The Field paintings of Joan Mitchell's are among the most monumental and visually provocative of her oeuvre. Towering as well as expansive in scale, they provide the viewer with an almost dizzying sensation of dazzling color and dynamic form. Plowed Field is among the largest and most daring paintings executed by Mitchell, and stands as one of her great masterpieces from this period, along with other masterpieces such as Wet Orange, 1972 in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art and La Vie en Rose, 1979 in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The present painting is an awesome spectacle that mimics the vastness of nature.
"The scale of Mitchell's Field paintings, Plowed Field is 213 inches wide, Wet Orange is 245 inches wide, and Bonjour Julie is 230 inches wide, far exceeds that of any of her earlier paintings. 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).
In Mitchell's Field paintings of 1970-73 somber horizontal rectangles are surrounded by a lively loose brushwork that weaves together warm and cool colors and levels of space. Although the feeling of the space of a field is distinct in the rectilinear 'plots,' the concerns of plastic space are always of primary importance. We read these as fields, but paradoxically, the illusion is of a flattened surface; rectangles that one might assume to be background plots are distinctly larger than others and therefore, advance in space (for example, in the upper-central panels of Plowed Field and Wet Orange.
Plowed Field is a dynamic picture plane that is constructed as a triptych with discrete panels of layered rectilinear clustered areas of color. However, each section is linked with the others by palette and by a sense of continual rhythm and movement, as similar colored shapes seem to ascend and descend across the three panels. "Mitchell's multicanvas creations... constituted a response of her own need for greater spatial expansiveness, yet an expansiveness that would nevertheless be held in check by the specific dimensions of the individual panels that constituted the object. Secondly, the diptych or polytych appealed to her because of the more complex relationships it could induce: not just the play of difference and analogy within the single canvas, but response and reaction against another related panel, both like and different. The range of inter-related expressions was vast and open-ended." (L. Nochlin, "A Rage to Paint," The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, p. 58.) For example, in Plowed Field, the clusters of the side panels are much more concentrated than the diffuse, floating areas of the central panel. Sometimes, Mitchell varies the application of a color such as green that goes from a singular brilliant hue like the upper section of the right panel to a rich, subtle layered green highlighted by tinges of orange as shown in the central panel.
Invariably the notion of landscape enters the mind when one views a painting by Mitchell. The titles are evocative of nature, such as Plowed Field that conjure a vision of plotted earth mapped for sowing and harvesting. The title suggests a relationship between man and nature, of nature reined. Mitchell took inspiration from her time spent in Vétheuil and the surrounding farmland the Seine and fields of sunflowers, which were already immortalized by Claude Monet who had lived in a gardener's cottage near Mitchell's property.
"In terms of sheer largeness of vision, of solving painterly problems with an almost incredible audacity, these oversize pictures from the 1970s have few rivals in all of modern American painting. The Sunflower, Field, and Territory paintings, at least some of them, forge a synthesis between Mitchell's 'landscape I carry around inside me,' and the legacies of Cézanne, Matisse, de Kooning, and Hofmann. It can be argued that these works mark Mitchell's ascendancy to a level that few artists have attained..." (J. Livingston, "The Paintings of Joan Mitchell", The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, p. 35.)
Joan Mitchell in her studio at Véteuil, 1974 c Nancy Crampton
Claude Monet standing in front of Waterlilies, circa 1924-1925, photograph by Henri Manuel