Murray Dessner isn’t cool.
Dessner’s paintings, especially the rhapsodic compositions of the past decade, can perhaps best be understood if one keeps in mind the Renaissance idea of a battle between harmony and invention. All art pits these two rivals in a ceaseless struggle for the territory of our fascination. For long periods, harmony will prevail until someone (or group) comes along and invents a way to upset the well-established applecart. Defenders of tradition rush to the barricades, revolutionaries storm the Bastille, manifestos are written, proclaimed and condemned, and nothing is ever the same again.
In the middle of the 20th Century, when Dessner was a teenager in South Philadelphia, already thinking that life as an artist might offer more possibilities than basketball (at which, he insists, he was pretty good), a great upheaval in art was taking place in the movement critic Robert Coates dubbed abstract expressionism. In the charismatic chaos of Jackson Pollock’s canvases and the slashing frenzy of Franz Kline, representation vanished completely, something few Europeans had ever dared. The advance guard of abstractionists invented an art that had its own logic, one that evaded the mind and went straight to the solar plexis.
Eventually, harmony made a comeback, as it always does, in the work of Mark Rothko, Morris Louis, and later Richard Diebenkorn and others. And this harmonic convergence of the shocking and the sublime became the wellspring of Murray Dessner’s all-embracing way of seeing.
Today, when art has again turned away from the transfiguring power of pure painting toward the tactical cleverness of – in many cases – inventive trickery, Dessner stays the course, reveling in sheer beauty; he opens our eyes while delighting them at the same time. Pace, Invention and Harmony.
I first met Murray Dessner more than four decades ago on the sun-struck Aegean island of Patmos. He was, at the time, the only other American on my little piece of Paradise, and for a while I resented the intrusion. But only the worst sort of curmudgeon could resent Murray beyond the first bottle of retsina. His protean enthusiasm for everything, especially putting paint on canvas, is as hard to resist as the chromatic splendor of his paintings.
No artist can live for long on Patmos without succumbing to the island’s light – the X-ray of the gods. Once you have seen the world limned with a clarity that is almost frightening, not even winter in Philadelphia can dim that incandescence. Dessner and his wife Linda still go to Patmos summer after summer, and those of us who know the place see its resonance always in his work.
A few years ago, the painter found himself in a very dark tunnel, and the light he saw when he finally, miraculously, emerged has intensified to an astonishing degree what he was already capable of. Dessner can be defined as an abstract impressionist, and there are none better. Think of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, subtract the cathedral, and you will have a Dessner. But such comparisons are far from adequate for someone entirely original. One can stand, transfixed by the radiant power of his pictures, and wonder: Is this just paint?
The answer is an emphatic “No.” What we see is paint, and poignance, and passion, and something very close to perfection. Not cool at all.
San Francisco, 2008