Spread across three monumental canvases, Joan Mitchell’s triptych Plowed Field is one of the largest paintings the artist had completed at this point in her career. Part of her celebrated Field series, across its colossal dimensions Mitchell assembles a rich patchwork of verdant greens, warm yellows and burnished golds to produce an evocative memory of a much-loved landscape. “I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me,” Mitchell famously said, “and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed” (J. Mitchell, quoted in J.I. H. Baur, Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth-Century American Art, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958, p. 75). Exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s celebrated Joan Mitchell retrospective in 1974, the sheer force of color evokes the cornfields of her youth, and the sweeps of golden sunflowers from the fields of her beloved new home in France.
In building up the highly active surface of Plowed Field, Mitchell assembles blocks of color like a master mason; weight and balance rank alongside form and function as essential elements of the composition. A thin sliver of pigment—not much wider than a medium sized paint brush—runs along the lower edge of the canvas. This band of dark green, ruby red, burnished orange and warm pink pigment acts as a foundation layer of sorts for the substantial slabs of color that rest upon it. Above this, billowing clouds of pale color are laid down in multiple layers beginning with open, brushy passages of fresh greens, warm oranges, and pale blues, followed by subsequent layers embellished by delicate waves of golden yellow staccato brushstrokes. On the extreme right edge of this portion of the canvas is the first of a series of dense blocks of color, in this case executed in a dark—almost maroon--red. Rendered out of more substantial brushwork, it offers a condensed counterpart to its more effervescent neighbor.
As the eye is drawn upwards, these extensive areas of color become more and more prevalent—the substantial blocks squeezing out the thinner passages of color, the paler palette gradually replacing stronger, deeper, and purer registers of color. To avoid this becoming overwhelming and to ensure balance, Mitchell leaves areas of paler color between each of them. Like mason’s mortar, it ensures that these individual elements are held together as one cohesive whole, and by utilizing the ‘wet-on-wet’ painting technique, these seemingly ‘in between’ areas themselves become highly active areas, with pigments coalescing in exciting, unexpected and intriguing ways.
Mitchell’s Field paintings are an essay in successful composition on a large-scale. Having grown up just two blocks from the shore of the vast Lake Michigan, the artist would have been acutely aware of the power and scale of nature, and of the vastness of the open landscape. Successfully transferring this sense of space onto canvas is a considerable accomplishment, the threat of over (or under) compensating each compositional element is ever present. But here, as in others from the series, she successfully accomplishes delicate detail on a large-scale. “The scale of Mitchell’s Field paintings, Plowed Field is 213 inches wide…, far exceeds that of any of her earlier paintings,” writes Mitchell scholar Judith Bernstock. “With her Field series, the polytych became her characteristic format having vastness as one of its constant qualities. It reflects Mitchell’s preoccupation with physicality and spatial orientation, which she associates with her native environment: ‘I come from the Midwest. I’m American. The Midwest is a vast place. I was born out there, in the cornfields that go right out to Saskatchewan and the Great Lakes” (J.E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 119).
This innate affinity for, and understanding of, our emotional connection to the landscape is what lies at the heart of Joan Mitchell’s paintings. Her work is often linked to that of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh. While the ‘impressionist’ nature of the American artist’s brushstrokes does have parallels with the rapid en plein air style of Monet, and her intense use of color evokes the searing pigments of van Gogh’s interpretations of the Arles countryside, Mitchell’s paintings are much more than figurative renderings of a particular place or moment in time. Instead, they offer poetic meditations on the feelings that memories inspire. As the artist explained in 1958, “I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with” (Letter to J. I. H. Baur, 1958, printed in Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth Century American Art, New York, Whitney Museum, 1958).
One reason for her newly expansive canvases of the 1970s lay in a move to new studios an hour north of Paris. In May 1968, Mitchell would relocate full-time to La Tour, a new acquired property in the village of Vétheuil. After a year of renovations she finally moved into the stone farmhouse, and large outbuildings meant that she could more easily work on large-scale paintings (she could remove them from studio without the need to roll them, which often caused the paint to crack). “From the time she acquired Vétheuil,” writes her biographer Patricia Albers, “its colors and lights pervaded her work. Loose allover quilts of limpid blues, greens, pinks, reds, and yellows…their colored lines and shapes registered a painter’s fast-moving hands as they rise steeply, floating between inner and outer worlds to jostle and bank at their tops” (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, pp. 313-14).
