Artist Murray Dessner — Desi to some — died peacefully on Sept. 22 in the Sansom Street loft where he had lived and worked for over 40 years. His wife, Linda, whom he adored, had not left his side or let go of his hand during his short illness. For the last weeks of his life, friends and family were welcome at his bedside, and his final days were spent surrounded by those who loved him. There were tears, root beer floats, laughter, and sunflowers in a vase on his windowsill.
Desi was born in Philadelphia on Nov. 11, 1934, and lived here for his entire life. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he went on to teach from 1970 to 2012, shepherding and inspiring countless young artists in the many years that he was beloved by and faithful to that institution.
When he met and fell in love with Linda 28 years ago, they formed an unshakable bond forged of love, romance and an unquenchable appetite for fun. With his loft as home base, Desi travelled the world, stopping to see great art wherever he and Linda went. In Venice, Jerusalem, Paris or Rome, it was always a honeymoon. Together, they fell in love with a perfect spot in Patmos, Greece, which became their favorite place of all, and they spent their summers there above the sea. He painted, she studied and read, they sank into their Greek summer life, enjoying the beauty and their friends.
His paintings, whether the hard-edge series from the 1960s and 1970s, the representational works of the 1980s, or the luminous works of his later life, hang in private collections throughout the world and are now in three shows in Philadelphia. After Linda, painting was his primary love — a love first found as a South Philly kid at Fleisher, and a love that defined his life and brought him, and gave others, incalculable joy.
Many know what it is to have their space changed by living with one of his works. Many more know what it was to come to his door and to be greeted by Desi in t-shirt and loose, paint-splattered khakis, dripping paintbrush in hand. The beautiful work of his life was spent with canvases and paint, making art in the shafts of sunlight streaming in from his soaring, sooty windows.
If the two most cherished activities in Desi’s life were being on an island (or anywhere at all) with Linda or painting with light and a brush, the third may have been golf. On a sunny day, it was a safe bet that he could be found on the links. He loved a beautiful green, but he was no snob. (He was perhaps the farthest from a snob about anything and exposed the magic in things that the rest of us sometimes miss or dismiss.) He could find a great time on a public course with a friend who was new to the game, or play on some seriously gorgeous turf with stiff competition. And then he’d tell you all about it.
We will remember his unmatchable joy, the timbre of his voice telling a great joke or story, the sound of his laugh (silent or otherwise), his expressive hands, his Springsteen imitation (although his Rod Stewart was fantastic), his play-by-play for the game that you missed, the way he answered the phone, his out-turned loafers and exceptional dance moves, his careful handwriting, and the lovely swerve of the “M D” on the back of each of his canvases that, even if you hadn’t been there, you could picture him making.
Husband, family member, painter, friend, teacher, golfer, Philadelphian, Bocce team-member, world’s most splendid Godfather, five-star hoagie maker, music lover, sports fan, Desi had a passion for life and the things that make up life that went out in all directions. And to say that he was loved in return would be a wretched understatement.
Those who know him can summon up the thrill that came from running into him on the street, of seeing his particular walk from a distance and knowing that it was Desi — It was Desi! A gift to that day! — because Desi made each person he loved feel that they were surely the most loved person that had ever walked the earth. His huge smile, open arms, and crinkling, smiling eyes radiated affection, and when you were met with that, there was nothing better. Nothing quite felt like being for a time, even a little time, in his boundless, energetic, loving light.
So those of us who were lucky enough to love him, and who were even more lucky to be loved by him, lose him now. But we get to keep that light. We know who we are, and we will have it forever.
Jessie Williams was the god-daughter of Murray Dessner.