"Van Gogh and the Colors of Night," just around the corner from Cafe 2 on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art, is a small, peculiar, disjointed show, drawing together masterpieces and obscurities to justify the thesis of its curator, Joachim Pissarro, about the effect of night and its manifestations on van Gogh’s praxis.
It has become almost impossible to gaze on The Night Café and The Potato Eaters (both in this show) with any sense of freshness, especially when they are contextualized by the busybodyness of Joachim Pissarro. Indeed, the stutterstop paint application peculiar to van Gogh has become a cliché in our art-drenched minds, which no amount of theory or comparison to some inferior van Goghs on view here can alter.
What makes this show worth seeing and almost justifies Pissarro’s pedantic arrangements is one painting, Starry Night over the Rhône (1888, Musee D’Orsay). This is painting of perfect symmetry. The stars burst like firecrackers into bright, evenly spaced pinwheels, as their light divides the waters in rays of equal spatial ratios to each other.
The harbor lights across the river mitigate their supernatural partners in illumination with an anonymous, forbidding warmth. In the foreground, forlorn, stands an older couple, the man, opaque and generic, the woman’s face so weathered in finely etched lines that she gazes back at you with utter knowingness, as oblivious to the starlight behind her as the stars themselves are to her.
The impression one gains from Starry Night over the Rhône is one of van Gogh’s supreme artificiality, the regurgitation of the universe through the meat grinder of his mind and back onto the canvas. The effect is the opposite of intimacy, of a world lived on a planet far away that happens to be Earth.
To reduce van Gogh to the control of a mediocre mind such as Joachim Pissarro’s is a waste but to confront, as I did, a painting like The Starry Night over the Rhône for the first time makes it all worthwhile.
“Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night,” Sept. 21, 2008-Jan. 4, 2009, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).