The artist would spend her daytime hours chatting with friends or sitting on the patio that overlooked the abundant green landscape and a lazy stretch of the river Seine. Later in the evenings, after it was fully dark, Mitchell would venture to her studio and set to work, often labouring long into the night, listening to Mozart. It was here that the waves of emotions and memories washed over her, and moved through her, coming out through her brush in ever greater and more assured compositions. Mitchell worked the canvas in confident strokes, filling the entire surface edge-to-edge in brilliant, shimmering pigments evoking the beauty of the natural world. Such is the importance of these large-scale works that many of her triptychs or quadriptychs from this period are now in major museum collections including, Fields for Skyes, 1973, Hirschhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Clearing, 1973, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Wet Orange, 1972, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; and Chasse interdite, 1973, Musée National d’art Moderne, Centre Georges-Pompidou.
Born into a highly cultured, wealthy Chicago family in 1925, poetry played an important part in Mitchell’s life from the beginning. Her mother, Marion Strobel, was a poet and the co-editor of the magazine Poetry, and leading modern poets visited the family home, including T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Mitchell’s erudition led her to befriend many poets, and for her paintings to be profoundly influenced by literature. The individual canvases within a triptych—a format that she returned to again and again—can almost be seen as stanzas within poem, in that the canvases are discrete entities but mutually dependent. And each formal element within her paintings is like a word within a poem; it is there for a purpose, carefully chosen to serve the final vision. Indeed, although the energy of Mitchell’s gestures can give the impression that she executed her paintings swiftly, in fact her paintings often took several months to complete. Her process was highly contemplative, as she once described: “There’s no ‘action’ here. I paint a little. Then I sit and I look at the painting, sometimes for hours. Eventually the painting tells me what to do” (J. Mitchell, quoted in D. Solomon, ‘In Monet’s Light’, The New York Times, November 24, 1991).
In many ways, her paintings from this period take their formal cues from the teaching of Hans Hofmann, with whom Mitchell briefly studied with in the 1950s at his Hofmann School in New York. Although she only lasted one lesson, before retreating—vaguely frightened—Hofmann’s ideas would remain with her throughout her career. His students learnt to stress the flatness of the canvas, while simultaneously implying pictorial depth. They learnt to activate the entire surface of the painting, while at the same time considering positive and negative space, and regarding a painting as a metaphorical field (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 128). As a result, Mitchell was able to pull off “unexpected yet felicitous meetings of color… but also breaking rules of all kinds, sinking yellow behind lavender, for instance, and clumping dark colors at the upper edges of a canvas” (P. Albers, op. cit., p. 322).
Even at the beginning of her career Mitchell stood out amongst her fellow Abstract Expressionists as an artist who would come to define the medium. Fellow artist Paul Brach noted, “... this young painter marks the appearance of a new personality in abstract painting. Miss Mitchell’s huge canvases are post-Cubist in their precise articulation of spatial intervals, yet they remain close in spirit to American abstract expressionism in their explosive impact. Movement is controlled about the periphery by large, slow-swinging planes of somber grays and greens. The tempo accelerates as the forms multiply. They gain in complexity and rush inward, setting up a wide arc-shaped chain reaction of spasmodic energies” (P. Brach, ‘Fifty-Seventh Street in Review: Joan Mitchell’, in Art Digest, January 1952, no. 26, pp. 17-18).
In her 1988 monograph on the artist, art historian Judith E. Bernstock of Cornell University, writes that Mitchell’s Field paintings (the series to which Plowed Field) belongs, had their origins in both the artist’s past and present. “Beloved memories of the vast fields of the Midwest, the cornfields in which she hid as a child from her family and nurses (“I got lost in the cornbelt!”) blend with her vision of the distant golden and green fields from her window,” writes Bernstock. “[Mitchell] could ‘feel the fields’ most intensely in the early 1970s because of her circumstances and state of mind at the time. Although she was able to enjoy complete privacy in her studio at Vértheuil, to which only she had the key, the extent of her solitude was more than she desired” (J. Bernstock, op. cit., p. 111).
Mitchell effectively translates the very essence and spirit of Vétheuil onto her canvas, essentially immortalizing a moment in time as if preserved in amber. Indeed, the splendor of her beloved new home pervades every square inch of this painting, a brilliant encapsulation of its heady scents and its sumptuous, resplendent landscape. Countless critics have chased this ephemeral quality in Mitchell’s work, but it is perhaps the artist herself who put it best: “Painting is a means of feeling living. Painting is the only art form except still photography which is without time. Music takes time to listen to and ends, writing takes time and ends, movies end, ideas and even sculpture take time. Painting does not. It never ends, it is the only thing that is both continuous and still. Then I can be very happy. It’s a still place” (J. Mitchell, quoted in Yves Michaud, “Conversations with Joan Mitchell, January 12, 1986,” in Joan Mitchell: New Paintings, exh. cat., Xavier Fourcade, New York, 1986, n.p.).