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Sid Bass and MoMA’s Dark Night of Van Gogh

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Sid Bass, amateur art critic and MoMA vice chairman, at the press preview

Do we really need another van Gogh show?

If the show in question is Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night, opening Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art, the answer is probably no. Will it be a blockbuster? Probably yes.

Nothwithstanding the fact that Roberta Smith in her favorable take on this focus exhibition (for today’s NY Times) calls it “an anti-blockbuster,” her review is, at this writing, Number One on the paper’s “most e-mailed” list for arts stories. One assumes readers are forwarding the link to their friends with the message, “Let’s go see this!”

The show is indeed an anti-blockbuster, for the wrong reasons: It’s a perfunctory curatorial exercise, with little rhyme or reason for bringing this particular group of disparate pictures together other than the fact that they’re all by van Gogh and all have some connection, however tangential, to night (or dawn, or dusk, or well-lit interiors after dark…whatever).

Director Glenn Lowry, in his introductory remarks at the press preview, mentioned that this show is part of a series at the museum that takes one iconic painting (in this case, MoMA’s “The Starry Night”) and surrounds it with related works (as in the 2006 Manet show and the current Kirchner show). In this context, why did he neglect to mention MoMA’s previous focus exhibition dedicated to van Gogh—organized in 2001 by the late Kirk Varnedoe around his crowning acquisition as the museum’s chief curator of painting and sculpture—the portrait of the artist’s friend, postman Joseph Roulin? Comparisons between that insightful exploration of similarities and differences and the current superficial agglomeration would have been to the disadvantage of the current effort.

Sid Bass, vice chairman of MoMA’s board (above), whom I ran into at the press preview, said it best. After chatting a bit, we parted company, but then he viewed “Gauguin’s Chair” (below) and felt moved to turn back to me, to observe:

I guess you know that it’s night because the candle is lit.

Exactly. Organizers Joachim Pissarro, MoMA’s adjunct curator, and Sjraar van Heugten, head of collections at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsteradam, never provide any compelling explanation of the special significance of “night-ness” in these works or for van Gogh’s larger oeuvre, nor do they draw illuminating connections that make the exhibition’s whole amount to more than its seemingly disconnected parts. An excerpt from the artist’s own letter to his sister, Wil van Gogh (displayed in a case with other documents and partly translated on the exhibition label) sheds more light on his nocturnal motives and methods than anything the curators tell us:

I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night….It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.

Here’s the painting that Sid was gazing upon in the photo above. (The candle he alluded to is in the upper left):

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Van Gogh, “Gauguin’s Chair,” 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

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