Unfinished: On Vincent Desiderio’s ‘Sleep’
Virginia Quarterly Review | Wednesday, Nov 09, 2005
He was having a terrible time giving the thing up.
The painting—a stunningly ambitious tableau, eight feet high, fully twenty-four feet long, and portraying twelve mostly naked figures, as visioned from above, arrayed, recumbent, one beside the next, knotted up in sheets and tossed by sleep (or maybe unconscious, or maybe even dead, it was hard to tell)—had been one of the stand-out triumphs of Vincent Desiderio’s singularly impressive show at Manhattan’s Marlborough Gallery in January 2004. Despite its forbiddingly unwieldy dimensions, the piece had sold off the floor, to a private museum in Connecticut, on condition, however, that Desiderio would first be allowed to take the canvas back with him to his Ossining studio. For all its highly burnished finish, the work had been listed as still “in progress” in the exhibition’s catalog. And now, over a year later, with its new owners clamoring for the painting’s already frequently postponed final delivery, it was still very much a work in progress, changing dramatically from day to day. Dramatically, and yet hardly at all: for Desiderio had achieved one of those images of such layered complexity and tautly interwoven cross-reference that the slightest tweak—here, say, the new way light was being made to fall across this woman’s shoulder, or there, the manner in which that man’s arm had been stretched ever so slightly higher—reverberated across the entire panel, as if across a tightly stretched drum skin.
Which Desiderio was far from finished playing.
* * * *
The painting had had me nailed from the first time i’d come upon it at the Marlborough show. The image seemed eerily strange and yet at the same time preternaturally right. Magritte used to talk about the way that the process involved in conceiving his uncanny alignments—his so-called “elective affinities”—was often surprisingly arduous, although the solution, once found, was always “self-evident, with all the certainty of fact and the impenetrability of the finest conundrum.” Just so, here, as well. An image that was baldly itself and yet veritably pullulating with associations.
In this latter sense, it reminded me powerfully of José Saramago’s astonishing novel Blindness, the way in which (in that book’s instance) a simple premise—this city suddenly gripped by a plague of blindness (white blindness, mind you, not the more conventional black kind), a blight horrifically conveyed from one victim to the next by the imploring gaze of the recently afflicted (imagine the implications for family life, for neighborhood, for medical care, for civility itself, for every possible relation!)—quickly ramified in every direction, shimmering with real world referents (AIDS, Rwanda, Kosovo, you name it) but then somehow transcending the shimmering. Here, too, with Desiderio’s painting: one experienced that same sense of shimmer and indeed with many of those very same referents. Were we gazing upon the sated aftermath of an orgy, or rather the gruesome coda to a massacre? The Playboy mansion or Srebrenica fields? As it happens, Blindness itself includes a scene in which the bedraggled, quarantined victims are spread about a giant hangar, sleeping, huddled, one beside the next—a scene which at the time had put me in mind, as Desiderio’s painting now did as well, of Henry Moore’s drawings of the thronged nighttime tunnels of London’s Underground during the Blitz. A particularly pertinent association to be making now, in the lee of 9/11, especially there in Manhattan, with all the foreboding of more to come: civil defense, indeed.
And, then again, maybe none of those. One looked to the painting’s label for a clue: Sleep. The first time, I’d misremembered the title as The Sleepers, and later that evening, rolling the image over and over again in my mind, I found myself wondering whether it might better have been dubbed The Dreamer.
* * * *
The point is, i couldn’t get the image out of my head. Nights, in bed, as I lolled between wakefulness and sleep, it would come floating back to my consciousness and start ramifying, ramifying away. So one morning I decided to seek the artist out. I tracked him down to that Ossining studio, and I began making a point of visiting him there every few weeks.
The studio turned out to be a vast, capaciously windowed space on the top floor of a onetime opera house, just outside the center of the small town about thirty miles north of Manhattan, and the tableau took up virtually an entire wall. The artist, boyishly intense though in fact at the very middle of middle age (just turning fifty), proved both lively and loquacious.
