Narrative, drama, the indecent human story -- all that was beside the point of pure art, the “human interest” that Greenberg dismissed as lacking “esthetic interest,” the “all too human” that had to be repressed if the artist was to come into his own as “superhuman,” an immortal among mere mortals, a “seer” among the sightless, as Rimbaud said, an Übermensch among the masses with their herd mentality, as Nietzsche described the “healthy” artist -- returns with an ironical vengeance in Vincent Desiderio’s paintings. In Window (2010) we see, in grim flattened outline, the two figures in Goya’s Fight with Cudgels, one of his Black Paintings (1820-23). It is the oldest of human stories: the biblical story of Cain and Abel -- of brothers in violent conflict, fighting unto the death -- of ingrained aggression, hatred, envy, destructiveness. At the least, it is the story of a family tragedy -- the Bible is as full of them as Greek tragedy. More broadly, it is the story of the insane human condition -- of the war of all against all that Hobbes said was the “natural” human condition. Goya’s two figures stand knee deep in a field of wheat, supposedly an allusion to the civil war raging in Spain at the time, suggesting that is also the story of social insanity -- a social as well as psychological allegory.
More insidiously, it is the story of the vulgarization of art, as Goya’s vulgar figures suggest, and, more pointedly, as the tarnished bust of a noble Roman and empty gold frame in the foreground of Desiderio’s picture suggests, of classical art, with its civilized character and civilizing purpose, suggesting the collapse of civilization into the barbarism signaled by Goya’s figures, and, some think, of his painting. In Desiderio’s painting, Goya’s painting, with its proto-modernist features and morbidity, rises above the classical bust and frame, suggesting the triumph of modernism over traditionalism. Even as Desiderio attempts to achieve a new modern classicism, as the noble Mennonites in Mourning and Fecundity II (2011) suggests -- an ironic classicism, for the pious Mennonites hark back to an earlier age of religion -- he cannot help but suggest the black shadow that modernism has cast over art.
And also that modern secular science casts on traditional sacred art, as is suggested by De Umbris Idearum (2010), in which the black mechanical figure of a planetarium projector stands out against a tarnished, flaking fresco of Christ Pantocrator framed in a cosmic dome. Desiderio is obsessed with perspective, as he has said, and the projector and the Pantocrator offer very different -- seemingly incommensurate -- perspectives on the world and life. Desiderio strikes an uneasy balance between them; each is intimidating, omnipotent, and they are in conflict like the figures in Goya’s painting.
Goya’s Black Paintings, with their nihilistic black and blank humor, brutally frank painterliness, emotionally and often physically ugly figures, and unmitigated pessimism, have been said to be one of the inspirations of the spirit of negation, to use Duchamp’s word, typical of modernist art. Desiderio’s use of one of the Black Paintings suggests his black outlook on life, but also his dismal view of modernist art, for the Roman bust and gold frame stand out of the darkness and emanate light, suggesting that they are inwardly alive -- spiritually intact -- however outwardly dead and dumbly material, just as the white Roman Effigy (2011) stands out of its surroundings, indeed, is front and center. 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.
Pathology is evident everywhere in Desiderio’s paintings, and it is presented with pitiless precision. The imbeciles in Un’Istoria and I’Liberati (both 2011) -- the former march with their doctors, who hold them on mental leashes, suggesting they are nominally “domesticated” and under control, like the dogs that accompany them, while the untended latter seem like wild animals, sometimes despairing, sometimes menacing, all “possessed” -- make the point clearly. The imbeciles in Company (2009), many with grotesque, leering faces, seem straight out of Goya’s The Witches’ Sabbath and the Festival of San Isidoro, both Black Paintings. The central staring face in Company strongly resembles the central staring -- if less demented -- face in Velazquez’s Los Borrachos (ca. 1628). Desiderio uses old art to make a modern point -- a point Baudelaire already made in 1857 when he wrote that “Goya has added something very. . . modern” to traditional “Spanish satire, with its heyday in Cervantes’ time, . . .namely, a love of the indefinable, a feeling for violent contrasts, for what is terrifying in nature,” especially human nature, as his “caricatures of monks. . . with cunning, hypocritical, sly, and deceitful heads,” even dangerously “murderous heads” indicate. It was Goya’s “frightening. . . hallucinatory images” that introduced us to “the orgies of the dream-world,” a nightmarish world of “unprecedented violence,” a “grotesque reality” full of human “monsters,” their “bestial faces and diabolical grimaces” showing them to be “profoundly human.” For Baudelaire, their “features. . . have acquired animal-like qualities as a result of their environment.”
