Last night’s event at the MoMA was a memorable one, with the outdoor sculpture garden providing an intimate, if not quite warm, setting for the reading. As Neil Folberg, our Van Gogh photographer and the night’s first reader, wistfully pointed out, New York City light pollution prevented us from seeing an actual “starry night”—and yet the glowing yellow points of thousands of midtown windows, combined with a purple-orange evening sky, might have pleased the artist anyway. Because as the letters Folberg read made clear, Van Gogh’s world was color; he saw everything, passionately and obsessively, through that filter, in the same way that some mathematicians can’t watch the sun rise above the horizon without thinking of radians and angles and curves.
The letters also reminded us why the event was part of MoMA’s “Modern Poets” reading series. Van Gogh has long been a poet’s painter—not just because, like Shelley, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath (whose “The Moon and the Yew Tree” was among the night-themed poems read aloud), and so many other poets, he was suicidally mad, but because he was himself an exceptional writer. His insights into the theory and turbulent practice of art were as eloquently phrased as any ars poetica ever written. Nor did he ever overplay or romanticize his madness; he cut such a poignant figure precisely because he was always struggling to achieve sanity and clarity of the most luminous kind. At his best he succeeded brilliantly, as in our favorite passage in the letters, this grand outburst to his brother Theo:
Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas is, which says to the painter, You can’t do a thing. The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerizes some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of “you can’t” once and for all.
Life itself, too, is forever turning an infinitely vacant, dispiriting blank side towards man on which nothing appears, any more than it does on a blank canvas. But no matter how vacant and vain, how dead life may appear to be, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, will not be put off so easily. He wades in and does something and stays with it, in short, he violates, “defiles”—they say. Let them talk, those cold theologians.