[Eight years ago next month, I went to the Museum of Modern Art in mid-town Manhattan, just four years after it reopened following an extensive renovation that added nearly one third again as much space to the existing museum. Accompanied by my late mother and my frequent theater companion (whose guests we were in reality), our purpose was to see two new exhibits of artists Mom and I have always liked tremendously: Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and Joan Miró (1893-1983). I originally wrote this report, part of a longer one covering other events as well (including Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian at the National Museum of the American Indian in 2008, on which I blogged on 20 March 2011), on 10 December 2008, before I started ROT; I pulled it from my pre-blog archives because, first, I thought the look back at one of my most pleasurable art experiences would be interesting in its own right and, second, I’m working on a play report for next week and haven’t finished anything suitable for posting this week. (Hey, sometimes necessity is just a mother!) I hope ROTters will agree with my estimation and enjoy the time trip. ~Rick]
On Wednesday, 27 November 2008, the day before Thanksgiving, my friend Diana invited my mother and me to join her as her guests at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where she had taken out a membership this year, so we wouldn’t have to stand on line for Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night (21 September 2008-5 January 2009) and Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937 (2 November 2008-12 January 2009). We readily took her up on the gesture because both artists are favorites of both my mom and me. (In fact, Vincent van Gogh is one of my all-time favorite artists of any genre and any period.)
Fortunately for us, the van Gogh show is small so we could manage both exhibits in one go—with a lunch break in between as a respite. We’ve learned from experience—we’re veteran gallery-hoppers from way back—that we can’t do two large exhibits at a time without our legs and focus giving out. I love to read all the wall panels, and most of the plaques with the individual pieces, and that can draw out even a moderate-sized show to a two-hour walk. (Sometimes the curatorial texts are more informative and interesting than other times. The Dada show a few years back at the National Gallery of Art and, later, MoMA, in 2006, reported on ROT on 20 February 2010, was like a fascinating lesson in both cultural history and world events and put the art in context; the van Gogh texts were nearly valueless this time around.) Also, with works like the Dada pieces and Miró’s, it’s interesting to see what media the artists used—those guys were all such experimentalists that they had habits of using really odd materials. Miró, for instance, includes a lot of tarpaper and sandpaper in the works at MoMA and painted several works on exhibit on copper or Masonite (either the rough side or the smooth side, depending on what effect he was after). One of Miró’s assemblies includes a painted (blue) chickpea!
We started out at Colors of the Night, whose focus, as the title suggests, is the nighttime paintings of the artist, starting, chronologically, with The Potato Eaters (1885). The show, of course, included the gorgeous Starry Night (1889, and the only painting I can think of that inspired a rock ’n’ roll song: Don McLean’s 1971 “Vincent,” known as “Starry, Starry Night”), possibly my favorite of all the paintings by van Gogh. Covering both exterior scenes and interior scenes lit by gas or candles, some dark and shadowy, like The Potato Eaters, others artificially bright, like Dance Hall in Arles (1888), the exhibit includes only 23 painting (plus 9 drawings and several letters by the artist).
The curators want to make the point that night was a special inspiration to van Gogh (though we know that what attracted him to Arles and Provence was the extreme brightness of the southern sun and the colors that virtually assaulted him in that yellow light). I suppose there’s a legitimate argument to be made for that point (if art needs an argument to justify an exhibit), but my suspicion is that someone wanted to mount a van Gogh show and, there having been so many just in recent years, that she or he decided there had to be a “unique” perspective to justify a new exhibit. Anyway, that’s what it looked like to me. Not that I care, of course. I’ll accept any excuse to mount a van Gogh show; all I want to do is see the paintings. And if The Starry Night’s there, or his sunflowers, or some of his portraits, I don’t even need a rationale.
This is why I said that the explanatory texts are nearly worthless in this show. The justification of the displays and the brief discussions of the inspirations van Gogh had for painting some of the scenes (drawn, obviously, from his letters to his brother and others, some of which are also on display with the art) are often interesting on their own merits, but it isn’t really helpful in appreciating the paintings, which are fully self-explanatory as far as I’m concerned. (When it came to Miró, his art is so complex and idiosyncratic—and he often had ulterior motives for his work—that the curatorial texts are more revealing.)
