Vincent’s Faded Flowers

I dragged everyone to the Met on Sunday afternoon to see Van Gogh: Irises and Roses. I’m pretty sure they would’ve preferred a trip to the beach instead but that’s too bad. Stuff like this is once-in-a-lifetime.

vang5This exhibit gathers four works that Van Gogh painted shortly before taking his life. All four masterpieces were completed in just ONE WEEK—an incredible burst of creativity and energy, done at the height of his madness.

They were conceived as a set and intended to be hung as you see here, vertical orientations on either end and landscape in the middle. Each vase is slightly off-center. They’re set on a table whose horizontal line runs concurrent through all four works, anchoring them. This exhibit is the first time all four paintings have been seen together since they were executed in 1890.

vang1He carefully selected colors that would compliment and play off of each other. He used paints that had unstable pigments and knew the colors would fade over time. In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote that, “Paintings fade like flowers.”

These roses were originally pink. Now, they’re a pure white.

vang4The irises, once a deep purple, are now blue.

There was an accompanying video that attempted to recreate the original colors. They used pigment analysis and detailed notes Van Gogh kept regarding his color and process, but they were just educated guesses. Nobody alive knows what these originally looked like.

vang2The girls weren’t terribly impressed with this summer’s rooftop installation but I thought it had some artistic merit. The Roof Garden Commission: Pierre Huyghe starts off with a somewhat confusing displacement of paving stones. I thought it was a construction project but it’s part of the exhibit. It felt disengaged from anything having to do with art.

huyghe4On the far corner of the roof is the primary piece. The meat of the exhibit.

huyghe3Inside a giant fish tank floats (floats!) a bolder of Manhattan schist—the unique and powerful bedrock that allows skyscrapers and transit systems to be anchored to this small spit of land. The tip of the bolder peeks above the surface. A pile of sand rises to a few inches below the bolder.

huyghe5The glass randomly toggles from clear to opaque. I’m not sure how this is accomplished but it’s a nice effect.

huyghe1huyghe2Inside the fish tank are creepy, alien-like tadpole shrimp. I don’t know if they’re there for aesthetic reasons or f they provide a cleaning service. At the end of each video, you can see the glass cloud over.

The exhibit brochure is full of some artistic babble regarding the dynamic gathering of different elements—plants, stones and animals. That stuff never sinks into my thick skull. I just enjoy the visceral thrill it provides (or doesn’t). I require nothing more from the artist, least of all an explanation.

Daughter + Frank Stella’s Die Fahne hoch!

When Stella first showed this painting in 1959 people were baffled and looked for a deep meaning. He responded by saying:

“What you see is what you see. Painting to me is a brush and a bucket and you put it on a surface. There’s no other reality for me other than that.”

That sounds kind of shallow but that’s how I feel about it, too.

77 thoughts on “Vincent’s Faded Flowers

  1. Uneven floor in a public place? I hope their insurance is paid up. Of course, that could be part of the experience – a visit to Emergency. Ha! Who knew that schist floated? Pretty neat. There is something fascinating about that tank exhibit, isn’t there? As if the Earth is reaching out to Manhattan and Manhattan is reaching out to the Earth and yet they are not quite meeting. But that relationship – the floating and reaching – is only visible sometimes – other times the island would just be an island. Pretty cool.

    The Van Gogh exhibit is beautiful. Once in a lifetime chance to see all four paintings together. Your daughters are getting a solid grounding in art Mark. It amuses me that Van Gogh deliberately used paint that would change color over the years. I wonder if he knew what color they would eventually fade to and designed the paintings that way.

    The Frank Stella piece eludes me. I think I understand what he is saying but I also think it is self-evident – much like trying to explain that 3 comes after 2 and before 4 – what is the point? The universe is built that way and everyone knows it.

    All in all a great post Mark – you did an incredible amount of ground work to bring us this glimpse into the art world. It is greatly appreciated as I will never have a chance to see what you are showing us. Thank You.

    • That’s such a good point and one that never crossed my mind. Talk about a tripping hazard! There were security guards on the roof and they’d chase anyone off a displaced slab when they stood on them but I thought it was for aesthetic reasons. Must have been a safety concern.

      I was shocked the bolder floated. I wonder if it was extra-salient water to give it more buoyancy? I wanted to reach up and give the bolder a gentle shove to see it float around but that would have landed me out the front door flat on my ass. Had I been alone I’d have done it.

