Originally appears as essay in forthcoming catalog for Victor Pesce’s 2010 exhibition.
Quiet, modest, simple and matter-of-fact are all words that have been used to describe Victor Pesce’s paintings. While these characterizations prove true, Pesce’s work also has been called obsessive, quirky, otherworldly and far from simple. Indeed, his paintings embrace a variety of paradoxes: In their pared-down, minimal descriptions of objects and a lack of specificity, his paintings’ complexity by their specific color palette comes to our attention. Acidic-like colors made from synthetic pigments oddly appear naturalistic and describe nature. Ethereal compositions are rendered with a heavy, material obdurateness. While his compositions also declare a certain intimacy, his paintings suggest an ambiguous distance from their original sources. Flattening forms, Pesce’s tones shift in subtle gradients, recalling Fairfield Porter’s explanation of Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes that “differ from one another like the cases in the declension of a Latin noun.”
Although best known for his unadorned, easel-sized still-life painting, Pesce’s work has developed through several distinct stylistic periods. After completing his studies at New York University in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, Pesce made allover meditative abstractions comprised of lozenge shapes and dots, recalling similar Larry Poons works at the time. By the 1980s, he was making thick, impastoed paintings, which resembled both abstracted landscape and portraiture equally inspired by German Expressionists (such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Dix) and American tonalist Albert Pinkham Ryder. During this period, Pesce used the exact seven-color palette given to him by a professor who studied in the Bauhaus (that remains his palette today), but the paint application was done alla prima. Using dark, heavy and brightly contrasting hues, he mixed directly on the canvas rather than palette.
In the early 1980s, Pesce made watercolors while spending time in Maine that call to mind Charles Burchfield. During this period, he also moved his residence and studio to rural Connecticut. In the 1990s, Pesce worked from both observation and newspaper photographs, painting closely cropped faces and figures that resemble at once the portraiture of Alex Katz and Luc Tuymans as he moved gradually towards the still-life genre. Anonymity through a simplification of forms, which could be said is also a theme in Pesce’s current still lifes, was a key theme in these works. Using the faces of politicians, athletes and even criminals from newspaper photographs, Pesce transformed the identity of these countenances through cropping and the reductive act of painting. Losing discernible recognition of the original sources and their contexts yet painted with Pesce’s particular touch rather than newpaper’s mechanical reproduction, these portraits are at once anonymous and intimate.
A sense of intimacy, sustained by easel painting, runs throughout these stylistic shifts and resides in his current still-life work, which has been characterized as his leit motif and tirelessly compared to Giorgio Morandi. This comparison is, on the surface, nothing if not salient. Preoccupation with the metaphysical life of objects, an attraction to an intense inner world, an anthropomorphic eye for objects and a penchant for the transformative qualities of oil paint and its material engagement are all distinct traits in common to both Pesce and Morandi still lifes. Furthermore, both painters apply paint to the objects themselves before making paintings of these objects. When these objects are painted, they become anthropomorphic and flesh-like, exemplifying de Kooning’s famous quote, “flesh is the reason that oil paint was invented.” These painted objects, particularly Morandi’s, also resemble Cy Twombly’s bronze sculptures that are cast from oil-painted wood and plaster. And Pesce, like Morandi, simplifies forms, using only the smallest amount of modeling to suggest volume to his objects. Morandi once declared “what interests me most is expressing what’s in nature, in the visible world, that is,” a statement with which Pesce would certainly agree.
However, in many ways, their work is remarkably different in their deliveries and informed by diverging contexts and influences. Morandi, with his bleak earthen hues and worn forms suggests desolation and decay, while Pesce’s often synthetic, acerbic colors and pared-down forms propose something altogether otherworldly, dreamlike and perhaps hallucinatory. In this way, Pesce’s color sensibility is more akin to Pierre Bonnard’s inwardly radiating hues, which appear as if illuminated by neon and phosphorescent sources.
In addition, Pesce and Morandi’s brushworks have different weights. While Morandi’s brush wavers almost above the surface, immaterially buoyant, Pesce’s sinks, heavily and thickly into the substrate. While Morandi’s brushwork loses a tangible solidity and form, Pesce applies paint as if it were grout and his brush a trowel. But, like Morandi and Bonnard, Pesce’s painting involves an inward seeing of outward experience, an imaginative response to the visual stimuli of reality, or as Bonnard described painting: “the transcription of the adventures of the optic nerve.”
