“I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me- and remembered feelings of them, which of course becomes transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would more like to paint what it leaves with me.” – Joan Mitchell
There was a reproduction of El Greco’s View of Toledo hanging in the lobby of my Catholic elementary school in Columbus Ohio. I looked at and drifted off into its sweet green hills and stormy sky for years. It was something to go to, a mind trip while standing in line and a short respite from the crushing, frustrated tyranny of the Sisters of Notre Dame. It was the only image in a sea of images that surrounded me at St. Agnes church and school that was not a constant reminder that art was there to feed our need for suffering and sacrifice. That was pretty much my impression of what the fine arts were. They were well painted and sculpted images of oppression, pain, suffering, sacrifice and plenty of spilt blood.
Years later I traveled to Toledo Ohio in 1972 (I hitchhiked back a second time) as a 21 year old art student to see an exhibit of three painters. I was excited to finally visit the place that I’d romanticized for so long. I would walk its hills and drink from its waters so to speak. Upon arriving in Toledo I was confused and confounded. I had a sinking feeling that “View of Toledo” was quite possibly not a painting of Toledo Ohio at all. And probably not painted by a painter from the Buckeye State. I share this embarrassing little anecdote only to illustrate my working class cluelessness of art and its possibilities. This was only the second museum that I had ever visited. I don’t think I knew what an art gallery was at this point. I had some catching up to do and things were about to change.
The title of the exhibit was “Fresh Air School”; Sam Francis, Walasse Ting and Joan Mitchell at the Toledo Museum. I remember the Sam Francis paintings as being stingy and washy, and the Walasse Ting paintings as being nothing but straight-from-the-bottle dyes of uninspired drips and splashes. And then there was Joan.
I am a painter because of Joan, and there are no two ways about it. It was these paintings and Plowed Field in particular that did it. I was an Illustration and Advertising major, but soon found myself teetering and peeking over the edge for something much larger and expressive. I was used to making art sitting down at a table using my knuckles and wrists. Here was an artist painting from her elbows, shoulders and knees and with a poetry that I felt deep inside my gut, heart and thumpin’ bumpin’ brain.
Each and every painting in the exhibit of hers knocked my socks off. But Plowed Field plowed into me like a steamroller flattening Wile E Coyote. And when I popped back into shape I saw the light. And that is the flat out truth. Hallelujah!
It was a triptych but unlike the ones I’d known while on my knees at mass. Those were oppressive, preachy, bloody and cruel. This was freedom and liberation and it was huge–over 9 ft. high and 17 ft. wide. What in hell or heaven was this? Its left and right panels were like arms wide open, pulling me in. It was a stage, an arena, a platform for expression and creativity. I had never seen anything like it before. There was control and a kind of loose grid and paint that at times looked as if it just landed there. It was physical. It was a workout. I knew that it couldn’t be a literal depiction of a plowed field. If it was, it was a lousy, sloppy painting of a bird’s eye view soaring over an autumn landscape. It was also not a painting that drew me in to its distant horizon like View of Toledo. How can a painting that spends its time so blatantly on the surface take me deep inside of its mojo with its dizzying slop of yellows, blues and magentas?
It was poetry and possibility weeding through all of the mea culpas and clutter of this viewer’s past. It was hope and it was beauty and it was a game changer. Any good painting or poem asks to be revisited. Whatever harvest was there was soon to be replaced with a new crop and another harvest and another crop and so on. It was generous in its scope of interpretation, invention and humanity. Some paintings are a confrontation; others are an invitation. This was both. I will say it again. I am a painter because of Joan Mitchell. Cheers Joan!