      Van Gogh chose those pigments because they were the exact colors he was looking for. Prosperity be damned. I think that today, pigments are more stable and longer-lasting. They were making a big deal out of it but I think all four are beautiful just as they are.

      Another thoughtful, interesting comment from the Ninja Master Commenter of all time. Thanks, Paul.

      • Even the Dead Sea salinity levels would not be enough to float the rock, but would probably be enough to kill the shrimp. This boulder could either be attached to slab of glass on top, or, if there was no slab of glass, could be held by transparent plastic or glass supports that have the same refractive index as water and are therefore invisible in it (
        Or that “boulder” could just be a floating piece of painted plastic.

      • What?! Are you saying the artist is scamming me? I mean…us? I love that the lesson plan you provide is for an 11th grade class. Meaning, since I’m well past the 11th grade, I should have known better than to make such an outrageous claim. Ah, well. I seriously doubt this will be the last scam in the art world nor the last time I’ll be fooled. Definitely the latter. How can I thank you for—ahem—enlightening me? Would blocking your kill-joy IP address be appropriate? 😉

  2. Cool post, Mark! That’s really interesting about the paints Van Gogh used! I’ve always loved “Starry Starry Night” as well as the song. It’s just beautiful. And the rooftop exhibit was interesting as well. It was like it was representative of what was there first – with the boulder and the shrimp, (which looked like baby horseshoe crabs to me). It had a kind of primordial feel to it all, I thought.
    So while you were getting your culture on, I was getting my redneck on at the fair on Sunday! Haha! It was fun, but very hot, and the animals were all just miserable! I have a lot of photos of animals languishing about, pissed off and panting in the heat! They’re actually pretty funny. And I thought about you when the minivans came out in the demolition derby! It was hilarious – especially if you like beer, dust, and yelling – and noise! But the coolest part was the drone flying over it all. There weren’t any fires, but there was an extraction from one of the cars where they used a saw to get the driver out because he had a few minor injuries. So while you were looking at Van Gogh’s masterpieces, I was looking at things like pies, and bees, and the biggest pumpkin, and kids’ ceramics. Funny how it’s all art though, just viewed differently through different eyes, I suppose.

    • That’s EXACTLY what I thought they were! Horseshoe crabs! They’re about as big as your thumb. (Hmm…I should have included that factoid in the post.)

      That’s a very astute comment about the installation. The artist said he chose those tiny animals because they are virtually unchanged since prehistoric times and they, combined with the bolder, are there to represent the long arc of time. Of how some things are constantly changing and flowing (the water) while other things never change at all. And you didn’t even read the brochure! Well done. A+.

      Thanks for the fair report. Golly, I still kind of wish I’d gone, despite the heat. I like minivan wrecks, beer, dust and, especially, noise. (Although being inside an air conditioned Met was a nice consolation prize.) The demo derby is nothing short of down-home performance art. It IS all art! Wow. That should be my next tattoo.

  3. “I require nothing more from the artist, least of all an explanation.”—I love this line. It’s like you’re saying, “Move me, and I’m good to go. No need to explain how you got me there.” I feel the same way, whether it be art, books, or movies. Well said.

    • Thanks, Carrie. Feel free to use that line anytime. Even with the Van Gogh paintings…is the backstory necessary to enjoy the works? No, of course not. It’s interesting but it all boils down to a simple glance. Do you feel anything?

  4. What I see is a back rectangle divided into vertical strips. Someone should have told Stella it would have been more useful in a dark room than a gallery. The shrimp are far more interesting, although they look very unappetising. No danger of anyone fishing them out for a stir fry.

  5. I appreciate the extra info on Vincent’s intentions. Makes it real. The boulder and sand and changing light are interesting. The floor in front of the black painting (is he ‘aving a larf?) is like my new kitchen floor which I’m sure you would want to know and I wonder what you would make of Banksy’s new exhibition at Weston-Super -mare. Sounds quite dark.

    • The backstory definitely makes it more interesting. I’m not sure if it increases my appreciation or not. I’d still like it either way.

      Thanks, tons, for the Banksy link. My feelings about Banksy have run the gamut. Initially, I thought he was a vandal and a slut. Now, I quite like his stuff. It pays to be nimble.

  6. Madness is a good thing. Look at all that achievement in seven days. I’ve always been a VG fan.
    Not sure about the roof garden….looks a bit shabby. Sometimes I just can’t see the art in things and I think the word is banded about too glibly.

