The Blade

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In Joanne Grossmann’s 1976 painting Fast Food, a man looks out the window of a fast food restaurant into a familiar Midwestern landscape.

Cars sit in a concrete parking lot. Trucks rumble down an interstate. In the distance, a field of yellow-green grass stretches into eternity.

But something’s amiss. In his chair attached to a table, the man looks like he is almost floating, and instead of a disposable paper cup, an unexpected demitasse cup and saucer sits in front of him. A sense of uncanny simmers beneath the placid scene.

Joanne Grossmann, a Toledo native who passed away in 2017 at the age of 86, made large-scale paintings, often set in her native Ohio landscape. A collection of twenty of Joanne Grossmann’s paintings, including Fast Food, are now on display at the Midwestern Museum of American Art in Elkhart, Ind., about 2 hours west of Toledo.

The exhibition, a collaboration with 20 North Gallery in downtown Toledo, is titled Joanne Grossmann: The Narrative of Quiet Places. It is her first solo exhibition at MMAA.

In Joanne Grossmann’s paintings, viewers peer into scenes of Midwestern life: an elderly couple sits on a bench swing in front of a field of wheat; a woman crosses what resembles Anthony Wayne bridge; three women gather at a payphone. But though the subject matter may be familiar, a sense of unreality permeates the sparse scenes, which deal with themes of distance and alienation.

“The thing that makes an impact on me every time I approach her work is the immediate sense of recognition, with the setting and the individuals placed inside these imagined scenarios,” said Condessa Croninger, curator at 20 North Gallery. “They are very familiar looking landscapes — to us in Toledo, some of them are quite literally familiar.”

For Joanne Grossmann, many of the people in her paintings were literally familiar, too.

The man hunched over his coffee in Fast Food, is Joanne Grossmann’s son, George Grossmann. Joanne Grossmann often used family members as models in her work.

“We were kind of like her roadies, and her models,” remembers George Grossmann.

Joanne Grossmann grew up in Perrysburg, and attended Bowling Green State University and Ohio University. She met her husband one summer while working as a lifeguard at the Perrysburg pool. After marrying and starting a family, Joanne Grossmann and her family settled in Toledo’s Westmoreland neighborhood in 1972, where she converted a large room above the garage to an art studio. The new space allowed her to develop her signature large-scale style.

The striking size of Grossmann’s work first drew Brian Byrn, director and curator at MMAA, to her work.

“I was taken by the scale of her paintings,” Byrn said. “I learned later that she was fairly diminutive, but mighty in her expression.”

Conversations between 20 North Gallery and the MMAA began in 2017, after the Toledo gallery put on a retrospective of Joanne Grossmann’s work.

“I knew that this was an exhibition that was museum quality,” Croninger, the curator, said.

Byrn agreed. The two began planning an exhibition of Grossmann’s work at MMAA, originally scheduled for the summer of 2020.

Four years later — after securing paintings on loans from private collectors and Joanne Grossmann’s family members, shipping the paintings to Indiana, and navigating a global pandemic — the exhibition opened on May 3 of this year. The exhibition includes the first painting Joanne Grossmann exhibited, and the last painting she completed. It will be on display through July 14.

George Grossmann remembers his mother carrying her camera around with her as she traveled around the Midwest, capturing photos to later turn into paintings. In each painting, she composed a scene to be decoded by the viewer. Clues to the characters and setting of the painting are often glimpsed in shadows, through a window, or behind a corner.

“She was very strongly influenced by Edward Hopper, in how he composed a scenario — each painting has a little story occurring within it,” Croninger said. “But whereas Hopper looked towards the east, Joanne kept her focus firmly on the heartland.”

During her lifetime, Joanne Grossmann’s work was featured in national exhibitions and won several awards. In 1984, her painting The Duplex won First Award in the 1984 Toledo Museum of Art’s Toledo Area Artists Exhibition.

“Her works are perfect for this Midwestern museum because she really symbolizes Midwestern values,” said George Grossmann. “She was very modest and never really patted herself on the back too often — but I guess that was our job to do that. So we did.”

The Midwestern Museum of American Art is located at 429 S. Main St. in Elkhart and is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 

First Published June 14, 2024, 7:00 a.m.

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