A Summer Romance

Joan Mitchell Sunflower VI_x500

It was not love at first sight. When I first came across Joan Mitchell’s Sunflower VI last summer, I found the massive abstract expressionist work rather unfulfilling. Sure, it was big and loud and made a statement, but to a classical girl like me it appeared far too muddled and haphazard to say anything really meaningful. Yet love it or not I was going to be spending a lot of time with this flowery chaos: as a summer intern in the engagement department at WCMA, part of my job was to help facilitate a five-week behind-the-scenes program with the newly arrived painting, opening the Rose Gallery’s doors each afternoon to allow visitors a unique and intimate experience with the artwork. By using different themes each week (such as gesture, or flower as symbol) and pairing the Mitchell with different works, we hoped to consider how accompaniment and context alter how we perceive a work of art.

During those five weeks, I was given the chance to discover Sunflower VI through over four hundred sets of eyes. From local artists to vacationing Europeans, art historians to elementary school children, the cast of characters that came through our doors was certainly diverse, and no two afternoons were alike. Some visitors would barely cross the threshold, silently taking in the Mitchell from the periphery of the room. Others would grab a magnifying glass and get up close, gawking at the incredibly thick bands of paint and admiring the shadows the surface casts upon itself.

Some loved the work. They called it “spectacular,” “optimistic,” “delicious.” Others were rather skeptical. One woman proclaimed it to be a “mish-mosh,” and asserted that her granddaughter could have made better art. And then there were those who – like myself – found themselves rather lost in Joan’s abstract world. Together we questioned everything: what role did the nominal sunflowers play? Did directionality exist in this work? And perhaps above all, how intentional was it? I think one visitor said it best: “Everything must be there for a reason… but is it?”

Nine months later, I still don’t have answers to any of these questions. And yet I find myself in quite the opposite position from where I started: completely satisfied with this particular painting. I think what changed is that instead of seeking a narrative or a “point,” I now allow myself to simply experience it. Each visit my adjectives to describe it vary: aggressive, tactile, fun, calming, organic. But I think the most resounding of these for me is now “familiar.” I may discover something new with each view, but Sunflower VI feels somehow comforting, steeped in memories of deep conversations with complete strangers. I guess that’s the beauty of spending time with a work of art and being able to experience it through new perspectives. And ultimately that’s how an abstract expressionist painting warmed a spot in this skeptic’s heart.

Sunflower VI is currently on view in the exhibition American Art: 1950-1975.

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