    What totally pisses me off about that and the black canvas is IF I DID THAT, people would piss themselves.

    • I beg to differ. Madness might have a dark, poetic panach to it, but I wouldn’t call it such a good thing. About two months after he finished these, he was dead by his own hand. Nothing enviable about that.

      You should zoom in on that canvas. It’s not completely black. The artist took the trouble to draw some straight, geometric lines. Ah ha! Art!

  7. Gorgeous premise, the VG exhibit. We’re going to visit the museum in Amsterdam toward the end of October, prior to getting on a 15 hour ferry up to Scotland. Talk about madness, or sickness — faded flowers, off-kilter angles.

    • Yeah, I saw that discussion about the 15-hour ferry ride. Hope you have flat seas, pal. Yikes.

      So LUCKY to visit the Van G museum in Amsterdam. Something I’ve always wanted to do but probably never will. Post a few pics. Incidentally, I think that first iris painting is on loan from that museum.

    • That might be the nicest thing anyone has said to me all week. Thank you. I’m not anti-intellectual. There’s a place for philosophical introspection. But I’ve always fancied my blog as the voice of the common man (or woman!). I abhore the over-thinking of these pieces. Have you ever read an issue of ARTnews? It’s pretty tedious stuff. Wholly unnecessary for enjoying art, thank god.

  8. Once again, you’ve allowed me to “see” an exhibition I’d otherwise miss.Thank you.
    Way back in the 60s I was lucky enough to see a stellar Van Gogh exhibition in London.Many of the pieces were on loan from private collections and had not been see since the turn of the (then) century.
    And, no, Van Gogh,while knowing his colours would fade, could not have known how they would look now. Hell! I hope my new walls last!
    The floating rock? I thought high-salinity, but it can’t be as those shrimp are freshwater guys.Maybe he just got a big ol’ chunk of pumice?

    PS…Mr. LX has got a link in my comment thread about a Bic pen sculpture. Come over and see.

    • The fact that you were in London in the 60’s and saw a Van Gogh exhibit beats the stuffing out of anything I’ve ever posted or ever will post. It can’t get any better than that.

      If you’ll scroll up in the comment section you’ll see List of X’s scientific smackdown of my “floating” rock theory. Sheesh! I’d edit that part out of the post but people seem to be having too much fun straightening me out.

      • Get over to Amsterdam some time-they have a few.:-) It’s usually the insurance that precludes any major internationals.One day your kids might realise what a coup this was. Beach smeach…

      • Maybe I’ll get there one day. I hope so. I’d like to go to Amsterdam to visit the Van Gogh Museum and Pittsburgh to visit the Warhol Museum. Guess which one will come first?

  9. And I used to like shrimp! Man, those are ugly and creepy. They must be cleaning the tank. I don’t feel much from the last painting. I’m hoping that would change in person. When I see that I have hopes that I can be an artist, too. But, I’m sure there must be more to it. Your girls are so lucky that you expose them to all this art. You can tell them I said so. Someday, they will really appreciate it, Mark. They got to see the last four Van Gogh paintings created in his final days. That’s pretty amazing. Did he know what the colors would fade into, I wonder. Roof top art…I agree it looks like a hazard. Hopefully, no one is going up there with their champagne glasses and tripping on a step.

    • They’re tadpole shrimp. Not the same thing that’s served at the Outback, but a distant cousin. I can see how that might sour you to eating them again. Shrimps everywhere are cheering.

      I don’t know if Van Gogh knew what the colors would fade to, but his notes said the colors were so vivid and perfect for his purposes that he couldn’t resist using them, despite their instability. One can only imagine what we all missed out on.

      On a sidenote, thanks for your your comments. I always enjoy your input.

      • Tadpole shrimp…you see, there’s something wrong right there. Which is it? Tadpole or shrimp? These hybrid creatures freak me out.
        You’re most welcome. Always a pleasure to read you, Mark.

      • Someone up above said they look like horseshoe crabs. Do you know what those are? These guys were about as big as your thumb. A detail I should’ve included.

        Did you share that Times article with anyone out there?

  10. Great, I love the art posts, even though it makes me feel like a remote country bumpkin.

    I really like Frank Stella’s stuff. I like the simplicity and pureness of it, the calm rhythms — and the way it annoys people of the “I could have done that” school of art criticism (see above!) Yes, but you *didn’t* did you, back in the 50s?

