When I took the picture I thought it said NIT, and that was funny to me—I had this whole essay about nitpicking and attention to detail planned out—but then when I got home and looked at it on my computer I realized it said NITE. And that’s okay. The artist who created this still paid a lot of attention to details, from the interesting color pattern to the odd design of the E which is placed off to the right, cleverly changing NIT to NITE.
And by a funny coincidence I just read an article by New York Times critic Jason Farago about his decision to spend half an hour with Van Gogh’s Starry Night at the MoMA, before it closed for the summer for an expansion project. Starry Night is one of Van Gogh’s most popular works—one that’s become as ubiquitous as the Mona Lisa or, well, it’s hard to think of another painting that’s appeared on everything from coffee mugs to pens to t-shirts and just about any other swag you can think of, and inspiring countless copies and even animated versions. Maybe that’s why people who see it at the MoMA take so many selfies with it or pictures of it. When Farago decided to spend half an hour in front of it he picked the worst possible time, from 5:30 to 6:00 on a Friday afternoon, and he was understandably distracted by fellow visitors and their screens and had a hard time focusing on the painting itself. This is my second-favorite of his observations:
5:46 p.m. It’s a little calmer now. Smart teenager to my left tells her friend: “This was my favorite painting when I was, like, 13.” Friend responds with a weary postmodern admission that would make Jean Baudrillard proud: “I know this is the real painting, but it’s like I can’t see it.”
My favorite observation, though, is one he makes a few minutes later:
5:55 p.m. Move to the extreme right side. Only from this angle can I see van Gogh’s impasto; never had I seen the thick, canary-yellow lines in the hollow of the crescent moon.
I’ve never seen Starry Night in person but this does remind me of the experience of seeing other paintings in person that I previously only knew from books. To really appreciate any painting you have to see it alive and up close, although also with the understanding that paintings change over time. Van Gogh’s paintings are praised now for their slightly muted colors but were originally much brighter–dust and the breakdown of chemicals have changed the look of his paint.
What would I see if I looked at Starry Night? I’ve always thought it’s a beautiful painting but I also know Van Gogh painted it while in an asylum after the famous ear-cutting incident. Hannah Gadsby in her show Nanette had a brilliant takedown of an audience member who tried to tell her Van Gogh wouldn’t have been a great painter if he’d been medicated. Spoiler alert: he was medicated. Maybe that’s why sometimes when I look at it, albeit in reproductions, those swirling lines don’t look beautiful; they look terrifying, like worms consuming the universe. It’s what happens when I look at the details too closely. And then I step back and it becomes beautiful again. It’s all in how you look at it.