The letters, which I have read before, are remarkable in their own right anyway. I don’t think there is a similar kind of documentation for any other artist because van Gogh wrote his brother (especially), other family members, and artist friends and colleagues detailed descriptions of some of the paintings on which he was working or scenes he’d seen which he wanted to paint. He wrote about their emotional reverberations as well as the technical aspects, sometimes even including sketches of the painting he was making. The letters also often included specific indications of the colors van Gogh was working with or intended to use, and in some cases he has labeled the sketch itself with the color designations he was contemplating. Now, the pertinent letters, unlike the wall plaques (which often quote from the letters), are fascinating commentary on the artist’s work; but we don’t need a rationale to line up the letters with the paintings.
It struck me as strained, too, that the exhibit of night scenes lumps outdoor painting like The Starry Night and the equally striking The Starry Night over the Rhône (1888) with indoor scenes lit by gas or candles, like Dance Hall in Arles and Night Cafe (1888), or even The Potato Eaters, which is barely lit at all. The hour may have been the same, but the techniques van Gogh used to create the impressions were vastly different (especially the early work, The Potato Eaters, one of the painter’s first paintings).
There also seems to be a significant difference, in a painterly sense, between the true night scenes, The Starry Nights, and the twilight landscapes like The Stevedores in Arles (1888) and Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon (1889), which have their own fascination because not only are they depictions of evening over the Provençale countryside, but they include workers at their labor, a subject that really did occupy van Gogh both artistically and philosophically. (He believed that artists were also laborers, just in the fields of culture. Artists, farmers, and dockworkers were kin, and labor was an ennobling endeavor. The Potato Eaters was a subject van Gogh chose not because of the nighttime lighting, but because they were a family of farmers ending their work day with a meal in their homestead. This was a subject worthy of art to van Gogh. At least that’s how I understand the work.) Further, the difference between depicting star- and moonlit night and rendering evening under the dying sun seems as great to me as capturing night is from painting bright day under the Provençale sun. It’s a little like comparing apples and oranges by saying they’re both fruit!
By the way, it’s not true that the explications were totally useless. I learned (or was reminded, I don’t know) that when van Gogh painted his night scenes, whether indoors or out, he used the available light at the scene and painted live, as it were. It’s not so astonishing to picture the artist sitting in a corner of the cafe with his easel and palette while the drinkers and revelers enjoyed their evening. Others had done that, of course, most notably Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). But to imagine the strange, red-headed pastor’s son sitting in the peasant family’s little parlor while they ate supper and drawing them, night after night for several evenings as the text describes, is certainly an odd image. What must they have been thinking of this odd duck? And to picture van Gogh standing on the edge of town or down by the riverbank at night, peering at his canvas as he tries to capture the stars twinkling above the town or the lights on the water without even a lantern to help him discern the colors of the pigments on his palette . . . well, it’s no wonder the Arlesians were sure this foreign artist was a fou roux (“crazy redhead,” Van Gogh’s nickname). But what a fou roux!
(Antonin Artaud, 1896-1948, by the way, insisted that van Gogh wasn’t nuts. In his 1947 piece Van Gogh: the Man Suicided by Society, Artaud asserted that it was all a conspiracy of the establishment, especially the medical establishment, to keep him out of society because he saw too clearly and told the truth. Of course, Artaud was nuts himself, so from inside his head, van Gogh probably did seem perfectly rational. If genius can look like insanity, it’s no great leap to figure that insanity can look like genius, too. Not that the two are mutually exclusive. Being neither insane—at least, I don’t think so—nor a genius—that one I’m pretty sure of—what the hell would I know?)
Anyway, aren’t we lucky van Gogh passed among us, tortured though he was, for however brief a time. You can have your Sistine Chapel and your Mona Lisa . . . give me The Starry Night any time. (Really—give it to me. I’ll take it. No joke. I will. I already use it as wallpaper on my computer’s desktop!)
After our lunch break in the little MoMA Cafe 2, conveniently just outside the exit from the van Gogh galleries, we went up to Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937. (This had been a week for exhibits of opposites in art: Indian vs. Not Indian; Painting vs. Anti-Painting; and—by implication—Night vs. Day. I just made all that up, of course; doesn’t mean a damn thing!) Anyway, the Miró covers only ten years of his long life but is a much bigger show than the van Gogh (whose whole painting career lasted only ten years—though he produced around 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings, most of them in the little over a year he spent in Arles).
