The Tao of Van Gogh's Drawings
It was the sort of grand statement that anti-elitist forces in this country mock regularly, but in the context of this exhibition it was definite understatement. This show is breathtaking. What's most impressive about what the chronology reveals is how van Gogh's marks themselves evolve over the course of his career. This may be obvious to many folks, and I had a sense of it myself before, but seeing it firsthand is something else altogether. So I'll share my impressions, knowing they're perhaps not at all novel.
Van Gogh's earliest drawings are all about the subject...the marks themselves serving that representational end, none very interesting in and of themselves. But as he matures as an artist, each mark begins to take on more responsibility as an object or even subject itself. In the middle of his career you see that these marks are still serving structural ends, with many reinforcing perspective or working as part of a team to build this or that object...meaning much less on its own. By the end of his life, however, you realize each mark is very much its own end, its own raison d'etre, working in stunning harmony, but with no dependencies or structural purposes. Erase every other mark on any of these later drawings, and the one remaining would still amaze. By the time he's making works like this one:
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890), Cypresses, 1889, Reed pen, pen, and ink, graphite on wove paper; 62.2 x 47.1 cm (24 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.), Brooklyn Museum, New York, Frank L. Babbott Fund and the A. Augustus Healy Fund (image from Metropolitan Museum of Art website)
Van Gogh has transcended representation anyway. To me, what he's exploring at this point is the, perhaps Toaist, interconnectedness of everything. That's not a new analysis, I know. But I had a surprise a few years back when reading Fritjof Capra's awesome book, The Tao of Physics, when I realized van Gogh's later images (think Starry Night in particular) had begun to look hauntingly like a photograph of a particle collision in a bubble chamber, like the one below (click and expand image to see what I mean):
For the further discussion of the process of observation it will be useful to take a definite example, and the simplest physical entity that can be used is a subatomic particle, such as the electron. If we want to observe and measure such a particle, we must first isolate it, or even create it, in a process which can be called the preparation process. once the particle has been prepared for observation, its properties can be measured, and this constitutes the process of measurement. The situation can be represented symbolically as follows. A particle is prepared in the region A, travels from A to B. and is measured in the region B. In practice, both the preparation and the measurement of the particle may consist of a whole series of quite complicated processes. In the collision experiments of high-energy physics, for example, the preparation of the particles used as projectiles consists in sending them around a circular track and accelerating them until their energy is sufficiently high. This process takes place in the particle accelerator. When the desired energy is reached, they are made to leave the accelerator (A) and travel to the target area (B) where they collide with other particles. These collisions take place in a bubble chamber where the particles produce visible tracks which are photographed. The properties of the particles are then deduced from a mathematical analysis of their tracks; such an analysis can be quite complex and is often carried out with the help of computers. All these processes and activities constitute the act of measurement.OK, so I know I'm reaching here, suggesting that van Gogh was seeing something we other mere mortals wouldn't understand until science had found a way to photograph the collision of two subatomic particles, many years later, but then again....
The important point in this analysis of observation is that the particle constitutes an intermediate system connecting the processes at A and B. It exists and has meaning only in this context; not as an isolated entity, but as an interconnection between the processes of preparation and measurement.
Food for thought anyway.