Remembering PAFA’s Murray Dessner

Murray Dessner, one of Philadelphia’s beloved artists, died last Saturday.

Dessner was a longtime teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and a painter whose work has been collected by museums and connoisseurs for over 40 years. In October, there will be three exhibitions of his work at different venues in the greater Philadelphia area.


When Murray Dessner was a young man in South Philly, taking part-time art classes at Fleisher Art Memorial, he looked at poets, actors, and artists and wanted to be part of them. When he was eventually accepted into the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he almost couldn’t believe it.

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He befriended poet C.K. Williams, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize, and became the godfather of Williams’ daughter, Jessie Williams Burns.

“If you knew him and he was in your world, he was elemental. He was part of the air you breathe,” said Burns. “He was a great, passionate presence in your life. It’s very unlike him to do something like die. He was such a life-y person; to have him die is completely out of character.”

Dessner taught and inspired countless students during his four decades at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, while his own approach to painting evolved through several phases of figurative and abstract work.

“He was doing his best work, I thought, when he died,” said Elizabeth Osborne, one of Dessner’s first teachers at PAFA and later his colleague. “He was into a wonderful phase in his paintings, which was this very beautiful, luminous abstract work, very rich color and light — a period that he pulled everything together.”

Dessner was 77 when he died. Almost to the last moment, he was working. He was collaborating with curators on a retrospective at the Woodmere Museum in Chestnut Hill, which will include pieces spanning from his graduate days 43 years ago, to the last canvas he painted a couple of months ago.

He also collaborated on a catalogue for the show. Dessner was known to be humble, generous, and not entirely comfortable with receiving praise.

“He would blush and roll his eyes and giggle it away,” said Bill Valerio, director of the Woodmere. “Not that he was a silly person, but he was very humble. It’s part of what makes his art accessible. At one point he said, ‘one of my goals in my art ,as it matured, was to make myself absent, I want the viewer to enter into it. Your own ego should disappear, so it’s an experience for the viewer.'”

The retrospective at the Woodmere opens on October 13th. Also in October, Dessner’s work will be on display at the Berman Museum at Ursinus College and at the Somerville Manning Gallery in Greenville, Delaware.

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