Esteban Vicente arrived into the world in Turegano, Spain, in 1903. In 1921, he arrived at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid. He arrived in Paris in 1929, and in 1936 he arrived in New York City. His reputation arrived somewhat later. In 1950, Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro included him in their “New Talents 1950” show at the Koontz Gallery. The following year, he participated in the “9th Street Show”–a defining moment for the first generation of New York Abstract Expressionists.
The other day, he arrived at his ninetieth birthday, and for the occasion, the Berry-Hill galleries mounted a show, “Esteban Vicente at 90: Five Decades of Work.” For more than two hours, Vicente stood amid the crush of the opening-reception crowd and greeted people, making jokes and answering questions. The opening and his birthday happened to fall on Inauguration Day, and cries of “Happy Birthday!” kept interrupting the ordinary art-party hum, giving the event a celebratory zing. A few unkempt young men with paint-splattered clothes and charcoal-smudged faces moved through the well-dressed crowd, looking like extras from a production of Bleak House. Eventually, they congregated around Vicente and were identified as his students from the New York Studio School.
“So, shall we give you a critique of your work now?” one said.
“Sure,” he replied cheerfully. “But please don’t flatter me.”
Several days later, I visited Vicente in his studio on West Forty-Second Street, to which he commutes every day from an apartment, on the Upper West Side, that he shares with his wife, Harriet. “I paint to paint, not to have shows,” he said. “I paint every day–there is no way to avoid it. If you don’t paint you do nothing. You die.” The studio is spacious and light-filled. It contains several captain’s chairs and a bookshelf lined with books about Japan and Tibet.
Mostly, though, there are paintings, stacked in orderly racks or haphazardly leaning, front forward, against the walls. Some are so new that the staples gleam, while others are older, darker, and covered with dust. Vicente has a thin white mustache and fine silver hair that he neatly combs back. There is a pensive severity to his handsome appearance. At times his face is like a mask. Even at ninety, he moves gracefully; he is one of those figures for whom clothes seem to be made. Away from the studio, he wears stylish but subdued suits, some of a red-clay color, and others of a muted gray-blue. He is lithe and relaxed, and yet beneath this there is something taut and coiled, like the insides of a watch. Vicente also conveys that sense of mystery possessed by individuals who reach great age and yet continue to pursue their vocations with vigor, perhaps even increased vigor. The phenomenon may be particularly noticeable among artists, because to the rest of us, the compulsions and rewards of making art seem slightly out of view, ethereal, and unreasonable.
“What is my painting?” Vicente said during my visit. “No one can explain painting. My paintings talk, and I don’t have anything to say. I’m still trying to find out what painting is, and the only way to do that is to be alone. The loneliness has to do with what you do.”
If Vicente’s paintings speak to us, they may be saying that he is doing the strongest work of his career just now. The earliest work in the show, a collage dating from 1950, is full of jagged edges colliding with one another, and is a bit reminiscent of the work of Willem de Kooning, with whom he once shared a studio. Gradually, the paintings moved away from this angular, near-Cubist sensibility. At times his paintings fuse the shapes of Mark Rothko with the colors of Matisse. His most recent work reincorporates some of the dissonant shapes of his earlier work in rich, almost dreamy planes of color, but they are used sparingly, like jazzy accents.
The Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney all own Vicente paintings, but rarely show them. When I asked Vicente if he paid attention to the fashions of the art world, his lean face took on an almost beneficent glow. “You have to deal with imbeciles, but you have to be free of that.” he said. “Fashion is today, art is tomorrow. Like every human being, I want to be loved, but I want to be loved on my own terms. No one told me to be a painter–it’s my responsibility. Artists have a purpose in life, but you must make the effort. Through effort you have joy.”
Originally in the New Yorker, February 15th, 1993
“Portrait of my Daughter, Mercedes,” 1939. Detail.
Vicente was told shortly after his daughter’s birth in 1937 that she would die prematurely. She died at age three.
He stopped painting for several years in the 1940’s, and when he began again he renounced his figurative style and begun his experiments in abstraction.
For The New York Times obituary of Vicente on January 12th, 2001 click here
For an impressive example of how, when asked to do something with your work that you don’t want to do, one might tactfully decline, click here, though it takes a while to get to Esteban’s cameo.