Review of Field Language: The Painting and Poetry of Warren and Jane Rohrer

NOTE: The book reviewed here is a companion for two exhibits—one at the Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University and one at the Woodmere Museum in Philadelphia. Covid protocols forced the postponement of both. The Palmer exhibit is scheduled for Feb. 10-June 6, 2021; the Woodmere, a year later, to April 6, 2022- July 10, 2022.

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Julia Spicher Kasdorf, Christopher Reed, Joyce Henri Robinson, eds. Field Language: The Painting and Poetry of Warren and Jane Rohrer. University Park, PA: Palmer Museum of Art (Penn State U.), 2020. Pp. 225. $39.95.

This impressive collection of eleven essays and many color-plate reproductions describes, analyzes and celebrates the life work of two Mennonite-related artists, Warren Rohrer (1927-95), painter, and his wife, Jane Turner Rohrer (b. 1928), poet.

The authors in this interdisciplinary study include a poet, painter, quilt historian, agricultural historian, art historians and museum curators. The varied voices create many-faceted discussions that probe the tensions and symbiotic relationships of the Rohrers and their work: of husband/wife, painter/poet, tradition/modernism, representation/abstraction, landscape/painting, folk art/fine art, local/cosmopolitan, Mennonite/secular.

Both Jane Turner Rohrer (b. 1928) and Warren Rohrer (1927-95) were raised in “plain” Mennonite families—Jane in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Warren in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They met when both were students at Eastern Mennonite College (now University). After leaving EMC, they also left the Mennonite Church, although from 1961 to 1984 they returned to Lancaster County and lived at Christiana. Their Mennonite upbringing infused both artists’ work, and one of Warren’s memorial programs was at Community Mennonite Church in Lancaster city.

Jane Rohrer is one of the first Mennonites to have her poems published in mainstream poetry venues, especially the American Poetry Review from 1977. She studied with Stephen Berg and Thomas Kinsella. She says “my subject was Warren” (56), which is an exaggeration—she also wrote travel poems late in life—but is well illustrated by the final chapter of the book, which pairs her poems with Warren’s paintings, bringing out explicit and implicit connections. Among other anthologies, six of her poems appear in A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry, ed. Ann Hostetler (2003). She is author of two books of poems, Life after Death (2002) and Acquiring Land (2020). At 95 years of age, she continues to live in their home “Cogslea” near Philadelphia.

The editors recognize Warren Rohrer as the “first” Mennonite whose paintings have been honored in the American art world. They appear in collections of the National Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art and others, and have been the subject of many scholarly studies. Most of the book is concerned with his paintings and the contexts and influences that produced them.

Two characteristics—landscape as subject and abstraction as style—persist in Warren’s work. The impulse toward landscape derives from his youth working in the fields near Smoketown in Lancaster County. He discovered his impulse toward abstraction almost accidentally at Penn State, thanks to the mentoring of artist Hobson Pittman. His landscapes were never very representational and they grew increasingly abstract, especially during the “Fields” series from his final decades. The classic essay on his work by Steven Z. Levine (1983), republished here, offers seven different definitions of “field” that help clarify his achievement.

If Rohrer’s abstractions depict fields in some way, it is not from the traditional perspective of a horizon-bound scene. Rather, the perspective is from above, as from a helicopter, looking at a flat surface, occasionally with token boundaries of color or figures on the edges, perhaps suggesting abstract fence rows.

They are “Color Field” paintings, meaning that their main interest lies in the artistic use of color. Rohrer’s colors are not flat, but result from the piling of layer after layer of different colors, resulting in a unique color with shadings that create a very subtle artistry. Sometimes Rohrer allows the several contributing colors to appear irregularly in tiny edges of the canvas. The superb color-plate reproductions capture some of the color shadings and effects, but even they cannot do full justice to the minute descriptions given by Nancy Locke and Christopher Campbell in the essay, “Work, Labor, Matter: Warren Rohrer’s Abstraction.”

Two of the chapters raise critical questions about Rohrer’s work—not of his achievement, but of his thinking about his work. Sally McMurry, agricultural historian, comments on Rohrer’s consistent claim that the farming landscape of Lancaster County was a “profound influence” upon his subject, as in the “Fields” series. She finds his interpretation of the landscape to be too pastoral, too idealized. After all, the Lancaster County farmscape is basically manmade—not “natural”—beginning with the almost total tree-cutting by pioneers that denuded the valleys. Plowing, tilling and harvesting today are carried out by ever-more sophisticated farmers—not “artisans”—using ever-larger machinery. And chemical fertilizers are replacing crop rotation.

Rohrer also projected his notion of the landscape onto the Amish quilts that he loved, claiming that they, too, were influenced by the experience of the land. Quilt scholarship, however, documents that, more likely, the Lancaster Amish borrowed their plain-color, geometric quilts from their Welsh Quaker neighbors. See Mary Jenkins and Clare Claridge, Making Welsh Quilts: The Textile Tradition That Inspired the Amish? (2005 UK, 2013 US). Of the 29 quilts depicted there, 12 are virtually indistinguishable from Lancaster Amish quilts, the rest being made of chintz fabric.