As we gazed upon the painting, Desiderio began to recount for me the canvas’s origins, and it turned out that an image so uncannily balanced along the knife-edge between life and death had had origins no less mortally fraught. In 2000, following a series of quite successful earlier shows at Marlborough, he had been felled by a rare nasal pharyngeal cancer that had left him bedridden for months, supine, sapped, weak from the various chemo- and radiotherapies, staring up at the ceiling. (In the middle of the journey of his life, I found myself thinking, he came to himself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.) “And I began being visited,” he recalled, “by this image of a continuous band of sleepers” (funny the way that what for us gets experienced as a looking-down-upon began for him as a looking-up-at). “Initially I was thinking I might try to realize that vision by way of a giant video loop, something one might project, say, onto the vaulted ceiling of Grand Central, stretched out in real time, perhaps with individual sleepers getting up and then returning. It all got quite elaborated in my head. I mean, it’s not all that mysterious how such a notion might have originated for me, all alone like that, feeling so terribly vulnerable and separated from the world of healthy people, this primitive longing for company, the fantasy affording me a sort of comfort. But rather quickly I began to turn the idea around in my mind, and it started filling up with more and more associations: almost like a pressure cooker, it began to effervesce.”
Curiously, though then again perhaps not so curiously as all that, the splay of those initial associations for Desiderio went not so much to the sorts of real-word referents that had first consumed me (AIDS, Rwanda, presently 9/11, and the like) but rather to earlier imagery and technical issues in the history and practice and crisis of art. Desiderio is a formidably intellectual, at times hyperintellectual and intellectualizing, artist. (“Motherwell once famously said, ‘It’s an intellectual decision to paint emotionally,’” Desiderio recalled for me one day, “but I think it’s an emotional decision to paint intellectually,” whereupon he went on to celebrate the determination with which one of his foremost nineteenth-century heroes had deployed the intellectual in order to navigate the emotional. “Delacroix,” he insisted, “was made of sterner stuff; he was attempting to use paint to fashion real models of states of being, evoking mind itself, the restless mind, in the immediate heat of the imagination.”) The vast majority of that churning, tumbling intellectuality, in Desiderio’s case, gets brought to bear not so much on the world as such—its politics and its history—as on the world of art, its politics and its history, and the place of his own project within all that history. 
It’s no accident that the other major image in the 2004 Marlborough show, the one that appeared on the cover of the catalog, was of a draped, steeply angled, circular table (again, seen from above) sporting the remains of some sort of banquet and in turn surrounded, on the floor below, by a veritable sea of art books—hundreds, thousands of them—spread open to a seeming flood of iconic images from the history of art: a surfeit of associations. Cockaigne, he’d titled this work, enigmatically—enigmatically, that is, until one recalled Bruegel’s Land of Cockaigne from 1567, with its similarly angled circular table, likewise topped by the remains of a banquet and, in this instance, surrounded by three lying (!) figures (sleeping? unconscious? dead?), presumably victims of their own rampant gluttony in a mythical land where everything came too easily to hand, the birds flying around already cooked, the pigs scampering about with ready-sharpened knives sashed to their bellies . . .
With regard to his own fantasy of a continuum of naked bodies, Desiderio recalled for me how his own first associations had been to the similar array of such bodies ranged, panic-stricken and forlorn, below that giant leering skeleton in Van Eyck’s Last Judgment of 1430, a thoroughly unsettling image which he himself had first come upon, memorably, transfixedly, as a child rifling through his parents’ art books. To that painting, he went on, effervescing, “but almost as immediately to Jackson Pollock’s 1943 Mural, the breakthrough canvas he’d made for Peggy Guggenheim. I mean, the thing is, as much as I am drawn to images of the Last Judgment, I am myself not all that judgmental—I don’t like to think I am anyway—and with the Pollock, by contrast, you have this sublime evenness, all very muscular—this is still before the drips—that marvelous repetition of those strong vertical arabesques punctuating the lush all-overness of the whole, the sense that they could go on forever in either direction. Isn’t it Derrida who defined a dictionary as an infinite array of signifiers? Which is to say, words defining words. Something of that feeling as well.”