Painting and Anti-Painting explores 12 of Miró’s sustained series from the decade of ’27-’37, and includes some 90 paintings, collages, objects, and drawings. It’s also a harder show because, first, Miró, like Fritz Scholder, eschewed pretty pictures and was deliberately working to “assassinate painting,” as he put it, and, second, the 90-plus works in the exhibit, though they cover only ten years of the artist’s prolific career, have an intellectual subtext. It is possible, even desirable from my standpoint, to see the van Gogh show as a walk through a selection of his work and just let the experience of the paintings affect you however it will. But with the Miró work on display, even if you were inclined to do only that—a much harder task, I submit, with this artist’s work—you would miss a lot of the point of the exhibit, the experience.
Unless you just don’t like van Gogh—and I don’t want to hear about it if you don’t!—it’s hard not to enjoy, even revel in The Colors of the Night, regardless of the curatorial gloss. First of all, I find van Gogh’s work almost entirely emotional—and I think he painted that way, too. He didn’t intellectualize or rationalize much—he was a creature of feelings and senses. (I think, at base, Impressionism is predominantly emotional: it’s a rendering of what the artist feels about a subject, her or his reaction to it. Impressionists want to convey what they felt, not what they saw. It’s more Stanislavsky than Brecht, if you will.)
Miró isn’t about what he feels so much as what he thinks—and what he wants you to think. We may see that his impulses are destructive, as far as art is concerned, but he has made rational choices about what to include in his art, what materials to use, what to leave out. It’s not that Miró has no passion or doesn’t display it—he’s no Vulcan with suppressed emotions—but he decides rationally how he will convey his emotions as well as his thoughts and ideas. This not only makes his work, especially when assembled in the numbers of the MoMA show, hard to encounter, but very dense. A van Gogh painting hits you pretty much all at once as soon as you see it. It’s a gut response, reacting to the artist’s reaction. A Miró grows on you, your response or understanding accumulates; knowing some background or explication helps, too.
I don’t need anyone to tell me what The Starry Night means, but with Miró’s 1927 canvas titled Un Oiseau poursuit une abeille et la baisse I needed some clues. First off, it is one of the few pieces in the exhibition whose French title isn’t translated, which suggests something. (The words are actually written across the canvas atop the images Miró painted, suggesting that the words are important.) I looked on the Internet to see if there was an “official” translation of the phrase, and there really isn’t. One site said that the words are essentially untranslatable into English (and another actually provided a translation that’s wrong). So I went about translating it myself. The first part is easy: “A bird pursues a bee and . . . .” At first I mistook the last two words as a noun with the definite article: la baisse means ‘the fall’ or ‘the drop.’ (What our stock market has just gone through here was une baisse.) In context, that doesn’t make much sense, though: “A bird pursues a bee and the fall.” No synonym works any better. Then I realized that the end of the phrase isn’t an article and a noun but a pronoun and a verb; la refers to une abeille. As a verb, baisser means ‘to drop,’ ‘to knock down,’ or words to that effect. So the phrase now means, “A bird pursues a bee and knocks it down.” (The incorrect translation on the ’Net was: “A bird pursues a bee and kisses it”; the translator confused baiser, ‘to kiss,’ with baisser, ‘to knock down.’ Silly wabbit!)
Now, the painting is extremely abstract—there’s no actual bird or bee on the canvas—but it’s easily possible to see the blobs and splotches Miró painted as representing such a picture. As long as you’re armed with the interpretation of the words the artist put in the painting. You can also certainly say that the painting bears no resemblance to a bird doing anything at all to a bee—but the process is still intellectual in part. (A Frenchman wouldn’t need to go through the translation tsuris, of course, but he’d still have to do the interpreting and apply the text to the image and decide if there’s any correlation.) This is the starkest example of what I mean, but it’s emblematic, I think. And, at least for me, that’s why the Miró show is more arduous than the van Gogh, which is more exhilarating. Not that both aren’t worthy—just different cognitive experiences.