Jannekin Smucker, quilt historian, raises the question of whether antique Amish quilts—particularly the Diamond-in-the-Square and Bars designs—directly influenced Rohrer’s field abstractions. After all, Picasso’s abstractions were influenced by African and other primitive sculpture, and early American modernists, such as Elie Nadelman and Charles DeMuth, were inspired by American folk art. Amish quilts are often seen as fulfilling the expectations of modern art categories such as Hard Edge Abstraction, Op Art and, especially, Color Field, Rohrer’s typical style. If any later modern abstract painter might have been influenced by Amish quilts, it would be Warren Rohrer, Mennonite.

The question of quilt influence on Rohrer’s abstraction is an important one because, although art historians and connoisseurs admire quilts for their connections to abstract art, so far there has been no evidence that quilts have “influenced” those schools of art, even though Lancaster Amish quilts preceded those recent abstractions by many decades. Smucker does in her essay what has not been done before—consider the influence of Amish quilts on Abstraction in the best possible case study, that of a Mennonite from Lancaster working in mainstream American art.

The seminal essay by Levine declares what might be obvious on the surface: “The underlying heraldic language of Rohrer’s fields is that of the Amish quilt, barred, starred, divided, and stitched according to the repetitive life rhythms and symbols of a simpler way and time.” (114) However, Smucker says that Rohrer never truly acknowledged that his abstractions were influenced by quilts. His wife Jane says that Warren did not draw “directly” from quilts but “used them as one of his tools, one of his raw materials.” (74)

The Rohrers did love antique Lancaster Amish quilts, which they first encountered at the landmark exhibit of American quilts at the Whitney Museum in New York City in 1971. They were awestruck by the Bars Lancaster Amish quilt they saw there. It propelled them to seek out and buy Amish quilts in their Christiana community, as shown in the Center Square [73] and Bars [77] quilts that they owned, as well as in Jane’s poems, “Tracking the Amish Quilt” (202) and “Auction” (59). In the 1970s Warren painted an “Amish” series, some of which are abstractions that almost replicate the Bars (87) and Center Square (88) quilt designs.

Even so, Rohrer found it difficult to accept quilts as “art,” a main reason being that the “intention” by their makers was not to create “art.” (78) Rohrer might have noticed that “intention” is not a good way to define art, considering his own experience with two paintings that his mentor declared art but that Warren had disowned as art or did not so intend--one of which won an art prize. (17, 158)

Properly understood, Amish quilts are “intentional” and “art” within their own community, even if not self-consciously so—as is reinforced by their dialect having no proper word for “art.” They are pattern art (as Rohrer’s paintings become) although every one is different, unique because they are handmade, the result of strategic creative choices by individual quilters. Two essays in the book Amish Abstractions (2009) clarify this point. Robert Shaw (29-38) shows how Amish quilts are “fundamentally abstract,” (29-38) and Joe Cunningham gives a detailed analysis of the artful choices that were present in the making of a “Roman Stripe” Amish quilt. (39-48)

Their intentionality as art is also suggested by their disposition after being made. Why have so many antique Amish quilts survived into the present time, often in perfect condition? As Smucker points out, many were kept stored in blanket chests (because they were commemorative gifts?), others were used in guest rooms or used only when church met in the home. They were set apart as something special and, when used, put on “display,” albeit on beds instead of the wall.

Smucker regrets that Rohrer could not fully appreciate and acknowledge quilts as influencing his work and attributes that fact to his ambivalence, as a “worldly” artist, to his sectarian Mennonite background. It is unfortunate that he could not see Amish quilts as the art critic Robert Hughes did in saying that Lancaster Amish women were second only to Mary Cassatt as the outstanding American artists of their generation (Amish: The Art of the Quilt [1990]). As a folklorist, I prefer to understand quilts in their cultural context, not from the point of view of connoisseurs in the fine arts world. But I regret Rohrer’s qualified acceptance of them as art.

A final word on Rohrer and Amish quilts. His “Field Language” paintings from the 1980s-on add random marks/squiggles/hieroglyphics as decorations across the otherwise plain fields (49-65). Rohrer acknowledged that they were influenced by the work of the African-American artist Alma Thomas, whose paintings he first saw in the early 1970s. His paintings in this series could as well be seen as replicating (plain) whole-cloth quilts, whose subtle effects are created by overall quilting patterns. In passing, David Carrier describes these squiggles as “quiltlike” (155).

This discussion of quilts is out of proportion to the contents of the rest of the book. But Smucker’s essay may be the most important one published here, in relation to broader discussions of the relationship between American abstract art and American folk art. Rohrer’s ideas on the subject renew the status quo consensus that quilts and abstract art are “parallel but distinct” streams. (Jane 78).

The excellent, provocative discussions in the book are dignified by superb book design, heavy, glossy paper, many full-page faithful reproductions of paintings, and excellent printing and binding (by [Mennonite] Friesens in Winnipeg). The book is a work of art in itself.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck is Professor Emeritus of English at Goshen College, where he taught English, dramatic literature, postcolonial literature, folklore and Mennonite Literature, He was Fulbright professor of English and folklore at the University College of Belize and, following retirement, taught twice at LCC International University in Lithuania. He has published widely in his teaching fields, including articles on Mennonite and Amish folk arts and folklore, as in the books MennoFolk 1 and MennoFolk 2. He was an original co-editor of this online journal and a planner of the Mennonite/s Writing conferences at Goshen College in 1992 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.