And so forth. Another time, Desiderio told me how, if Cockaigne had for him constituted a sort of homage to de Kooning’s Excavation, with the same layered and overlayered archeological feel and subtext, then Sleep was no less his homage to Pollock, and to Mural in particular. Indeed, the dimensions of the two paintings are virtually identical (exactly the same height, with Sleep being slightly longer). Excavation and Mural constituted for Desiderio a kind of twinned high point of the Western painterly tradition, just before painting, as he says, seemed to fall into a trance, stupefied under the thrall of conceptual and pop art, in those years when everybody was so happily busy declaring painting good and dead. “What I love about the Pollock,” he told me another time, as we were gazing upon Sleep’s latest iteration, “is the way it is an all-over picture, implying as that does this sense of an infinite even grid, which nevertheless manages to reintroduce a slight indication of incident and intentionality, almost of narrative, kind of like Philip Glass, who likewise seems to be trying to transcend the blind alley of minimalism—you get the evenness of that repetitive melodic drone, but within that, the slightest changes, which in turn register as completely thrilling.”
He showed me a series of preparatory studies for the painting—dozens, scores of them, in every conceivable medium: photos of models, pencil drawings, quick-daubed slatherings on paper cross-hatched over with ink, detailed oils on sized canvas, cut-and-pasted collages xeroxed to homogeneity, Photoshopped computerized renderings. There were studies of the draped sheets alone. “The lower half of the painting devolves almost into sheer abstraction,” he explained to me, “and that’s in turn part of what the painting is about, abstraction butting up like that against figuration, the way that the more exactly the sheets get rendered, the more they read as abstracts; and for that matter, the more I bring out the abstract, as it were melodic, interrelations between the figures in the top half, the more palpably the individual figures read as incarnate individuals.” With one of the computer renderings, he’d blurred the figures and then tinted the whole thing toward the red end of the spectrum, the imagery seeming to devolve into flames. (I was put in mind of Bachelard’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire.) Last Judgment, indeed.
It turned out that in some of the earlier versions of the image, there had been thirteen figures (numbering them from One through Twelve, left to right, there had been an extra figure slotted between Ms. Ten and Mr. Eleven), which in turn had quite fundamentally altered the way the picture read: with thirteen figures, the man in the middle was more emphatically centered (with six figures to either side), so that the whole ensemble read more like Leonardo’s Last Supper than anyone else’s Last Judgment. Whereas in the final—or should I say, current?—version, with its twelve figures, while the central man retains his preeminence, the woman nuzzled to his right seems to rise in importance, with five figures to either side of the couple, the central man and woman now reading precisely as a couple, both of them prominently pillowed, and the image thereby becoming, at least in part, about marriage, and maybe even, with the pillows almost reading as nimbic halos, about holy marriage. Having said that, the earlier Last Supper version, with its thirteen figures, had at the same time included a more emphatic Last Judgment echo as well, for the central man’s right arm had been upraised, in a conspicuous allusion to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, where, parenthetically, the Mary figure, next to the muscular Jesus, is portrayed, her cupped hands nestled into the crook of her neck, in much the same pose as the sleeping woman tucked next to Desiderio’s central figure. The woman retains that pose in the current version, while the man’s hand has been recast downward, straightened and wedged now along his side. “The echo was just too intrusive,” Desiderio surmises, when I ask him about the revised placement of the man’s arm. Notwithstanding which, in the final weeks leading toward the painting’s current incarnation, Desiderio was subtly accentuating the tonal contrasts from side to side, the figures arrayed to the left glowing in a raking light which never quite makes it to the other side of the canvas, whose figures get progressively subsumed in gloom. “The saved and the damned,” he joked one day.
