PRINT September 1988


JOAN MITCHELL TOLD INTERVIEWER Yves Michaud in 1986, “I imagine a sort of scaffolding made of painting stretchers around a lot of colored chaos as an identity.”1 The terms of Mitchell’s self-image are characteristic in that they point through the self to the work. Instead of a throwaway professional despair (or cosmic acedia at mid career), her “scaffolding” reflects the weathered pragmatism of an improviser who has seen into the heart of her method.

At 62, Mitchell continues to advance a naturalistic mode of improvisational abstract painting at its most limber extensions. She synthesizes effects of landscape and other recollected sensations, and expands upon them in flashes and tangles of paint. Any one of her paintings may dawn on the viewer as the subtlest or most vehement of sense memories spontaneously reified. But she doesn’t notate from the details of a specific view—she uses her sensibility to fasten an analogous fact. An actual landscape with clamberings of foliage and sun is more likely to call up one’s memories of a Mitchell painting than the other way around. Her pictures are mostly big—some are polyptychs of immense proportions—and they aim for the big statement with a measured pulse. For all their immediate surface profusion, they come across as intense and willed. Even when, as in the last decade or so, Mitchell lets fly with color, you can watch her arranging, supervising, making the strokes and drips go securely where she wants. Will is intrinsic to the ambition she brings to abstract nature painting. Her aim is to take clues from moments of random contact with the world as the means of entering it with the intentionality of art.

In the few early pictures gathered for the current retrospective of her work, you see a young painter in the ’50s going straight to the mark. She very quickly became the kind of expressive artist she clearly meant to be. Adapting surface excitations typical of the New York School to a bare-bones approach toward landscape imagery, her mid-’50s output has the identifiable flair of an intelligence immediately at home with its forms. Hemlock, 1956, gathers a variety of kneaded, billowing whites that double as air and muscle around skeletal blue and green dashes. The inflected space pivots on a broad, double-edged axis, from which prominent horizontal offshoots appear to be shoving toward either edge. In Metro, 1958, you see how Mitchell, like Franz Kline, can let texture and speed go independent of each other, so that the thickness of a mark digs in, drawing the eye up short, while the color makes a glancing passage. The lateral crush of Couscous, 1961–62, is ignited from above by glints of washed-out color. The more catastrophic moments in Mitchell’s art tend to be marked by pale rather than loaded areas. She reverses the familiar conceptions of where major intensity sits among hues and textures.

Mitchell’s declarations of surface thrive and teeter on a partial reserve, a reluctance that fixates upon uncertain—and sometimes feverish—middle distances. This hairbreadth remove allows the paradoxes of figure and ground to shake loose pluralities in the literal “where” of an image. Semblances of motion throughout a painting fix the appearance of the complete movement, which becomes the image in focus. This is what Mitchell calls “motion made still.”2 The early pictures register the slipperiness of vision’s hold on sensational space by indicating an entrance or jumping-off place for the eye, usually in the lower middle of the canvas. Thus, above a darkly scumbled threshold or ledge—sometimes in the barest guise of a skewed X—the rest of the image skitters in a crosswise rush. In George Went Swimming At Barnes Hole, But It Got Too Cold, 1956, the view is channeled upward and out from a set of elliptical corkscrew whorls. Mitchell holds off the action so one’s gaze reaches that focus where the abrupt crosscurrents can be perceived at equal force. The picture’s directional sinews don’t stretch so much as vibrate in place. The succinct imaginary space communicates an astringent, tamped-down emotional position toward the agitated image. Simultaneously, it returns a concentration to the surface like breath meted out under mental duress.

Mitchell has said, a “painting is just a surface to be covered.”3 The primary motion, then, is a fractional shuttling toward and away from the ground plane where put-on oil paint meets the backboard of canvas. Shapes and nonshapes float or stick in a reprise of the physics that make affixing paint to a flat upright surface possible. The gravity continuum that holds the image mix together parallels the sheer hoisted interval where contact is made. Part of the fascination of Mitchell’s new work derives from how that space squeezed between paint and canvas can still be perceived among headlong, intricate swipes of color, some of them spanning, some tugging at the face of the canvas. An outright, looming, piled-up frontality of the kind you see in Then, Last Time IV, 1985, is rare. Usually, the image is resolved as a ventilated expanse with every part set in suspension or flux. The lines of stress (those darting strokes and gathered masses sprung from Mitchell’s early absorptions of Willem de Kooning, Kline, and Philip Guston) have cast off as ever more slippery lines of flow.

The sharpness and snap of Mitchell’s colors steady the overall effusion—the sense, even, in some, that the painting might be leaping out of its skin. She adds colors together like a writer arranging by the phrase. One color seeks out another, and in the interchange, light happens. The panel-to-panel reversal of complementary color layers in the diptych Two Sunflowers, 1980, makes a complex identity; like a personal, binocular view of time, it’s both the same image focused two different ways and a composite. The new paintings are full of ripe colors applied airily or in filmy laminations that sit firm and opaque as printers’ inks. They show the amount or size a color is as it makes the space in which it exists, rather than how much of it has been used up to occupy a space.

Mitchell’s intensity is specific to its occasions. Her style never seems safeguarded by insignias. You don’t confront in her work anything like the “rare states” that Hans Hofmann so assiduously went for. When Mitchell paints what could be taken for a garden, there’s nothing paradisiacal or enchanted in her view; it’s both more down-to-earth and more vulnerable. The syntactical air of her pictures is thick with strong feeling, expressions of a temperament so conscious and choreographed that its pulsion can be clear in many places throughout.

