Whitehot Magazine

Mitchell Johnson: Memorable Epiphanies by Donald Kuspit

Mitchell Johnson, Domino Sugar #7, 1989 10x12 inches, oil/panel

By DONALD KUSPIT January 4, 2024

Epiphany:  A sudden spiritual manifestation, whether from some object, scene, or event, or memorable phase of the mind—the manifestation being out of proportion to the significance or strictly logical relevance of whatever produces it.                                                                                                                                                                        - James Joyce

There is an experience in which it is possible for us to come to the world with no knowledge or preconceptions in hand; it is the experience of astonishment…in the experience of astonishment, our everyday knowing,” compared to the knowing that we experience in astonishment, is shown up as a pale epistemological imposter.

                       - John Cogan, The Phenomenological Reduction


            The oldest purpose of visual art making is to memorialize what is spontaneously experienced as personally meaningful to the artist by aesthetically distilling it—extracting or abstracting and emphasizing or elaborating what seem its most salient, eye-catching, emotionally evocative features--so that the non-artist is empathically and cognitively drawn to it, and with that experiences it as a socially meaningful phenomenon.  The artist makes what might be called a symbolic facsimile of his experience that has social relevance because it seems to epitomize everyones experience, and with that acquires universal validity.  For Proust the madeleine catalyzed a memorable verbal experience, validated and communicated by being aestheticized into literary art; for Cezanne Mont Sainte-Victoire catalyzed a memorable visual experience, validated and communicated by being aestheticized into visual art; for Mitchell Johnson the everyday sights in the French town of Meyreuil catalyzed a memorable visual experience, validated and communicated by being aestheticized into visual art.  To aestheticize an emotional experience of an astonishing” phenomenon is to distill and preserve—enshrine and epitomize--it for posterity. 

Mitchell Johnson, Meyreuil Shed, 1989 6x8 inches, oil/canvas

Meyreuil is a little more than half dozen miles from Aix en Provence, where Cezanne lived, and within easy view of Mont St. Victoire, which Cezanne painted.  Cezanne painted it many times; he made some 30 oil paintings and 45 watercolors of it.  He was obsessively fixated on it, suggesting it symbolized something deeply embedded in his psyche; Johnson painted it once per visit, viewed from the distance of Meyreuil, suggesting a certain detachment from it.  In 1989-1991 Johnson made three visits to Meyreuil, as though in homage to Cezanne—he stood for hours with Mont St. Victoire directly behind him, as though to say Cezanne backed him up, his painting the inspiration for Johnsons painting.  But where Cezanne fetishized Mont St. Victoire, implicitly a symbol of his delusion of grandeur—climbing and conquering it with his art, he became a Moses giving new commandments about making art--Johnson is down to earth, indeed, in the streets of Meyreuil and the countryside around it.  He allows the objects he finds there their everyday autonomy even as he finds aesthetic value in them, rather than reduces them to anonymous abstract form as Cezanne tends to do.  Treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone,” he wrote to Emile Bernard, that is, emphasize and extract its geometry—make it self-evident.  Is the difficulty, effort of doing that—of abstracting the geometrical essence of a concrete thing—the reason for what Picasso called Cezannes anxiety?”  In sharp contrast, Johnsons paintings convey what I would call the serenity of self-possession—the calm of mature self-certainty.  Where Cezanne was a proto-modernist, making representational works that were implicitly abstract, Johnson is a post-modernist, making abstract works that are implicitly—often explicitly—representational.  He is a master of both modes, seamlessly integrating them to memorable effect, for memory at its most insistent is an abstract representation—an aesthetic epiphany. 