Not that all the associations were to religious iconography. Another afternoon, Desiderio averred that another one of his sources had been the graphic imagery of slave ships, with their shackled recumbent cargo sardine-packed one against the next. “There being a link somehow between sleep and slavery,” he surmised, “and specifically privileged, pillowed, cushioned sleep—the culture asleep, enslaved, straining toward the liberation of wakefulness.”
* * * *
“I’m a painter, a working man, a tradesman.”
I happened to be reading Joyce Cary’s Herself Surprised, the first volume of the trilogy which culminates in The Horse’s Mouth, for a while during those months when I was visiting Desiderio at his Ossining studio. And at one point Cary has his buoyantly exuberant protagonist, Gully Jimson, explode in consternation: “I wish the very name of artist was abolished. It’s simply a bad smell, it’s not even good English. Painter is the English word, or limner.”
Limner! How perfect, I remember thinking. An archaic word for painter wending all the way past Shakespeare and then forward into the Victorian era, and surely somehow tied to the word “liminal,” from limen the Latin word for threshold. How resonant of Desiderio’s entire project, with this painting planted so firmly as it was at the border crossing between enslavement and liberation, sleep and wakefulness, consciousness and unconsciousness, awareness and obliviousness, abstraction and figuration, peace and war, life and death.
Vincent Desiderio, the limner, I found myself thrumming, in the mode of that other great Irish Joyce.
I dove into the OED for confirmation, but, alas, I’d gotten it wrong. Or not so much the word (1398: “Gravours, lymnours and payntours eteth Rewe to sharpe theyr sygthe”; 1594: “The fine and subtil earth of the hearbe or flower, out of which some curious Limner may draw some excellent colour”; 1875, Jowett’s Plato: “The drawing of a limner which has not a shadow of a likeness to the truth”) as much as its imagined etymology, for the word grows not out of the Latin limen (“threshold”) but rather from the French lumière (“light,” as in to illuminate, as in an illuminator of manuscripts). Still and all—light and dark, life and death—Desiderio remained in my mind a quintessentially liminal limner, who’d staked his claim right there on the verge of coming-to, at the edge of becoming.
Tomas Tranströmer, the sublime Swedish poet, has a poem in which (in Robert Bly’s elegant translation) he evokes his experience on all-night sentry duty, presumably while serving out his term of mandatory military service, guarding some remote outpost on the Finnish border or some such. “I’m ordered out to a big hump of stones,” he says. “The rest are still back in the tent sleeping / stretched out like spokes in a wheel.” Uncanny though it is (I’d forgotten that touch), that’s not the echo that was drawing me back to the poem. “Task,” he intones later on: “to be where I am. / Even when I’m in this solemn and absurd / role: I am still the place / where creation does a little work on itself.” Not that either, though that is damn good. “Dawn comes . . . ” There, now we are getting there:
To be where I am . . . and to wait.
I am full of anxiety, obstinate, confused.
Things not yet happened are already here!
I feel that. They’re just out there:
a murmuring mass outside the barrier.
They can only slip in one by one.
They want to slip in. Why? They do
one by one. I am the turnstile.
There: that. To be the turnstile.
I show the poem to Desiderio. He reads it to himself and then lets out a deep sigh. “Yes,” he says. “Exactly. To wake up to that: to being present in the present.” 
* * * *
I keep visiting, and he keeps tweaking.
“Putting the light in in one place,” he explains to me one day, “knocking it down in another. Scrumble and glaze. Scrumble, which is to say light over dark—and glaze, dark over light. Like tacking in sailing. Every gesture seeming to disrupt the balance ever so slightly, thereby necessitating other gestures elsewhere. A sequence of finely minced decisions. Do I believe it? And now do I believe that? But not just me, rather the universal self momentarily embodied in me. I am nothing but the image’s first viewer. Like Diderot says somewhere, ‘Painting is best when the artist stands slack-jawed before the canvas.’”
Another time. “I am playing with the staging. Like in Baroque art—Gentileschi, Caravaggio. How they’d blind you with a flash in one area so that you didn’t see the other stuff right away, the important stuff, thereby allowing a sequential exposition of detail, of revelation, a series of successive unveilings.