Desiderio seems to agree: the pleasant garden environment in Un’Istoria, presided over by classical sculptures of a healthy young Adam and Eve, seems to tame the wild beast in the imbeciles, bringing them into harmony, as the classical alignment of their heads confirms. In contrast, the figures in I’Liberati seem to be in a wilderness, confirming their wild appearance and emotions. The strong suggestion is that the classical environment -- and classical art -- is calming, a sort of visual music that calms the savagely mad beast in us, while the modern environment -- and modern art -- is an emotional wilderness that drives us mad. And finally kills us: the Bride (2011), ironically smiling to herself, the hysterically Laughing Woman (2010) and the Ophelia-like female nude in a Sink (2010), filled with water, are on a continuum of madness that inevitably leads to death.
Feminists might take umbrage with Desiderio’s treatment of women, but then all the figures in Un’Istoria and most of the figures in I’Liberati are men, suggesting that there are more madmen than madwomen in the world. Desiderio is interested in the extreme expressiveness of the faces of the mad, but it seems his madwomen have a greater and subtler range of expressiveness that his madmen, whose faces are frozen in demented expressions. The open mouth, with its rotting teeth, of the male head in Dumb Mouths (2011), has nothing to say, but the bosomy Laughing Woman, with her open mouth and perfect teeth, has a good deal to say, just as the closed mouth of the Bride does, suggesting that women are more emotionally flexible and complex than men, and are, finally, less mad, for women express their madness in subtle ways rather than grossly act it out.
In a brilliant Self-Portrait before Orozco (2010) -- Orozco’s monumental Dartmouth mural Gods of the Modern World, presided over by a white death’s-head wearing the kind of black hat a judge wears in some cultures (we see a similar death’s head, wearing a black top hat, in Ensor’s The Entry of Christ in Brussels in 1889 (1888-89), from which many of Orozco’s heads seem derived) -- suggests his own madness. And the madness of modern America, for Orozco’s mural is one of a series titled The Epic of American Civilization: Modern Migration of the Spirit (1932-34) -- to hell, as the Dartmouth series strongly suggests.
Desiderio puts his madness to reparative creative use, but no cure, however artistically good, does any human good, as is suggested by his stunning Spiegel im Spiegel (2010). It is a painting of his physically and mentally handicapped son, who needs a breathing tube to live -- we see the opening for it on his neck -- and Desiderio himself, the hands with which he paints wrapped in bandages, along with the rest of his body, suggesting that he himself is wounded, handicapped, and unable to communicate with his son, for his head is also wrapped, his mouth taped shut. Empathically identified with him, and bent over him in imploring care, Desiderio is unable to establish intimacy with his son, all the more so because he seems lost in an dream world of his own. His son will remain a child in spirit and body all his life. Damaged beyond repair, the boy will never become a man. I know no greater image of human suffering in contemporary art, no subtler image of modern alienation -- the absurd nightmare that is modern life.
Desiderio’s picture is an allegory of the unhealthy modern world at its incurable worst, as distinct from the healthy classical world at its utopian best -- the health-restoring world of curative light in Un’Historia in contrast to the wildly sick darkness in I’Liberati. And a criticism of unhealthy modern art, as the gray gestural touches that form the decaying stony environment in which the figures are set suggest, reminding us that gesturalism at its most unconditional, as in Abstract Expressionism, has been understood as an instrument, however unwitting, and the final step, of the infantilization, primitivization and pulverization -- not to say degeneration -- of art into incoherence and chaos. That is, into the nightmarish anti-paradise of the modern insanity which Goya uncovered, and whose pathological depths Desiderio explores with Goya as his guide the way Virgil was Dante’s guide through hell. Among the sights are Old Masterworks from all times and places -- there are allusive ties to works as different as Flemish proverb pictures (most notably, Bruegel’s ironical The Parable of the Blind, 1568), Gericault’s unromantic portraits of mental patients, and Sargeant’s peculiarly lurid romantic paintings -- none the worse for wear, and as unconsciously striking as ever, but more adult, that is, dignified by consciousness, than the Abstract Expressionism with which Desiderio began his career, and thus less beholden to the tyranny of modernism, if still symptomatic of modernity.
Vincent Desiderio, Sept. 15-Oct. 15, 2011, at Marlborough Chelsea, 545 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.