Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

Tribute to Victor Pesce, 1938-2010

Greg Lindquist’s tribute to the late Victor Pesce from 2010 is designated A TOPICAL PICK FROM THE ARCHIVES in conjunction with the current overview of the artist at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, on view through July 26 at 529 West 20th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues, New York City.

Victor Pesce in his Connecticut studio, Fall 2009, by Greg Lindquist
Victor Pesce in his Connecticut studio, Fall 2009, by Greg Lindquist

Victor Pesce, the painter of quiet, patient, simple still lifes, died on March 28, 2010 in his home in Sharon, Connecticut after nearly a year’s struggle with lung cancer, aged 71. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Harris, at whose gallery he showed his work. When I first met Victor at an opening I asked him what mediums he used in his paint. I was a graduate student aware of his work through one of my professors. Victor excitedly and generously explained how he would dab globs of regular oil paint on his canvas with a palette knife, brushing from the center out, like a mason applying grout.

Victor completed his studies at New York University, where he studied with Milton Resnick, in 1966and went on to develop an abstract style whose thick impasto recalled Larry Poons and Albert Pinkham Ryder. It was during the late 1990s and early 2000s that Victor developed the intimate still life idiom for which he is critically acclaimed. When Roberta Smith described these works in a New York Times review as “equally inspired by Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes and Brice Marden’s monochromes,” there was a recognition of Victor’s penchant for synthesizing historical and contemporary ways of seeing. David Ebony detected in Pesce “the emotional impact of late Manet still life.” Ken Johnson, also in the Times added that “As with Morandi, a main source of inspiration, Mr. Pesce’s objects look slightly anthropomorphic,” a quality shared with objects painted by Philip Guston, an artist Victor greatly admired throughout the course of his career. Many artists own Victor’s paintings, including Scott Richter and Janet Fish, and his work has influenced painters of younger generations as well. He had a close circle of artist peers, including Jim Clark, James Bohary and Charles Parness.

While preparing the catalog essay for Victor’s winter 2010 exhibition at Elizabeth Harris I was thrilled to see in Victor’s Connecticut studio the hand-made, craggy maquettes, fashioned out of cardboard and finished with oil paint, that appeared in his new paintings. Playfully arranging these objects on his cluttered studio tables I couldn’t help but see the Minimalism of a Donald Judd or Richard Tuttle sculpture. Sharing my thoughts with Victor, though, he obdurately had his own ideas: “I’m a painter not a sculptor,” he insisted in his distinctive Queens accent, a bit annoyed by my art historical associations. “I like easel painting, smaller paintings you can get close to. I’m primarily a classicist, a humanist—I’m looking back to the ancient world. If you really want to know why I started making these sculptures is because I got tired of having to get rid of all the boxes that Elizabeth’s parcels came in, so I just started making things out of them.”

Victor Pesce, Studio, 2010.  Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches.  Courtesy of Elizabeth Harris Gallery
Victor Pesce, Studio, 2010. Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches. Courtesy of Elizabeth Harris Gallery

Victor was a funny, gentle and modest guy, much like his paintings. He became a painting mentor to me, often recalling my grandfather as our conversations digressed into stories about baseball, New York and the Brooklyn Dodgers, Victor’s favorite team. He was a friendly person, but was also often shy, preferring to sit behind the gallery desk during openings rather than socializing but always excited to talk with friends and tell stories. And, even though Victor spent much of his time in the solitude of his studio, with the company of his cat, he frequently visited with neighboring friends in Connecticut.

The last time I spoke with Victor was the day before my own exhibition at Elizabeth Harris opened, a week or so before he passed away. He told me in his characteristic sprezzatura not to worry about him, that he’d be fine. Regretfully, I was not able to visit Victor again. However, while visiting Elizabeth the day after his death, she invited me to see his studio as he left it, wishing to show me an unfinished painting on his easel. The painting simply depicted a bed, stretcher frame and a table, which, without legs, eerily floated in a flattened pictorial space. My eyes wandered around his studio. The space still appeared occupied: maquettes arranged, paint brushes in piles, as if paint were still slowly drying on palette. Victor’s studio felt as peaceful as the unfinished painting resting on his easel.