PROFILE: ART CURATOR JOACHIM PISSARRO HUNTER COLLEGE

Master of the Impossible

Art historian Joachim Pissarro, scion of the famous Impressionist, says creativity can open many different doors.

Joachim Pissarro, Bershad Professor of Art History and director of the Hunter College Art Galleries, didn't intend to make art his career even though he grew up in a family of artists. You'd never guess that from his resume: adjunct curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and a former curator at the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas, the Yale University Art Gallery and director of the Musée de la Fondation de l'Hermitage in Switzerland. He's also written several books on Impressionist painters, including his great- grandfather, Camille Pissarro, and was one of three curators of MoMA's "Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night," which opened last fall.

Salute to Scholars caught up with Pissarro recently to find out more about Van Gogh and Pissarro's own artistic path.

What was the biggest surprise you found when researching "Colors of the Night"?

None of us expected to find more than a half-dozen works related to the night. But we were able to find enough to cover two, three, four, five rooms and could have brought in much more. Van Gogh was deeply in touch with this reflection… Over 12 years he constantly thought of the night, and this show gives you a sense of that.

Your great-grandfather was French Impressionist Camille Pissarro and your father and sister are painters. But you didn't want a life in art. Why is that?

I wanted to become a professor of philosophy and at that time, all students in France had to take philosophy. But in 1979, a law passed cutting philosophy from high schools, which meant thousands of jobs were out. So suddenly, the horizon became a little bleak.

So Camille Pissarro didn't come to you in your dreams and order you to the easel?

No, it was an accident, really. I had to recycle my philosophical mind into something semi-productive and thought art history was quite close.

So how hard is it to be curator? Did you ever get a show that just seemed impossible?

Almost every single one. I specialize in those, I think.

Even the recent show? Didn't you just ask the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to lend you some paintings?

The Van Gogh was very generous, and we were able to get a core of work through them. But many times, the show was dead because we couldn't get the loans.

So it's not like you can just call someone up who has a painting on the wall and ask to borrow it?

Well, the value of one Van Gogh can be nine figures. Over $100 million, so quite often it is hard to get people to loan them.

What surprised you when you started teaching at Hunter?

I had never had almost as many M.F.A.s as M.A.s in my classes before and the M.F.A.s were absolutely brilliant. Typically [studio] art students are not well versed in Heidegger or in Cantor or Romantic theory, but they are here. Now I like to have classes that have equal numbers of both because it creates very interesting discussions, as you can imagine.

What do you tell parents who question the value of an M.F.A. in these hard economic times?

Creativity, the notion of thinking big outside the box, is extremely important, and at the end of the day, it doesn't matter if an artist ends up using the M.F.A. to become the next Picasso or Damien Hirst because there are so many doors that can open up to him if he has creativity. You can use creativity in so many situations.

Do you have any of your great grandfather's paintings?

I have a drawing, something he did as a student, I think. It is a beautiful work.

Ok, again, with all the artists in your family, you never were tempted to get behind the easel?

No, it's like being brought up in the circus and figuring out very early that the trapeze was not something you wanted to do for the rest of your life.