The van Gogh exhibit is also a random excerpt of his work, taken from the whole decade of his career. It may be a study of a certain technique—the painting of night—though I dispute it’s cohesive enough to be that, but the Miró is chronological and carefully arranged and selected so that it provides a view of the process the artist went through to get from where he began in 1927 to where he ended in 1937. I could have started the van Gogh exhibit at the end and gone backwards, or careened randomly from painting to painting and had the same experience for the most part that I had going from start to finish. If you don’t follow the Mirós in the order they are arranged, you miss the progression, the changes the painter went through as he experimented and developed new ideas. (This is particularly where the wall texts help. Not only do they point out the variations in technique and focus, they provide commentary from both Miró himself and contemporaries, including critics and other artists.) What Painting and Anti-Painting does is reveal the arc, the throughline, of one artist’s journey at a significant point in his creative life. Aside from the art itself, which can, of course, speak for itself, that’s a terrific perspective to have.
In Miró’s case, what he was up to in this decade was tearing down and rebuilding the art of painting. (I’m not sure he had intended to do the rebuilding—I think it just happened despite his intentions.) The exhibit is arranged into 12 groups of works, each set demonstrating one sortie in Miró’s effort to “assassinate painting.” He approached this task as a sort of anti-Grotowski of painting: whereas Jerzy Grotowski (1933-99) examined theater and discarded what he determined was inessential, Miró examined painting and began to expunge what was essential, including, first, paint itself—many of the early works include bare spots of raw canvas—and even eliminating, as Holland Cotter’s New York Times review (“Miró, Serial Murderer of Artistic Conventions,” 31 October 2008) puts it, the artist himself. (To continue the theatrical analogy, there’s something Artaudian in Miró’s drive to destroy painting, just as Artaud wanted to destroy theater.)
At 34, Miró had already established himself as an artist. He had succeeded as a Surrealist, having moved to Paris in 1920 when the movement began, and had also been influenced by Surrealism’s predecessor, Dadaism—a resolutely anti-aesthetic cultural movement that grew out of the aftermath of World War I and the devastations of mechanized war and the mechanized society. Restless and endlessly inquisitive, Miró needed to move on to something new, even radical (a trait he shared with his fellow Spaniard and another influence, Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973), but there wasn’t anything on the horizon, so he realized he’d have to invent it for himself and the first step, he famously declared, was to erase what had gone before. The ten years that followed were occupied by the painter’s efforts to overthrow the established forms by whatever means he could imagine. His impulse to change everything was exacerbated and informed by world events that overtook him: the rise of fascism (in Italy in 1922 and Germany in 1933) and the Spanish Civil War in his native country (1936-39), the harbinger of another world war.
It’s little wonder, it seems to me, that an artist might renounce conventional beauty in art—just as the Dadaists saw the destructiveness of machines and technology and abandoned soothing aesthetics for more provocative techniques. Oddly perhaps, both the Dadaists and Miró could still create a kind of frightening and disquieting beauty—like the menacing splendor of a lava flow or the chilling grace of a shark. In The Poetics, Aristotle said that we get pleasure in drama even from seeing things we would regard with disgust if encountered in reality because we learn from them, and learning gives us pleasure; the same must be true of art in any form.
After having discarded paint, the defining medium of the art of painting, Miró moved on to eliminating painterly craft. In Spanish Dancer I (1928), the artist assembled colored paper, sandpaper, and a cut-out of a woman’s shoe on a wood panel. There’s not one image or object which Miró created, nothing which required his artistic skill (or any paint or pigment he applied to the collage). Later, Miró began to mangle art history as well, with his deconstructions of old masters, as Dutch Interior I (1928), the artist’s take on Hendrik Martensz Sorgh’s The Lutanist (1661), a painting of a reclining woman being serenaded by a suitor, or La Fornarina (1929), a seated nude portrait of Raphael’s lover, which both end up in Miró’s versions as his familiar amoeba-like blobs in garish colors such as yellow, red, and brown. In the end, Miró returned to painting (and his works after 1937 seem less angry and volatile), but in this developmental decade, the artist engaged collage and assemblage and built art from unlikely found materials and ready-mades.
[Mom and I had always enjoyed van Gogh shows, but things didn’t always work out for us. I went down to D.C. for the year-end holidays in 1998 and my mother and I had planned to see the van Gogh exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, Van Gogh's Van Goghs (4 October 1998-3 January 1999), but the show was so popular that Mother couldn’t get tickets—NGA, whose admission is free, did issue tickets for entry to this exhibit to control attendance—even after standing in line one afternoon in the hope of getting lucky. In contrast, several years later, Mom and I saw Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape (6 May-12 August 2012) at the NGA’s West Building. (I blogged on this show on 5 October 2012.)]