If Morandi’s mature work may be seen as diverging from Giorgio de Chirico’sPittura Metafisica, then Pesce’s still lifes, particularly those that depict his cardboard constructions, converge around the modernist sensibilities of the Bauhaus and minimalist sculpture, suggesting a degree of abstraction to his seeing of reality. Pesce makes these rough-hewn cardboard constructions with glue, painting them with colors similar to those that appear in his work. Resembling an arrangement of miniature Robert Morris blocks, Carl Andre timbers or Walter Gropius architectural models, these boxes are pared-down, modular and, like Pesce’s paintings, reductive.
The seriality of Pesce’s boxes within individual paintings and across a body of work is also reminiscent of Donald Judd’s boxes and, in their coarse simplicity, Richard Tuttle’s post-minimalist paintings. Similarly, Roberta Smith commented in a 2000 New York Times review on the similarity of Pesce’s paintings to Brice Marden’s early monochromes, in which “color conversations abound.” In the current exhibition, this seriality is evident in the two chromatic variations of the same composition in Traffic 1 and Traffic 2 (both 2009). Harbor 2 (2009) and Steps (2009) also indicate these tendencies in Pesce’s work, while additionally suggesting a briny monochrome tonality, redolent of the lighter hues in James McNeill Whistler’s nocturnes.
While Pesce’s current exhibition fits mostly within the genre of still life, Pesce’s attention is even more varied than in previous bodies of work, such as in 2001 with his arrangements of vases, fruits and bottles and, in 2006, which was primarily an exhibition of his cardboard constructions. Collecting discarded items that would be considered garbage by some, Pesce paints arrangements he calls “non-essentials,” such as in the eponymous painting, which depicts a sponge, tinfoil painted with cerulean blue, and candleholder aligned on an askew, olive surface. These objects, among his other still-life items, comprise what he calls a “garden” of painted objects on his studio tabletops. Paradoxically, these objects are paramount to Pesce’s work, recalling Michael Fried’s notions of a residual essentialism, in that by reducing a work to its bare, intrinsic and quintessential elements (although in Pesce’s case both formally and thematically), one becomes closer to its purest and truest spirit.
Kirk Varnadoe, in his Pictures of Nothing lectures series, connects Kazamir Malevich to the “modernist tradition of innovation by distillation” and credits him as a patron saint of minimalism, explaining that Black Square (1923-30) reduces painting to an inherent building block– in this case, a black square. In a similar manner, Pesce distills picture planes, foreshortened sides of solids and chromatic shifts in Hide Away (2007). In Pink Bag (2009), whose composition is reminiscent of Black Square, Pesce’s description of the bag’s wrinkled surface is faint and sparse. In both these paintings, the objects’ dimensionalities are flattened, or distilled, into their endemic geometric shapes.
However, unlike minimalist painting’s fixation with a dour, hard-edge vocabulary began by Malevich, Pesce’s painting has remained attuned to the delicate formal attributes of nature. Pesce cites nature as source of major inspiration for his paintings, once quoting the William Blake line that “nature is the hem on the garment of God.” In paintings like Autumn Miniature (2009) and Hydrangea (2009), dried foliage hover over their respective color field–like backgrounds. Detail in the flower’s individual petals in Hydrangea, like the creases in Pink Bag, is distilled to muted and indistinct grays, focusing on the flattened whole of shapes and surfaces. In these paintings of nature, the transformation of his paintings moved with the decomposition of his subjects, Pesce explained, saying, “In Autumn Miniature, the gingko leaf kept shriveling and changing—I was constantly trying to catch up to it.”
While Pesce’s work brings to mind minimalist sculptural and modernist architectural associations and influences, his work is, at the end of the day, about the act of painting. This meditative searching for formal qualities such as tonality, intensity and color harmonies all begin and end with the intuitive act of painting. Pesce says “I am interested in the life of the painting through drawing and color. I’m above all interested in painting, not making a statement.” In Pesce’s world, paint both unifies and personalizes his slow, deliberate seeing in which everything is ultimately a mystery. Painting mesmerizes Victor Pesce, as if the very act places him in a geometric reverie.
Greg Lindquist is a painter and artist who writes about art. He is the 2009-10 Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grantee and the Sally & Milton Avery Arts Foundation Grantee for the 2009 Art Omi International Artist Residency. Recently, Lindquist traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia in search of crumbling concrete Soviet factories.