Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night at the Museum of Modern Art, New York
and to: Night. Contemporary Representations of the Night at The Hunter College Art Galleries
September 21, 2008–January 5, 2009
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
between Fifth and Sixth avenues
212 718 9400
September 2 to December 6, 2008
Hunter College: The Leubsdorf Art Gallery
68th Street and Lexington Avenue, SW corner
212 772 4991
September 25 to November 15, 2008
Hunter College: Times Square Gallery
450 West 41st Street
between 9th and 10th avenues
Nightfall can inspire fascination with the starry sky, optimistic hopes for fulfilled sexual desire, or at least anticipation of sleep. But it can also cause anxiety if you are lonely, which is why van Gogh described The Night Café (1988), at MoMA, as showing a place where “dark forces lurked and suppressed human passions could suddenly explode.” As Joachim Pissarro, the curator of the MoMA show and co-curator (with Mara Hoberman and Julia Moreno) of the two-part Hunter show explains, the forty-some Hunter artists in effect answer the question: How would van Gogh respond to night were he to have available our sensibility and artistic media?
Van Gogh might enjoy the way that Vija Celmins, Jennifer Coates, Lauren Orchowski, and Pat Stein show the night sky, in their contemporary versions of The Starry Night (1889). And he could be fascinated with how such works as Gregory Crewdson’sUntitled (penitent girl) (2001-2002), which shows a young woman in her underwear facing someone (her mother perhaps) in a suburban driveway, and Kohei Yoshiyuki’s 1970s photographs showing men watching nighttime sexual activity in Japan’s parks, all extend the social commentary of The Potato Eaters (1885). The worker in The Sower (1888) deserves comparison with the man in David Hammons’s video Phat Free (1994-1999), who is kicking a can through the streets at night and in the gay nightclub in Love is all Around (2007), a video by Marc Swanson and Neil Gust. If Laurent Grasso’s Infinite Light (2006/2008) mounted on the college’s pedestrian bridges, which repeats the words “night for day” can be associated with the Enlightenment, so too can Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon (1889). And Stan Douglas’s Every Building in 100 West Hastings (2001), a long narrow image of a street in Vancouver, is a photographic version of Terrace of a Café at Night (Place du Forum) (1888).
But none of these van Goghs show a person asleep, like Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963), the film of his lover John Giorno, and no image seems ominous enough to match the title of Claude Lévéque’s neon La nuit pendant que vous dormez je détruis le monde (2007). Van Gogh did not depict ecological disaster, like Susan Crile in her Charred Earth (1994), an image of the oil wells set on fire by the retreating Iraqis. Nor in his nighttime images does he show such extreme light and darkness as in Grasso’s L’éclipse (2006), a video montage of a solar eclipse and sunset. In some ways, then, the ways that night is experienced and represented in visual art have changed dramatically. Vera Lutter uses a camera obscura to create photographic negatives, 30th Street Station, Philadelphia, II: April 17, 2006 (2006) while Thomas Ruff deploys a night-vision enhancer to give an uncannily menacing feeling to the apartment building photographed in Nacht 2 I (1992). And yet, we can recognize real continuities between van Gogh’s world and ours, for his Wood Gatherers in the Snow(1884) presents a setting not entirely unlike that of Barney Kulok’s digital transparencyStillman Avenue, Queens, NY (2004).
Almost inevitably, the representation nighttime invokes political metaphors, as Kant’s seminal essay “What is Enlightenment?” (1784) recognizes. To become enlightened, to move into the well-lit world of reason, he explains, “all that is needed is freedom . . freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.” After you walk into David Claerbout’s installation, when your eyes adjust to the nearly complete darkness, the photograph inNightscape Lightbox (second) (2002-2003) becomes visible. But how do we understand this metaphorical association between reason and light? In his Kantian reading of the origins of modernism, Clement Greenberg associated avant-garde art with our capacity to become self-critically enlightened. Nowadays our post-historical art historians are more likely to appeal to the authority of Hegel and his successor, Marx.
But for Hegel, so Pissarro observes, night is disturbing because we see only the black sky, while by contrast for Kant, in looking at the stars we also find within ourselves an awareness of the sublime moral law, which, Pissarro continues, anticipates the way that night can liberate “pent-up drives . . . . from voyeurism to exhibitionism to the endless peripatetic cruising through bars and clubs of all kinds” that we see exhibited in these pictures. For Hegel, then, the absence of light at night marks absence, the absence of light meaning that the world has become invisible to our sight, but for Kant it is possible to respond to night in a more excited and positive way. In drawing attention to the manifold continuities between van Gogh’s art world and ours, by identifying the ways that we need to think politically about the meaning of representations of night, these exhibitions offer very challenging speculation on our situation, suggesting that Kant has more to offer art writers right now than do Hegel and Marx. Making that journey at nighttime through central Manhattan from MoMA to the Hunter galleries, which are within easy walking distance, inevitably inspires many reflections about the subject of this extraordinary three-part exhibition.