Artists love blue.
When it comes to a playlist of hits, simply stated, Joni Mitchell’s a superstar. During the 1970s Mitchell’s Blue played on grandma and grandpa’s Acoustic Research turntables. The classic album portrays a fragile and shy artist’s songs about lamenting life’s lost loves with strokes of beauty and hope.
Mitchell had fallen off my radar until recently when I saw PBS’s Joni 75 where fellow musicians performed the legendary singer-songwriter’s work. She was at the concert appearing to be in good spirits but didn’t sing.
I wasn’t aware that her life took a tragic turn in 2015. Mitchell was found at home unconscious after suffering a brain aneurysm. Her strength prevailed during a difficult recovery, and she had to learn how to walk again.
Many consider Blue one of the greatest relationship records of all time. Much like a fondly remembered ex-lover’s name whispered, she references lovers Graham Nash and James Taylor. Only after a few romantic shipwrecks of my own making would Blue make total sense.
Art schools in the 1970s were full of aspiring, young Joni Mitchells. My first brush with the Joni’s occurred at my alma mater, the Maryland Institute of Art (MICA). These carefree, flower children steeped in patchouli exuded intense bohemian personas. They rolled their own Bugler tobacco cigarettes and also blew good smoke rings. Together as art students we learned about the color blue and Abstract Expressionism.
Mt. Royal Station is an historic, old train station in Baltimore. It’s part of MICA’s campus with classroom spaces on the first floor. As the lights dimmed in auditorium S3, art history professor W. Bowdoin Davis Jr. sat cross-legged on top of a wooden speaker podium in a Buddha-like position showing slides. He began a three-hour monologue.
“For example, blue is a spiritual color named Azure, Cerulean, Cobalt, and Indigo. For over 6000 years these pigments, shades and delicate hues have embraced the ethereal beauty of the sky. First, let’s define abstract, ‘existing in thought or as an idea, but not having a physical existence.’”
This room, filled with artist history is where I’d screen John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, hear Beat poet Allen Ginsberg chant, portrait painter Alice Neel cuss like a drunk sailor and performance artist Carolee Schneemann talk about being naked smeared in Ultramarine blue paint.
“Next slide, please.”
The Kodak Ektagraphic Slide projector clicked. Tiny dust particles floated in its light beam. Full transparency: I was a projectionist for the school’s AV department.
On the screen was an image of artist Joan Mitchell’s work—wide blue paint strokes mixed with delicate brushy movements. Abstract Expressionism is an American art movement mostly dominated by male artists that began in the 1940s.
Joan Mitchell was one a few well-respected female artists involved in Abstract Expressionism along with fellow painter Grace Hartigan. Mitchell and Hartigan are both included in a fantastic book by Mary Gabriel, Ninth Street Women, which details the lives of five female artists who changed the face of Modern Art.
One crisp, late-autumn afternoon during the early-1990s in Manhattan, I was surprised to see Grace Hartigan trying to cross busy Houston St. I recognized her as director of MICA’s prestigious Hoffberger School of Painting. Her right hand now held a cane, so I jaywalked Houston St. to help.
I was struck by Hartigan’s demeanor; one of endearing charismatic charm. Her rapid-fire wit was reminiscent of the actress Shelley Winters, the late and ribald Oscar-winner.
Hartigan’s destination was the artist and celebrity restaurant Ballato. For me, it was an exciting art world experience getting a cheap thrill holding on to Hartigan’s arm—the same arm that made the extraordinary paintings in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s permanent collection.
The world needs more artists like Joni Mitchell and Grace Hartigan. Both used their dramatic lives as palettes for inspiration and worked with the color blue. Cool and serene, the intelligent color goes beyond the boundaries.