 Mitchell Johnson, Meyreuil #8 (Vineyard), 1989 16x24 inches, oil/canvas

In Meyreuil #8 (Vineyard), 1989 we see Johnson surveying the town and its surroundings from a distance, taking its measure, as it were.  Revisiting the town in 1993, he saw that the vineyard has been replaced by a house.  The painting has become a memento mori, even as a remains a memento vivere, for it is full of life, rejoices the heart of man,” as Goethe said wine does.  Wine cheers the sad, revives the old, inspires the young, and makes weariness forget his toil,” Lord Byron wrote.  It is what I think Johnsons lively, ever fresh paintings of Meyreuil do. The painting, relatively intimate, 16 by 24 inches, like most of Johnson’s paintings of Meyreuil, is an exquisite example of Lyrical Abstraction, a version of Tachisme. The word “tache,” variously translated as stain or spot and finally gesture was first used by a French critic to describe Manet’s handling in Music in the Tuileries, 1862.

It was then regarded as an insult, for it implied the painting was unfinished or badly painted, for the painters handling did not issue in a seamless picture, a composition of clearly recognizable figures and objects.  One might say Johnsons Meyreuil paintings can be categorized as gestural realism—a representational work composed of abstract gestures—a postmodern hybrid of opposites in dialectical relationship, not always resolved.  But not all of them are premised on observation of some real place or thing, as the intimate, unexpected Meyreuil Abstraction, 1991, a small masterpiece—14 by 16 inches—of pure art, a sort of color field painting not to say exquisite formalism, makes clear. 

Mitchell Johnson, Meyreuil Abstraction, 1991, 14x16 inches, oil/canvas


Mitchell Johnson, Meyreuil (White Shutters), 1991, 16x26 inches, oil/canvas

How does Johnson get from the descriptive realism, with an abstract edginess, of Meyreuil #8 (Vineyard), 1989, Meyreuil (White Shutters), 1991, Meyreuil (Blue Tree), 1991, Vertical Meyreuil, 1991, and Meyreuil (Yellow Schoolhouse), 1993 to the pure abstraction of Meyreuil Abstraction, 1991?   Does he see the inherent abstractness of objects, both man-made and natural, at the expense of their materiality, dismissed as beside the abstract—formal—point, however much their materiality may be signaled by their color?  Does he emphasize the growth patterns in nature and the structural patterns in man-made objects such as houses—patterns are purely abstract, suggesting that Meyreuil Abstraction has a place in pattern painting—at the expense of the materiality that gives them three-dimensional presence in space?  The official beginning of non-objective art was the moment Kandinsky saw the color of a haystack Monet painted but not the haystack itself—an epiphany which led him to declare that color alone mattered, for it, not the object, was the gateway to feeling, a romantic conviction elevated into the be-all and end-all of art by Kandinsky.  Feeling seems to be key to Johnsons art.  He once wrote: Eventually I found I had to use large shapes, large areas of colors to explain how I was feeling, how different situations would visually overwhelm me.”  The small, intimate Meyreuil (Pink, Yellow, Red), 1991, 16 by 26 inches, along with the large, grand Lucignano DAsso (Yellow Bar), 2000-2010, 30 by 40 inches, and the even larger San Giovanni, 2000, 40 by 60 inches, indicates that the large, sweeping landscapes of nature offers him the large shapes and large areas of colors he need to express and contain his almost overwhelming feelings, and finally allow him to distill and contain them in abstract form, as the Yellow Bar, epitomizing the sun, symbolizing a ray of sunlight, indicates.  The views of Meyreuil are beautiful, the vistas of Lucignano DAsso and San Giovanni are sublime, indicating that Johnson is a master of the two kinds of feeling nature—and art—can arouse, as Kant said. 