“There,” he pointed, delphically (I must have been looking a touch bewildered). “The drapery work wrapped round her in the center.”
Another day he was working on the punning arms. How the arms of Ms. Two and Mr. Three blend into each other. The same, even more confoundingly, with Mr. Four’s right arm, which seems to be reaching across Ms. Five’s belly—only, no, that’s her forearm. How Ms. Eight’s right arm seems to burrow under her pillow and then out from under Ms. Seven’s head—or wait, is that Ms. Seven’s own right arm? The doubling at the jointed elbows of Ms. Ten and Mr. Eleven. All of it subliminally helping to define the flow of energy through the whole painting, to keep the eye moving. “As in that amazing early marble of Michelangelo’s of the Battle of the Centaurs,” he tells me.
Another day he is working on Ms. Ten and Mr. Eleven. Although shunted off to the side and into the gloom, their gestures are somehow the most operatic. Though mustachioed, he seems the most babylike, lying there, diapered in his boxers. And though she is in fact the most fully dressed, at the same time she seems the most nakedly vulnerable, her arms raised up as if fending off a nightmare blow.
Another day he is working on Mr. Four and Ms. Nine—a daub on one precipitating a compensating stab at the other. “Parentheses,” he explains. “They frame the central group.”
And week after week it is the central group and especially the central couple who are coming into increasing focus, with the lateral figures falling progressively away. As in Vermeer’s Lacemaker—how everything in the image falls out of focus, either too close or too far, except for the very thing that the girl herself is focusing upon, the V of threads stretched taut against the M cast of her hands: a painting, in short, all about concentration.
And Desiderio, too, continues to focus his concentration—almost as if, were he just able to focus intently enough, he could jar the figures awake. (“Do you know what it’s like to wake up every morning to the news that painting is dead and over?” Desiderio asked me another time, not even quite hearing the terms in which he himself was casting the question. “To wake up, time and again, to that news, when you know that it just can’t be true?”)
Concentrically he hones in, and increasingly the locus of all that focus seems to be the hand draped across the central man’s belly. As in Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, where the central group are gawking, dumbfounded, not at the cadaver’s flayed arm but rather at the professor’s living hand, at the way he is explaining how with those muscles there you can move your hand this way, here. A miracle. The paired wonders of vision and manipulability: a painting, in the end, about all the marvels that make painting itself possible. And just so, as well, with the hand of that central man, who Desiderio one day acknowledges is none other than he himself, although, as he insists again, not as himself but rather as a stand-in for everyman.
Thus, the self-generating, the self-creating hand. But also the hand that will reach out, any moment now, suddenly startled, grasping at the air, at the instant of coming awake.
* * * *
So far i have been making Desiderio sound a little clearer than he sometimes does. As I say, he’s a deeply intellectual guy, often quite maddeningly, hypertrophically so. There are moments when he seems to get himself all tangled up in sheet upon billowing sheet of postmodernist, structuralist, deconstructivist, semiotic, post-Lacanian, high Foucaultian verbiage. Wake up, you want to reach out and shake him—damn it all already, will you wake the hell up? And yet, amidst the fog of all that verbiage, he is clearly struggling toward something vital, and in any case this is manifestly the background pulse to his astonishing creative flow.
For example, “emblematization” and “sequentialization,” two words he kept unfurling across our weeks of conversations (and which he likewise deploys repeatedly in the largely impenetrable essay which he folded into the end of his catalog for the 2004 Marlborough exhibit). They have something to do with the crisis of modern painting, a crisis which, in his mind, spreads well beyond the world of painting. 
