Vincent Van Gogh, as we all know, is the Jimi Hendrix of painters.
Those too-vivid colors! Those swirling, psychedelic stars! And with the aid of certain recreational substances, even better.
But for those without immediate access to lysergic acid diethylamide, New York is now providing, not just one, but two, alternatives.
They are, luckily, quite simple to tell apart.
One is called “Immersive Van Gogh,” while the other is called “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.”
One is in lower Manhattan, while the other is in lower Manhattan. One features enormous, room-sized, trippy animations of Van Gogh paintings, while the other features enormous, room-sized, trippy animations of Van Gogh paintings.
The fact that two such similar shows have hit New York at precisely the same time has made life interesting for Ava Rand. She’s an art student who serves as the official greeter for — wait, let’s check the ticket — “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.”
“No, you have a ticket for the other one,” she tells one customer, who walks away disappointed. We asked her if that’s been happening a lot.
“About 25% of the time,” Rand said. “That’s a rough guesstimate. I’m an art major, not a math major.”
Bottom line, both shows give viewers an overwhelming, 45-minute-long bath in Van Gogh images, which morph and shimmer and drift and dissolve and seemingly paint themselves across the walls and floors, as grandiose music booms out of a lot of speakers.
But there are differences. Enough to make you choose one over the other — depending on which kind of totally over-the-top experience you want.
One — “Immersive Van Gogh” at 299 South Street (Pier 36), hereinafter referred to as Van Gogh South — is all-out entertainment, with no apologies. It features three rooms, with the same presentation going on in each. You can wander at leisure though three different environments.
In several, there are sculptural objects for atmosphere — orbs, monoliths and arches, made of mirrored material, that refract the images as they pulsate on the walls and floors. There is a minimum of context — no narration, for instance. No one is really pretending this is about education.
There is an enormous gift shop, in which one can buy Van Gogh umbrellas, backpacks, dolls, water bottles, coffee cups, hats, shirts, posters, coasters, diaries, incense, crystals, books on astrology, keychains, artificial sunflowers, and candles that say “I’m a magical unicorn.” There is a snack bar.
Compare and contrast of Immersive Van Gogh shows
The other show, “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” at 300 Vesey Street — hereinafter referred to as Van Gogh Vesey — is a less sprawling affair. The main event is confined to one enormous room.
There is some attempt to give it an educational sheen. There is a gallery with timelines, and written material on the walls about “Van Gogh and the Sunflowers” (eight paragraphs) and “Bedroom at Arles” (10 paragraphs).
The soundtrack features narration. Every once in a while, a portentous voice comes on to share a Van Gogh aphorism: “I dream my painting and then I paint my dream” or “Normality is a paved road. It is comfortable to walk on, but no flowers grow there.” Depending on your taste, you may find the narrator adds to the experience. Or you may feel he’s harshing your mellow.
There is a gift shop. Smaller than the other one. They sell Van Gogh key chains, refrigerator magnets, paint-by numbers kits, message holders. There is no snack bar.
Small things may color your experience — as it were — of the two presentations.
Van Gogh Vesey has carpeted floors, and deck chairs, which makes for a slightly warmer, more pleasant environment. Van Gogh South uses ordinary folding chairs — but it has a second-floor gallery from which you can get an unobstructed view. There’s no danger of going up the down staircase, by the way. It’s labeled “No Gogh.”
Both have reverberant soundtracks. But whereas Van Gogh Vesey appears to use mostly original music, Van Gogh South goes in for a mashup of material: “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” Handel’s “Sarabande,” Edith Piaf singing “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien.”
Neither one features the song “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)” by Don McLean. And neither one features the best song written about Vincent Van Gogh, by Jonathan Richman: “In the museum, what have we here? The baddest painter since Jon Vermeer!”
Severed ears figure in neither attraction.
Each has supplemental exhibits. Van Gogh South has a display of Van Gogh-inspired costumes, “Art in Fashion Form,” and a series of “Chromesthesia Booths” that purport to simulate Van Gogh’s condition of experiencing sounds as colors. Whether they do or not could be questioned.
Van Gogh Vesey has 3D mockups of several paintings, including “Bedroom at Arles,” that you can snap selfies in front of — the essential purpose, these days, of all human activity. There is a room full of drafting tables where you can “Create a Masterpiece of Your Own.”
And there is a lineup of virtual reality headsets that are free with the VIP ticket and cost $5 extra with standard admission — which you should totally pay. It’s worth it. You’ll go for a 3D walk — more like a float — along the paths of Van Gogh country, past windmills and hayricks and village inns, and see the locales that inspired his famous paintings. The best thing in either show.
Enjoy the Gogh
But ultimately, the raison d’être of both extravaganzas is the same. It is to submerge yourself in a world of Van Gogh paintings come to life: to watch as the stars of “Starry Night” pinwheel across your field of view, to see the cypress trees sway, to watch the water gently ripple in the “Starry Night Over the Rhône,” and the crows fly across the “Wheatfield with Crows” — all blown up to enormous size.
True art lovers will object. They will point out that painting is a collaboration between artist and viewer: that our minds create the movement in the still image, and to artificially supply that movement by animation is to destroy what makes a painting a painting.
They will point out that the brush-strokes and other physical details that are the essence of Van Gogh’s art are lost in the smooth, digital reproductions that parade across the walls and floors of these warehouse-like spaces.
They will object to the commodification of Van Gogh — who has become, more and more, not a man or an artist but a brand. They will be appalled by the merch, the trinkets and gewgaws that reduce Van Gogh to a tourist attraction on a level with “Cats.”
They will be right about all of this. And to hell with them.
What these two Van Gogh exhibits are really about is our 15 months of sensory deprivation.
What we want now is color to dazzle us. Sound to beat us into submission. We are as thirsty for sensory input as a camel is for water.
Some have credited the 2020 Netflix series “Emily in Paris” — popular viewing through the lockdown months — for priming the Van Gogh pump. It featured a scene in a Paris “Van Gogh” immersion show. “”This is incredible,” says Emily (Lily Collins) as she and he friends walk into a cathedral-sized “Starry Night.”
“Starry night,” she says. “It’s one of my favorites.”
The dueling Van Gogh exhibits in New York are actually just the tip of the iceberg. Immersive artist exhibits — in particular, immersive Van Gogh exhibits — have been a growing trend, in Europe and America, since the early 2000s. No less than five Van Gogh attractions have been criss-crossing the country in recent years, ever since the first one, “Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition” — the one featured in “Emily in Paris” — opened in France in 2008. Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience — the Vesey show — will open in Philadelphia starting Aug. 5 (venue to be announced). Immersive Van Gogh — the South Street show — will not be in Philadelphia.
The fact that so many of these shows have similar titles — leading to confusion on the part of ticket-holders, and profits on the part of exhibitors, who can piggyback on each other’s advertising— can’t be coincidental. Which was the one you went to see, Ruth?
In case, for some reason, you want to see the actual “Starry Night,” it’s at the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd street.
Though after all the colossal, mind-blowing, senses-shattering imagery of these big Van Gogh attractions, it can only be a disappointment.
If you go to Van Gogh
“Immersive Van Gogh.” (Van Gogh South) 299 South Street (Pier 36), New York City. $39.99 to $69.99, depending on time slot and ticket package. vangoghnyc.com. Through Sept. 6
“Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” (Van Gogh Vesey) 300 Vesey Street, New York City (third floor) .$36 to $64.90 depending on time slot and ticket package. vangoghexpo.com/new-york . Through Oct. 24.
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jimbeckerman1.