Go West, Young Man

By Julissa James

One of Mitchell Johnson’s latest works, “From 1750 Taylor,” 2019; 30 × 40 inches oil/linen.

For Mitchell Johnson, a Silicon Valley garage evokes memories of artful color (not tech!).

A cold garage is to Silicon Valley what a dank basement is to Punk culture: where the mulling and magic happens. Anywhere else, a garage is just a garage — somewhere promise gathers dust. But in this corner of the world, it’s a place charged with significance of success thanks to Bill Hewlett and David Packard, Steve Jobs and countless Stanford students who dreamed big. It’s the idea that a sense of place, and possibly lack of sunlight, can influence a favorable outcome. In the late 1990s, it was this mysterious lure that led an innovator of a different variety, the artist Mitchell Johnson, from New York City to the Palo Alto garages that would propel his paintings into the Peninsula stratosphere.

“I really did start my career in these garages,” says Johnson, in a voice Tom Wolfe might describe as soft Californian, tinged with a New York and Virginia upbringing. “What I’ve done in order to get my paintings into the world and make a living from them is pretty unusual. It’s kind of like being an entrepreneur.”

As a twentysomething earning his graduate degree at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, he began doing odd jobs for Minimalist maestros like Frank Stella and Sol LeWitt. Later, as Johnson was showing in galleries across Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Santa Fe, he grew tired of pay-to-play culture. It was LeWitt himself who advised the color-infatuated painter to look West. “He said, ‘I think California would be a good fit for you because of the way you like to paint. You could get a garage and do your work outside,’”Johnson recalls, adding, “I think he could see that this was a good idea for someone like me.”

When Sol LeWitt tells you to do something, you do it. But a job offer working in the studio of Sam Francis — another art luminary and San Mateo native who shared Johnson’s tendency toward vibrant color — was another motivating force.

Inspired by the region’s DIY spirit, Johnson got creative about selling his work to his new neighbors. He advertised in The New York Times (and still does); he harnessed the newly minted powers of the Internet (today, that includes a robust Instagram, @mitchell_johnson_artist); he displayed his paintings at Palo Alto hotspots like his wife Donia Bijan’s former restaurant, L’Amie Donia.

The California chapter of his career paralleled tech’s growth in and out of the garage.

“The whole Silicon Valley thing was [bubbling] up, and I started selling all these paintings to important people,” he remembers. “Nobody in New York knew what was going on over here because they weren’t paying attention. … But I saw it start because it was impacting me — because all these different people were coming into a lot of money and buying my [work].

Of the Bay Area, Johnson says: “There’s something in the air, and when you’re in those garages, things can happen.”

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