    I’ve got an artwork which unfortunately is languishing under my bed at the moment, which is made from grease on paper. The artist deliberately made it so that over the years it will fade to nothing but an imperceptible grey.

    • You don’t seem like much of a bumpkin to me! Your involvement with performance and your alternative lifestyle and refusal to conform set you apart. So relax.

      I like the Stella, too. Don’t love it, but I do like it. It looks markedly different from what he produced later in life. A dramatic shift.

      Some artwork is best left under the bed.

      • Ha ha… You won’t be saying that when I sell iit to MOMA for half a million (cost me £55) 🙂

  11. I must say I agree with your daughters’ opinion on the rooftop instillation, but ooooohhhh the Van Gogh! I’ve been to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and it was almost too crowded to be enjoyable, but it looks like y’all were the only people in the room with the paintings. What a cool experience!

    Tadpole shrimp on the other hand? Pass.

    • I would love to visit the VG museum, crowded galleries or not. Maybe one day after I kick the daughters out of my house I’ll be free to go.

      We pretty much had the exhibit to ourselves, although it sure didn’t last. The secret to going to ANY art museum is to get there when the doors open. Nobody wants to try and enjoy art through a sea of heads. I like people but not in a museum. An early entrance helps.

  12. We went to a Van Gogh exhibit several years ago. Seeing the original Starry Night with my own eyes was a thrill for me, but Harbor Lights also blew me away.

    Plus there was that painting he did of the TARDIS exploding…

    • How lucky are we that we get to see this stuff? Good that you (we) take advantage. People fly in from the four corners of the globe. All we have to do is suffer a subway ride.

      The TARDIS canvas was not part of this exhibit. Or any other, to my knowledge. A pity you don’t have one. You could go see that Harbor Lights exhibit again.

  13. Hold on just a second, which of the four flower paintings qualifies as a landscape ? And how can any of an even number of things be described as being in the middle?. Just curious.

    • I’m using landscape to describe its orientation, not the type of painting it is. Vertically-oriented work is “portrait.” Horizontally-oriented work is “landscape.”

      If there are four paintings, then the two center paintings would be the middle.

      Glad I could clear all that up.

  14. Oh my gosh I would have loved to see those Van Gogh paintings! That’s so awesome. The boulder in the water is pretty cool too. Did you get to take a Van Gogh painting home with you? 😉

  15. I’ve seen a few paintings in my time and I’ve never heard of describing works in any other way than by the subject matter. I’ve seen landscapes that were vertical and I’ve seen portraits that were horizontal.. But I didn’t mean to step on your toes.

  16. I’m down with all of that. Van Gogh’s colours inevitably left to fade… yeah, that sounds right. Bedrock antiquities on which Manhattan is founded – makes sense to put that up in the sky, where you can look at it underwater. But what I really want to do is eat those shrimp.

    I hope you still made it to the beach at some point, even if on another day. This has been a summer made for the beach.

  17. After relentlessly scouring every source available to me I was unable to come up with any reference to a vertical painting being referred to as a portrait and horizontal ones as a landscape regardless of subject matter. In fact I found that in every case paintings of people were described as portraits regardless of the format. The last supper will do as an example. And landscapes, which would encompass seascapes were invariably in the horizontal form with only a small number of exceptions, Chinese paintings in particular but also more familiarly Van Goghs’ “Starry night ” which although not horizontal but square seems to fall in the middle. Hope this clears up the point I was making originally.

    • There are a lot of art snobs who think that van Gogh and the Impressionists are rather pedestrian and ordinary. That doesn’t bother me a bit. I love them. These four works were magnificent and I’m glad I had the chance to see them.

  18. That Van Gogh exhibit is it! To see them across as he intended in his creative burst, anchored by a table he created in each for reference … I just dig it, Mark, a glimpse into his thinking process jumping from piece to piece but keeping them in one en toto. The white and blue of the flowers right now are good enough for me. Yeah, the paving pads as part of the outdoor exhibit are lame, but that tank with the floating rock sure captures my attention. From across the way, though, it looked sort of like a green chiminea on a broken up outdoor patio.

    • Those paintings are so thick and juicy. The compulsion is to reach out and caress the paint. Maybe pick a little piece off. Of course, I’d never actually do it but one is tempted. And this is it. Those four painting probably won’t ever be seen again–even though that was his intent all along. A quiet tragedy.

      I don’t think that rock is floating. Some people in the comments above kicked some sense into me. It’s not physically possible to float a rock that big in such a small amount of water.

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