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Geoffrey Gersten’s Nostalgic Art Harks Back to a Bygone Era

Gersten likes to work large and estimates he can complete, on average, 10 paintings per month.

Self-taught Arizona artist Geoffrey Gersten paints an idyllic vision of a simpler time.

By John Roark | Portrait Photography by Carl Schultz

In his Tempe studio, Geoffrey Gersten sits surrounded by vintage black-and-white snapshots and fragile film negatives, some not much larger than postage stamps. He jokes that a strong breeze—or someone walking by the open door with a leaf blower—could bring instant chaos to his collection of ephemera. 

Gersten’s vast reference archive—he gravitates toward images from the turn of the century through the 1960s—is the result of years of thrift and antique store forays, eBay finds and online hunting. The artist has an affinity for moments captured in the halcyon era before Photoshop, selfies and Instagram artifice. “When you look at old photos, the people had real personalities that showed through,” he says. “They weren’t all over social media trying desperately to be noticed. They were just being. They were beautiful, and then they were gone.” 

The road to becoming a fine artist might not have happened for Gersten, who recalls that his earliest work was met with controversy. “I was always very creative as a kid, but I didn’t know what to do with it,” he recalls. “I would turn in my math homework, and the front of the page would be blank, but the back was covered with drawings. I got into so much trouble.” In the fifth grade, one of his school assignments was selected as part of an art exhibit in a Tempe library. “At the opening reception, I remember I was so small, and all these guys in suits were walking up to me, congratulating me and reaching down to shake my hand. I didn’t understand why.”

Following what he refers to as a rebellious phase of skateboarding and playing drums—and stints as a 3D renderer for Honeywell and Boeing—Gersten chanced upon a photograph in an encyclopedia of a Native American abstract etching. “It looked to me like a drafting drawing that had been shuffled, with tight, rigid shapes and lines scattered across each other. It didn’t have a commercial purpose. It was just a beautiful thing. I knew right then that I wanted to try to draw, and that’s when I started.

“I was 21 years old, and I had never taken an art class,” he continues. “I didn’t know art history or anything about painting.” After trying his hand at acrylics, he turned his attention to oils, captivated by the rich, moody chiaroscuro of Dutch and Danish old masters. “I would study an oil painting in a book and start to understand how they did it. Then I would try to paint it myself.”

1. In his Tempe studio, artist Geoffrey Gersten contemplates vintage photos that will inspire future canvases. 2. The artist in his studio with his multipoo assistant, Giorgio Vasari, informally known as Mr. Puff.

The artist found success creating whimsical paintings of robots, dogs and fanciful creatures. As he researched backgrounds on which to place his surreal imaginings, he found himself drawn to midcentury modern colors and furnishings. “Over time, this stuff started to creep into my psyche,” Gersten says. Then by chance, he wandered into The Metropolitan Museum of Art and an exhibition of large-format black-and-white photographs by Irving Penn. “I had never seen anything like that,” he says. “Everything shifted for me at that moment. When I saw those photos, I thought, ‘I have to paint realism, and I want it to be black and white.’”

Gersten’s pieces from that period almost trick the eye with their photographic clarity. From dark and moody film noir-inspired stills to hyper-detailed small-town streetscapes, to swimsuit-clad beach beauties, the degree of detail speaks to Gersten’s laser focus and powers of concentration.

Gersten was charmed by a 1967 image of a Spanish actress photographed on a beach in Los Angeles. “She looks so alive. I had to paint her, and it had to be big because she’s so lovely,” he says. “Wish You Were Here,” oil on canvas, 78"H by 78"W
“Geoffrey’s familiar Americana themes and genre-bending treatments are thought-provoking and are a springboard for conversation,” says gallerist Mark Tarrant. “Felix,” oil on canvas, 56"H by 56"W
Gersten likes combining realism with graphic elements. In this case, a figure taken from a vintage cigarette ad is juxtaposed against a matrix of brightly colored circles. “Yellowjacket,” oil on canvas, 72"H by 60"W.
Dreams—and the icon of the mythic American cowboy—are themes that frequently appear in Gersten’s work. “This is the most important painting I ever made,” the artist says. “It was the moment when I exercised total honesty in my work. It was the first time that I let go of all of the constraints and did precisely what I wanted to do. “It Was All a Dream 2020,” oil on canvas, 77"H by 100"W.

“I was immediately impressed with Geoffrey’s treatment of vintage midcentury imagery and how he captured the attention of viewers walking through the gallery,” says Mark Tarrant of Scottsdale’s Altamira Gallery, which has represented the artist since 2020. “Geoffrey is a shameless romantic at heart, and that shows up on his canvases. His works are a lens through which everyday moments take on the scale and significance of the iconic.”

As a creator, Gersten is not one to become complacent. He is constantly pushing his own boundaries, driven by instinct to evolve his style. “I can’t stay static,” he says. Once he had mastered black-and-white hyperrealism, he began incorporating color elements into his artworks. A signature motif combines realistically rendered figures superimposed against a backdrop of brightly colored polka dots, a juxtaposition that creates a link between truth and fantasy. “I paint very realistically,” he says. “I needed to break it up and smash the boundaries of that genre. This is my way of doing that.”

“It was a different time. People lived inside their own minds, their families and communities. They weren’t posing. Their true personalities showed through. ”

—Geoffrey Gersten, artist

“St. Clairs,” oil on canvas, 32"H by 58"W

Gersten has caught the attention of a public enamored by retro romanticism. “His subject matter is a culmination of memories from childhood, Western iconography, film and elements of art history and pop culture,” Tarrant observes. Collector Janelle Nebeker agrees. “His imagery is a throwback to another time,” she observes. “I can see his traditional roots. He’s very realistic in his painting, but then he adds that note of whimsy to it to make it a little more modern. I feel like his star is rising, and he deserves all of the attention that he’s getting.”

In the most recent iteration of his oeuvre, the artist has incorporated text into his compositions. One of his most significant pieces re-creates a vintage Marlboro cigarette ad: A cowboy on horseback gallops across the frame; below him, the words “It Was All a Dream” spark curiosity. “There are too many answers to what it means,” Gersten says. “All of life, potentially, is a dream. All we have is the present, but all we think about is the past and the future, constantly struggling with what we have done, what we have been and what we wish we could do or be.”


Artist: Geoffrey Gersten, Tempe, Represented by: Altamira Fine Art, Scottsdale,


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