this painting, it was a boat and half the boat was made up of images and half the boat was made up of texts and essentially it was a direct illustration of Roland Barthes’s idea of criticism being like the barque of Theseus. Remember that, the paradox was that as Theseus traveled, the boat rotted, and by the time he got back to port, every part had been replaced, so the question was always, is this still the barque of Theseus. What is the identifying nature of the ship?

So Roland Barthes equates literary criticism of a work with the barque of Theseus in regard to the original work. In his book S/Z he takes a short story by Balzac and he does a structuralist analysis of it. Sentence by sentence, word by word, he has these symbols to describe what is going on in a structuralist sort of language. It’s sort of crazy, but it’s remarkable. And for him it stood next to the actual work of literature as having all of the parts replaced by critical analysis, you know?

So I was going to do a painting of that, and then I said, “Eh, this really sucks,” so I threw it out and I said, “You know what, I’m just gonna do a Rodinish painting.” As I worked on it, the figures had nothing to do with Rodin. They had all the morphology of Hans Memling.

The Last Judgment, Hans Memling, oil on panel, 1467-1571. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

So that kept evolving, and I didn’t quite know exactly what I was doing, but I had an idea of how I wanted it to look, I wanted it to be an all-over picture like a Pollock but I wanted it to be replaced by all these figures, and I realized at that point that what I’m doing in a sense was making the barque of Theseus. I’m taking the pictorial mode of all-over painting of the abstract expressionists, and I’m inserting within it figures that are referential to Hans Memling’s The Last Judgment, and at that point I realized that the question is, is this still painting? Can this be called a painting, today? It’s a bit ironic, because, you know, of course it’s a painting, but there are many people in the art world that would look at something like this and think it’s a piece of junk. So it’s a comment about that, in a certain sense.

DM: The people who would have that response, are they important to you, and do you feel you need to address them?

VD: That’s a good question. [pause] That’s a good question. I think it goes back to when I first came to New York. I was at PS1. I had a studio there for two years and I met lots of people, I loved all the artists that were there. They became my friends, just wonderful people. I realized that the shock of figuration, or of representation, at that point, was significant. It flew in the face of formalist art historical analysis. So a couple of us got a lot of attention, Mark Tansey and I got a lot of attention. Eric Fischl was leading the way in a certain sense. Fischl is very intelligent, and you can see it in his work. He had a profound influence on a lot of people, including me when I was younger. To see this stuff and think, “My god, he’s actually able to bring this level of specificity to his dramatic narrative, and it doesn’t look like it doesn’t belong in art.”

The art world was in support of me, they were very much in support of me at that point. And I realized that I could actually comment directly on the condition of art by using painting, and representation, and narrative and narrativity and things like that. So it was important to me that the work be understood in those terms, and I tried to stay away from the ghettoization that’s always present in the art world about representation. You know, you just pigeon-hole it, you stick it in a category, and you don’t have to deal with it, because it’s not really serious art. I wanted to avoid that. At the time I was vehement about that, I would turn down articles from magazines, I was really obnoxious. And there were books I turned down, because I would say, “Who are the people represented in the book,” and then they’d say this and that, and I’d say “No, no, I respect what you’re doing, but this is not what I’m doing.” A lot of these people hate modernism, they think modernism was a mistake. I can’t, I love modernism, and I feel you have to be in dialogue with it. Not to just completely ignore it. Postmodernism has a lot of garbage associated with it, but it also has some interesting stuff associated with it.

Accessing the Image

DM: So OK, where do these two [Theseus 2 and Theseus 3] stand in relation to this [Theseus]? Do you mind if I wander around a little? I’ve had a chance to look more closely at this one…

VD: The idea behind this painting, not necessarily in terms of Theseus, but its technical narrative… When I’m teaching, I’m always trying to tell the students that all painting is… paintings are the same, especially if one is engaged with the ideas of form and drawing, which I’m mostly engaged with. So the elements, the principles behind a painting like this [Theseus] are very much the same principles that are in that painting [Theseus 2].

