PRINT March 2021

Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell in her studio, 60 Saint Marks Place, New York, 1957. Photo: Joan Mitchell and Rudy Burckhardt. © Estate of Joan Mitchell.

“A PAINTING IS NOT AN ILLUSTRATION / but a levitation,” writes Alice Fulton in “Close (Joan Mitchell’s White Territory),” her poem on the titular work. “In person, it looked a little dirty. / I could see the artist’s hairs / in the pigment.” In Mitchell’s paintings, abstraction levitates but never drifts off into the empyrean realm of high-modernist transcendence. Nor does it perform the drama (or melodrama) of the proverbial AbEx painter indexing his own overflowing élan vital. Long eclipsed by her male New York School peers, Mitchell drew on the legacies of the historical avant-gardes in unique ways and turned gestural abstraction to her own ends, creating a body of work anchored to human reality not only by the kinds of material traces that Fulton sees preserved in pigment, but also by complex explorations of embodied subjectivity and intersubjectivity, of moving through the world as a bounded form among other forms.

This year, a retrospective curated by Katy Siegel and Sarah Roberts for the Baltimore Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will offer a sweeping overview of Mitchell’s oeuvre. In the run-up to the exhibition’s opening in San Francisco—recently rescheduled for this fall—Artforum invited art historians MOLLY WARNOCK and ELISE ARCHIAS to illuminate Mitchell’s singular achievements.