“Is a painting a wall or a membrane?” he asks me one day. “That’s what it all comes down to. Picture the artist on one side, the object in between, the viewer on the other. As the painting increasingly stultifies to the status of a mere emblem, which is to say a sign and nothing more than a sign, it becomes more and more like an impenetrable barrier, almost a mirror—the viewer gazes in, but all he gets back is a sort of ironical wink, often, in a lot of conceptual work, in a kind of one-shot punch: the illustration of a wink. There’s that, and nothing more. But it’s possible to imagine a different order of things—the loss of faith in the possibility of something more is a distinctly twentieth-century affliction—an order in which painting acts as a kind of veil across which, through which, the painter and the viewer arrive at some sort of communion across a sequential experience, a reinvigorated, authentic, viscerally felt sense of narrativity, breaking through to that place where we are all conjoined. That’s the dream, anyway, that I’m trying to waken to.
“I mean,” he went on, “I could do anything—in fact, I started as an abstract painter and for a time even trafficked in my share of conceptualist stunts—but now I choose to do this: a painting that unfolds, that purses out its information gradually, beyond glib ironic hipness and, I hope, towards a sort of enigmatic mystery.”
He paused for a moment, gazed over at the tableau, and tried again. “At one level, what you see before you here is just a normal mind relentlessly, maybe even a little obsessively, working on a normal dream, trying to replicate the luxury of deep sleep, deep surrender, pure reverie.
“You know how when you dream, all those tendrils, those emblems, seem to float about independently, disjointedly, haphazardly, but the moment the alarm goes off, it’s like there’s a rush to assemble all those stray tendrils into a sensate sequence—a narrative. Suddenly all that random stuff comes together and momentarily coheres. For a moment, at that moment, everything, everyone connects, it all makes sense. That’s where I’m trying to get with this.”
But isn’t that, I found myself wondering later that evening, precisely what dying is said to be like as well?
* * * *
Time was up. They were coming for the painting the next day. Although he’d managed to extract a further assurance of his own: that, while displayed at the private musuem, it would still be labeled as “in progress,” and that from time to time, on off-days, he’d be allowed into the galleries to work on it some more.
How would he eventually know, I asked him, when it finally was finished?
“When it starts firing on its own,” he replied assuredly, before immediately undercutting himself. “Then again, maybe it will always be unfinished—maybe that’s its charm. Although I can still see some more specific things that need to be done. I’d like to be able to resolve it, to bring it to a resolution, and then to open it up all over again.” He smiled. 
It seemed as if, with this painting anyway, Desiderio might always be finding himself right there, at the very cusp.
Although, then again, you know how sometimes you wake up just before the alarm goes off?
 I was hardly the first to be struck by this tendency of Desiderio’s. In a marvelously supple piece of reporting in the January 29, 1995, New York Times Magazine, growing out of Desiderio’s first show at Marlborough, the novelist Ellen Pall had described how the artist’s mind “hopped furiously from idea to idea. Socialism, Cubism, Barthes, Zola, Habermas—names and theories flew like the spray of sawdust thrown up under a whirring blade.” A tendency which seemed all the more remarkable in the context of that show, which had featured several devastatingly immediate images of a small child perilously ensnared in all manner of high-tech life-support equipment, the very fate, as it then happened, of the Desiderios’ own small son, but images which Desiderio kept insisting on discussing with Pall, albeit quite eloquently, in terms of the crisis of abstract expressionism, the fate of figuration, and so forth. “How could Desiderio speak so cerebrally of paintings that all but punched the viewer in the chest?” Pall wondered. “Between his words and his images—between his intellect and his imagination—yawned a curious gap.” A gap which her piece then went on to anatomize and to bridge with a novelist’s keen penetration.
 Or, in the words of Paul Blackburn’s “Matchbook Poem,” “BUT WHY do you always go to the wall? / Why does he go to the wall? // You go to the wall / because that’s where / the door is // maybe.”
 Or, phrased another way, while you may occasionally find yourself objecting, with considerable validity, Come on, it’s only painting—there are moments, or anyway, extended occasions, when for Desiderio, painting can seem to be everything, or at any rate can be made to stand in for everything.
 In one of the stories in her marvelously (and in this context portentously) titled collection Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Grace Paley insists that “Every character, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”