What to see in Mildred Thompson’s Magnetic Fields paintings

One of Mildred Thompson’s Magnetic Fields paintings serves as my avatar across all my social media channels. I’m fascinated by the painting which takes pride of place at my hometown art museum, the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida. The museum acquired the 61 ¾ x 95 ½ inch oil on canvas painting in 2019. Thompson, a Jacksonville native, painted it in 1991.

I like the painting more each time I see it.

It has presence. Wall power.

It has energy.

The painting bursts. The edges of the canvas it’s painted on can’t contain it. It sends vibrant colors off into the universe.  

It puts off light and heat and radiates joy.

I love sticking my nose right up to the painting and following Mildred Thompson’s brushstrokes as near as I can, trying to trace her hand on the canvas. Which layers came first? Which colors came first?

It is a genius work of Abstract Expressionism.

Adam Levine, the former Director and CEO of the Cummer Museum when the work was added to the museum’s permanent collection described it thusly:

“It has an exquisite balance to it. The center of the magnetic field is actually off center–it is to the viewer’s left and a little bit higher than the center of the composition, so you think that might skew things, but it actually centers the composition in a dynamic way. What you see are these magnetic fields, these concentric ovals emanating, but cropped by the top of the picture plane, so it creates this sense of the expansion beyond what the viewer is able to see and as a consequence, I think it wraps around the viewer–literally–this magnetic field and pulls you into it in this warm embrace.”

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today (KEMPER MUSEUM O)

I find it fascinating to hear different people discuss paintings they love. You’ve heard mine and Levine’s description of Mildred Thompson’s Magnetic Fields, now it’s Andrea Barnwell Brownlee’s turn.

When Brownlee took over directorship of the Cummer Museum in late 2020, one of the first questions I asked her when we met was what she saw in the institution’s Mildred Thompson Magnetic Fields painting. Brownlee played a significant role in helping grow Thompson’s fame curating the exhibition, “Mildred Thompson: The Atlanta Years, 1986 – 2003,” which was on view at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Arts in 2019. Brownlee was also director at the Spelman museum when the show was on view which featured a Magnetic Fields painting similar to the Cummer’s.

Mildred Thompson (American, 1936 – 2003), Magnetic Fields, 1991, oil on canvas, 61 ¾ x 95 ½ in.
Mildred Thompson (American, 1936 – 2003), Magnetic Fields, 1991, oil on canvas, 61 ¾ x 95 ½ in. Purchased with funds from the Rushton William Hays Revocable Trust and the Morton R. Hirschberg Bequest, AP.2019.1.1 ART AND PHOTO © THE MILDRED THOMPSON ESTATE, ATLANTA, GEORGIA

Andrea Barnwell Brownlee on Mildred Thompson’s Magnetic Fields

“I see astronauts, I see physics, I see an incredible solar system. I see her purple hair,” Brownell told me. “I see her partner. I see an incredible explosion of colors. Her paintings are so explosive and extraordinary as the solar systems.

“I’ll never forget when our students came into to the museum at Spelman College (to see the Thompson show). Right away, it was the physics students that got it and so I see telescopes, I see music, I could go on and on.

“She is that dynamic that it each time you see, you see something different – just see something totally different. Mildred is a force. She’s a force. She cannot be contained and her paintings can’t be contained either – just explosive.”

RELATED: Mildred Thompson Wood Pictures a complete departure from Magnetic Fields

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