Now about that yellow.
It turns out that it wasn’t really yellow at all. It was anything but yellow. Canary, mustard, gold, fire orange, caramel, honey. All the hues were in there. But when broken apart, all the eye really detected was yellow. And only with close observations could you parse out the discrete shades, and only with reassembly did it make sense.
Van Gogh obsessed over color. He was drawn to it emotionally and as a line of inquiry that he explored in his bountiful letters to his brother Theo and sister Wilhemena. What color, really, is the night? How do colors give rise to emotion and thought? What effect do complementary and countervailing colors have on one another?
You can sense in Van Gogh’s writing how even his bold application of paint fell far short of what he saw. Describing the night sky above the Mediterranean, he wrote of how it was “flicked with clouds of a blue deeper than the fundamental blue and others of a clearer blue, like the blue whiteness of the Milky Way. On the blue depths, the stars were sparkling, greenish, yellow, white, rose, brighter, flashing more like jewels than they do even in Paris.”
Despite his struggle to accurately render that perceived world, his emerging fields of yellow and blue also reveal how Van Gogh prefigured the pure abstract expressionism that in 80 years would follow.
Van Gogh, however, still clung to object, both as representational object (this is this) and as signifier (this means that). We still have our stars, our sowers, our reapers, our ravens, our sunflowers. But you can sense him wanting to break free from object bound so that he could freely exist in jet black, flax, dandelion, and citron, or in the physicality of brush strokes and the thick globs of paint itself.
I imagine the Dutchman would have had quite animated and affirming conversations with the Latvian Mark Rothko.
I picture Vincent and Mark huddled in the chapel in Houston, their conversation tugging back and forth on the charcoal and gray and metallic black, Van Gogh calling for an interjection of violet and olive. And can you maintain the emotional content without referencing a physical form (the flash of a bird wing, the grimace of teeth, the wind bent sheaf)?
And the conversations with Piet Mondrian might have summoned frustration.
For the tempermental Van Gogh, color wedded with object could be a conduit for emotion. Rothko decoupled color from object to achieve the same effect. And Mondrian did so with the opposite intent, allowing color to exist in some cerebral platonic form.
The painter of the future, Van Gogh once wrote to Theo, will be such a colourist as has yet ever been. I wonder if he would have found further ecstasy, and perhaps even peace and rest, within Turrell: pure color at last untethered from the brush stroke and form itself.