Experiencing Joan Mitchell’s Sunflowers

Joan Mitchell Sunflower VI_x500

With the January 25th opening of American Art 1950-1975, WCMA’s newest acquisition, Joan Mitchell’s Sunflower VI will make its public debut. This will become the third painting from her 1969 Sunflower series that is on view in a museum. Serendipitously, staff members Marisa Repka ’14 (PR Intern) and Sarah Margerum (Public Engagement Manager) had the opportunity to visit the other two artworks during the holiday break. In anticipation of WCMA’s new installation, we wanted to share our very different, yet wonderful experiences with these paintings.

Marisa: I visited Sunflower III on a snowy winter evening, near closing time at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. My experience was of a highly solitary nature: the gallery empty, I sat myself about twenty feet back from the canvas, surveying the whole just as the artist was known to do while working on a painting. The silence seemed a perfect fit for the massive canvas, whose energy and brightness dominated the space. If you sit with a Joan Mitchell painting long enough, you start to see things you didn’t notice at first: entire swatches of color, variations in texture, or the way the artist manages to make even white spaces dense and substantial. And then of course there’s the search for meaning: how to “make sense” of the brushstrokes, how to tie in the title of “sunflower.” But in many ways that’s the beauty of an abstract expressionist work – taking the time to just sit with it, examining and wondering.

Sarah in front of Joan Mitchell Sunflowers at Metropolitan Museum of Art_x500

Sarah: My experience with Sunflowers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was lively and social. Four of my closest friends and three new friends joined intrepid leader, Jen Oleniczak, on a Museum Hack tour. She challenged pairs to choose an artwork that we’d buy, steal, or re-gift and then share our reasoning with the group. Giggling ensued as we all gave our explanations of how much we were willing to spend (all of our imaginary money) and how we’d use the artwork (as a headboard). My partner and I were drawn into Sunflowers by the bright colors, but also through imagining the variety of very physical ways that Mitchell may have applied her paint. We found ourselves mimicking the motions of sweeping gestures, pressing, and even peeling away paint as we talked about it. Now that I have the chance to stand in front WCMA’s Sunflower VI, I find myself instinctively recalling both these physical actions and the overall positive feelings from my visit to the Met.

So now we’re wondering: How will you experience WCMA’s Sunflower VI?


Above Image Credits:

Joan Mitchell (American, 1925-1992), Sunflower VI, 1969, oil on canvas. Anonymous gift, in tribute to Linda Shearer and her late husband Hartley Shearer. © Estate of Joan Mitchell.

Sarah in Front of Joan Mitchell Sunflowers at Metropolitan Museum of Art.



4 Responses to Experiencing Joan Mitchell’s Sunflowers

  1. Ann Burroughs says:

    Exciting to hear of your new Mitchell acquisition on view. We have just recently installed Mitchell’s ICI, from 1992, and look forward to highlighting it especially with school groups. We have had great success with this in the past, and would love to hear any ideas you have for engaging visitors with Mitchell’s vibrant work. Ann B, Saint Louis Art Museum

  2. Sarah Margerum says:

    Hi Ann,
    Thanks so much for your comment. We’re making our plans for engaging Pre K-12 students with this artwork at the moment too. I’ll send you an e-mail–I’d love to chat with you about our respective plans.

  3. Fred McCoy says:

    While I’m familiar with a large number of abstract expressionist works, I have not had the opportunity to visit Joan Mitchell ‘s Sunflower VI. After reading this I’m definitely going to make the jump and drag myself uptown to experience it first hand.

    • Sarah Margerum says:

      I hope you make the trip! Let us know how it goes. We’d love to hear about your experience with Sunflower VI.