Mitchell Johnson, Meyreuil (Blue Tree), 1991 14x16 inches, oil/canvas

The vineyard, tree, schoolhouse, the houses in Meyreuil are perceived with what Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls the natural attitude,” that is, they are taken to be what they ordinarily appear to be.  In sharp contrast, the luminous Meyreuil Fiat, 1989, parked on a street and casually seen in passing, is an astonishing, mysterious phenomenon, an uncanny thing in itself, no longer the functional, useful, manufactured object an automobile naturally” is.  In Johnsons rendering of it—was it white to begin with, or has Johnsons vision of it filled it with light, dramatized it?--has phenomenal” presence.  It is no longer an ordinary, familiar, everyday object but has acquired extraordinary—abstract—presence.  It has been informed and formed by light—dematerialized into light.  We dont simply see it; it impacts us.  It has been illuminated, shines with an inner light, as its intense whiteness indicates.  It has been imbued with, generates, and radiates light, not simply seen in daylight or by streetlight.  It has been transcendentalized:  Johnson has had an epiphany.  The Fiat has been spiritualized--idealized.  It is no longer banal but sacred, for, as Merleau-Ponty and Cogan would say, it has been phenomenologically reduced, and with that what the father of phenomenological philosophy Edmund Husserl calls its essential necessity,” “essential universality,” “essential truthfulness” made evident.  It has become an object of meditation—aesthetic meditation, for phenomenologically reduced its essential aesthetic character has been made evident.  We need not contemplate nature--Mont St. Victoire—to have a phenomenological epiphany, but see a parked car to spontaneously experience one, if one has ones minds eye open and ones unconscious alert.  The lesson of JohnsonMeyreuil Fiat is that one doesnt need nature—a landscape, a tree, Mont St. Victoire--to spontaneously trigger a revelation, to suddenly see, unexpectedly experience, know” things in their essential givenness rather than take for granted their matter of factness and usefulness, but experience them in all their aesthetic profundity, which is to know them as phenomena in themselves.  Cups and plates will also do—one can stay in ones house rather than venture into nature—as Meyreuil Still Life (green), 1991 and Meyreuil (Floor Still Life), 1991 show.  The most ordinary objects can suddenly become sites of revelation, epiphanies.


Vertical Meyreuil, 1991, 24x16 inches, oil/canvas


Domino Sugar #6, 1989, 9 x 12 inches, oil/panel

Perhaps the most extraordinary, memorable, astonishing paintings that Johnson has made are the two paintings of the monumental Domino Sugar factory complex on the East River in Brooklyn, New York (Domino Sugar #6, 1989 and Domino Sugar #7, 1989 completed just before his first Meyreuil trip).  In 2007 it became a designated New York City landmark.  It certainly made an impression on Johnson, as its imposing, bleak façade suggests.  They are masterpieces that bring to mind Baudelaires idea that genius is nothing but childhood recollected in imaginative memory.  Dare one say it was not a happy childhood? The two huge, grim, dark, bleak, intimidating structures—symbols of his father (the large, bulky building with a phallic smokestack) and mother (the small, narrower, less prominent building)—do not make a happy couple, however much sugar passed through the narrow shute that joined them.  I may be overinterpreting the two works, but they have the look of a recurrent dream, dare one say a nightmare.  Johnsons equally abstract Meyreuil Shed, 1989, also has the look of a dream.  Johnson grew up in New York; the paintings are mementos of the city, seem to epitomize its oppressive grandeur and commercial power, whatever symbolic meaning they have. They are imaginative epiphanies and phenomenological triumphs par excellence.  Fraught with astonishing energy and concentrated form, they are masterpieces of aesthetic revelation and epitomizing abstraction.  Like the Meyreuil Fiat, they have been phenomenologically reduced to their essence.  But it is the profane dark essence of death rather than the sacred luminous essence of life distilled in the Meyreuil Fiat.  Johnson grew up in New York, but he has escaped it for the aesthetic wonders of France, as the Meyreuil works show, and, more broadly, of Italy, as Lucignano DAsso (Yellow Bar) and San Giovanni indicate.  He lives in California, and he has painted its inhabitants, but he seems more at artistic home in France and Italy, where he paints the landscape in creative solitude.  He is a rare artist, what Paul Valery called a painter who can convey the pleasure of perception.”  WM

"Mitchell Johnson Selected Work (1988-2023)"
Flea Street, Menlo Park / January-February 2024


"La révélation de Meyreuil"
Musée de la Villa les Camélias, Cap d'Ail / May 17-September 29, 2024


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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