By bringing out the ephemeral in crude matter—by lodging the terms of visibility at just that juncture of tension and release—the paintings defy emptiness by defining its inner limits. Instead of entertaining the conception of a void so as to assert mastery over it like a Symbolist, Mitchell works her way in from its coordinates, relegating it to a fringe pressure. A void will occur at or near the frame edge, striking the image from without as an impingement. Others may pop out of the mesh; corners of canvas, especially the upper ones, are left bare or grazed by wisps. Her horizons come in tiers, curving and unstabilized. Some motions slip fitfully behind the weave, some glide or push outward. There are bravura embellishments, loose accumulations of loops and exasperated knots, and strange brackets and fencepostlike markings along the edges. But there is the deeper sense of a void framing individual works: you feel their energies, their galvanized splays of cleanly distributed color, cry out from an isolation bounded by inimical blanks.

There are no objects in any of Mitchell’s paintings but plentiful suggestions of the worldly conditions in which objects exist and affect us by simply, and as if by necessity, being seen. As paintings of experience, Mitchell’s state as much as they suggest. They announce exploded nodes of seeing and sensation that drag entire thing-related etymologies across the surface: a constant, further “something” at the root makes the surface feel dense and fraught even when, as in many of the mid- ’70s works, it is only thinly covered. That density is reciprocal, partly as a function of the viewer’s imprinted sensory apparatus, with its ideogramic associational track that will read in a trellised layer of dark cobalt green the concomitant likelihood of its spelling “bush.” In fact, no bits of external nature serve to verify the figurative properties of Mitchell’s paint, which are nature, as Thomas Hess remarked, “from a mind’s eye view.”4 The titles Mitchell assigns her paintings—titles such as Maple Leave Forever, 1968, Salut Tom, 1978, and Ready for the River, 1987, that refer to objects, people, or more recently, passages of time—are verbal subtexts. They stand for partial resonances along the route of seeing and feeling, making, and making sense.

Without ever depicting the human body, Mitchell’s paintings remind us of how the body orients itself in a matrix of sensations, how consciousness favors and transforms its immediate world view. Sensation supposes a physiology capable of reflecting experience.The world may be recognizable but confronting it directly with one’s senses is a scramble of approximation, of “more or less” from here and there. The most perfect attention can’t define, and won’t rehearse or memorialize, so can only add. The sensational world is a mess of additional layers. The task of an artist, Samuel Beckett said, is “to find a form that accommodates the mess.”5 For the viewer caught up in improvisatory shifts of focus and jolts between color planes, moments of definitive visibility get tossed in a surge of intermittence perceived as chaos. The chaos that Mitchell depicts—and nowhere so regularly as in her latest paintings—could be seen as a substantial, unmurky aggrandizing, partly from memory, of that disorderly point where integral experience in all its lumped-together fullness presents itself as both desirable and plainly too much. This elaboration argues its way into the present tense as a kind of inverse sublime. As Fairfield Porter said, Mitchell’s form is “the positive of Turner’s vortex.”6 Turner directed the eye to a confusion about how deeply it might plunge into unlivable infinite regress. Mitchell confronts the eye with an infinity corresponding to the given complexities in any act of looking. It’s the elementary, lived-in quality of real-time chaos she’s after—an uncalled-for, luxuriant emergency. Details within a field, she seems to say, are easy to get, but the macroscopic sprawl eludes our sight, even though it is that larger presence with which we are most intimate.

According to Judith Bernstock in her catalogue essay accompanying the retrospective, Mitchell does most of her painting at night; she checks the colors’ resonances in daylight.7 Although some patches in her ’70s pictures have a contemplative, partially submerged, crepuscular glow of a sort associated with late-'40s Mark Rothkos, there are no nocturnes in her inventory. Generally, her light arrives with a sunny, mid-morning, picture-window vibrancy, not quite outdoors but almost. It can smack the viewer head-on—rebounding as if from a fogbank in Pour ses malinois, 1981—or gather pensively as in Salut Tom. The shadowless, acrobatic light that tumbles across a series of “Chord” paintings (1986–87) equilibrates among churning spatial dissolves. A muted version of this same light flickers down through the terraced hues of La Grande Vallée, No. 0, 1983, landing a yellow splash like a single sunbeam finalized in the shape of a fallen leaf.

Mitchell’s pictures don’t contemplate; they stir, rounding out visible instants in a range of disorder hooked to intermediate orders. Their concerted colors tie the double fact of sensation and visibility in terms that realistically can’t be unraveled. They make refractive sensation explicit, a matter of feelings delineated by duration and amplitude. Sensation implies the momentous inkling of a possible existence. Its basis is wonder. Mitchell treats that inkling as an inspired event coordinated by the palpable fabric of painting, its active thread. Criticism’s part in this is peculiar and limited, because criticism can’t, as art so often does, tell everything at once.

Bill Berkson is a poet and critic who lives in Northern California. He writes regularly for Artforum.

“Joan Mitchell” premiered at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and then traveled to the Museum of Modern An, San Francisco, California. It can be seen at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, from September 17 to November 6 1988; the La Jolla Museum of Art, San Diego, California, from December 3 to January 29 1989; and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, from February 26 to April 23 1989.



1. Yves Michaud, “Conversation with Joan Mitchell, January 12, 1986,” Joan Mitchell: New Paintings, New York: Xavier Fourcade, Inc., 1986, n.p.

2. Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, Ness York: Hudson Hills Press (in association with the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York), 1988, p. 64.

3. Ibid., p. 67.

4. Ibid., p. 74.

5. Quoted in Tom Driver, “Beckett by the Madeleine,” Columbia University Forum 4, Summer 1961, p. 23.

6. Fairfield Porter, “Reality and the Museum,” in Rackstraw Downes, ed., Art in Its Own Terms, New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1979, p. 85.

7. Bernstock, p. 46.