Theseus 2, Vincent Desiderio, oil on canvas, 2017. Photo courtesy of Vincent Desiderio

It’s not illusional in that sense, the figures are truncated and in pieces, and yet the evolution of the paint, from the ground to the terminus at the end of the painting, is very similar. It has to do with a hierarchy of light, it has to do with an alternation of temperature, it has to do with the force of the composition, the drawing. All of these things I find to be so similar. When I did this one, however, [Theseus 3] this one was more of a cerebral painting, I was trying to make it look like a, um…

DM: A photo inversion.

Theseus 3, Vincent Desiderio, oil on canvas, 2017. Photo courtesy of Vincent Desiderio

VD: Right! To make it look like a photo inversion. It’s not a photo inversion, but the characteristics of a photo inversion are what are driving the effect of it. The implication being that if De Kooning is necessarily a sort of outgrowth from Michelangelo’s Battle of the Centaurs and Michelangelo’s serpentine figures, then this would represent the mirror opposite in a way of this tendency. In a sense this is a comment in regard to postmodernity, it’s the other side of the coin. The coin has flipped, but it’s not a clean transition, from the sarcophagi, to Michelangelo, to Rodin, through Beckmann and De Kooning… that seems to be a continuous line, but after postmodernity reared its head, we almost have to think of these things as the…

it’s almost like science fiction, it’s gone into a negative, a photographic negative of the whole operation, a need to move backwards toward that again. So that’s what the relationship is between those two paintings.

DM: There’s a science fiction writer, Greg Bear, who recently wrote a book called City at the End of Time, and there’s a character in it who can flip things. He can control coins in motion. But at one point somebody’s threatening him and he flips their heart. The person immediately dies, because their heart has reversed itself in their chest. Right to left instead of left to right. It’s a horrifying image. You reminded me of it, talking about flipping things.

VD: I did a painting once, a while ago, with an animal, a kind of ape in the center of it screaming, and then there were two panels with books on the floor on either side. And they look the same, except if you look closely – and there’s a mirror in both little paintings on the side – and in one of them, the mirror image is the way the books really look, but the books outside of the mirror are all the reverse.

DM: It sounds like almost a long essay’s worth of analytic thought goes into your paintings before you start. What kind of a process do you pursue?

VD: I have a funny brain, my brain is schizophrenically –

DM: Oh, you’re bicameral, strongly bicameral –

VD: Totally. When I flip into theory mode and writing mode I can articulate things, but the information that that is based on is all derived from the act of painting, which has nothing consciously to do with that.

DM: OK. The reason that I asked at all was that the way that you describe painting implies a process that’s completely alien to me in its degree of analytic intensity, but what you’re saying is what I assume for all intellectual artists, which is that it’s post facto; that you just paint, and later on you find out what it was about and you’re able to say it in a lot of detail.

VD: That’s exactly it. I really, really believe that painting accesses avenues of thought and analysis that are inaccessible outside of the system. That’s why I think conceptualism fails to a large degree. It proposes to take the critical voice, the voice of the critic, which in the 20th century had to be utterly distanced from any intentionality on the artist’s part – had to cleanly distance itself from that – so conceptualists actually take aspects that belong to the visual realm and to the realm of thought of that nature, and remove themselves from the actual process of doing it. These are people who have their work fabricated and things like that. I never have an assistant. I don’t have assistants, but I would never let anyone touch my painting, it would be counter-productive.

DM: It wouldn’t be your painting anymore.

VD: And so they attempt to stand at a critical distance from the idea of visual thought, whereas a painter is utterly engaged, and when you’re inside of that system, things avail themselves to you. Opportunities and possibilities avail themselves to you that are unforeseeable outside of the system. So, yes, it’s absolutely ex post facto, is that what you said?

DM: Yeah. It’s nice to hear! You want painters you like to enjoy the things about the process that you most enjoy, and that’s one of the things I most enjoy, submersion into a physical-visual universe.

VD: Maybe it’s because I’m really coming out of abstraction, gestural abstraction, that I have this firm belief in that approach to accessing the image.

Some of Desiderio’s paints, August 2017. Photo courtesy of Daniel Maidman

The Theseus paintings, and several others, will be exhibited in Vincent Desiderio’s next solo show at Marlborough Gallery, in January 2018.

A much-expanded version of this interview will be published by Griffith Moon Publishing in 2018.

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