PRINT March 2021

Motion Pictures

Joan Mitchell working on Bridge, 1957, in her studio, 60 Saint Marks Place, New York, 1957. Photo: Joan Mitchell and Rudy Burckhardt.

THE CANVAS IS LARGE, standing more than seven feet tall and six feet wide. Painted on a white ground, the composition reveals numerous areas in which white paint has been energetically brushed over marks in other colors, progressively editing a roiling chaos of gestures down to a sparer, more defined structure with several especially prominent elements. In the upper register, just left of center, overlapping brushstrokes in shades of red, black, blue-green, and yellow combine to form a thick vertical line, as if marking out the operative axis. Just below this upright element, there appears a dense flurry of multicolored gestures. Clustered in a roughly horizontal zone, this array tapers to either side but is both extended and visually weighted toward the right. Also on the right, a bit farther down, dozens of brushstrokes have again been layered one atop the other, creating a diagonal band. At the very bottom of the picture, yet another cluster of predominantly oblique gestures form a rough wedge, drawing the eye to the lower right. The artist has signed her first initial and last name: J. MITCHELL.

Joan Mitchell, George Went Swimming at Barnes Hole, but It Got Too Cold, 1957, oil on canvas, 87 3⁄4 × 78 1⁄4". © Estate of Joan Mitchell.

Titled George Went Swimming at Barnes Hole, but It Got Too Cold and completed in 1957, the painting is a major exemplar of Joan Mitchell’s late-1950s abstraction. Its renown is due in part to the fact that its making was documented in the feature “Mitchell Paints a Picture,” written by Irving Sandler and published in the October 1957 edition of Artnews. As that article makes clear, George Went Swimming was in fact the second picture Mitchell attempted, having broken off work on another canvas, Bridge, with which she found herself dissatisfied. Judging from the black-and-white photographs credited to Rudy Burckhardt that accompany Sandler’s article, the two works shared a number of features, from the marking of a vertical axis to the left of center, to the roughly horizontal arc of gestures in the upper register and the wedgelike “base” atop the bottom edge. Mitchell nonetheless rejected Bridge, finding it insufficiently “accurate.” In Sandler’s account, this judgment leads into a broader discussion of the painter’s aesthetic criteria. Most essential, Mitchell notes, is that the work faithfully translate her feelings about a particular event—in the case of George Went Swimming, a summer day in East Hampton with a French poodle she once owned.1 “Motion is important,” the artist adds, “but not in the Futurist sense. A movement should also sit still [the peregrination of memory].”2

The quote is the first recorded instance of a claim that would underpin Mitchell’s conception of painting until the very end.3 The painter’s relationship to temporality has long been a source of fascination for her critics. Part of the interest of “Mitchell Paints a Picture,” then, is that it allows us to grasp this thought seemingly at its emergence. But what, exactly, is Mitchell saying?

Joan Mitchell, Cross Section of a Bridge, 1951, oil on canvas, 79 3⁄4 × 119 3⁄4". © Estate of Joan Mitchell.

LET US CONSIDER another picture that Mitchell’s reference to Futurism might call to mind: Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912. Duchamp is not, perhaps, an obvious comparison for Mitchell; indeed, he barely figures in the catalogue for the impressive forthcoming traveling exhibition jointly organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and he is largely absent from other recent accounts of Mitchell’s work, including the full-length biography by Patricia Albers published in 2011. And yet Duchamp is a persistent presence in the artist’s early reception. Reviewing the artist’s very first solo exhibition in New York, held at the New Gallery during January and February of 1952, the painter Paul Brach described her abstract canvases as “post-Cubist in their precise articulation of spatial intervals,” yet “close in spirit to American abstract expressionism in their explosive impact.” The key passage zeroes in on one of Mitchell’s defining early works, Cross Section of a Bridge, 1951:

The artist evokes Duchamp with tense tendons of perpetual energy. Movement is controlled about the periphery by large, slow-swinging planes of somber grays and greens. The tempo accelerates as the forms multiply. They gain in complexity and rush inward, setting up a wide arc-shaped chain reaction of spasmodic energies.4

The comparison was taken up again and newly specified in November 1961 in an Artnews review by the critic Eleanor C. Munro: There, at the top of the first page, Cross Section of a Bridge is reproduced alongside Duchamp’s infamous canvas. Although the text itself says nothing about this suggestive pairing, it does present Mitchell as drawing, in part, from Cubism’s “renegade phases,” noting, “Already, it was the motions of forms (soon to be the motions of individual brushstrokes as forms) which was significant.”5 Four years later, Frank O’Hara—a close friend of the artist—took the point as a given, citing Duchamp as a touchstone for Mitchell between 1950 and 1952.6

Duchamp is not, perhaps, an obvious comparison for Mitchell; yet Duchamp is a persistent presence in the artist’s early reception.

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912, oil on canvas, 57 7⁄8 × 35 1⁄8". © Association Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Mitchell disliked these comparisons. Her 1957 dismissal of Futurism (“Motion is important, but not in the Futurist sense”) was doubtless aimed at Brach, and she seems to have rejected the association anew some three decades later in a conversation with the art historian Judith Bernstock (“Mitchell insists that she was not involved with his or futurist art in the early 1950s,” Bernstock reports).7 If related claims have nonetheless continued to appear sporadically, it is because they do capture important aspects of Mitchell’s early abstract style.8 In many of her paintings from this crucial period, the rhyming is both tonal and structural. Like Duchamp, Mitchell deploys off-rectangular planes predominantly in alternately warmer and cooler shades of tan, gray, and cream, even if she also intersperses smaller patches and strokes of high-key color: lemon yellow, bright orange and red, a range of blues. The interiors of the pictures routinely reveal a tighter structure of more compact forms and slender brushstrokes, a surface organization evocative of the more intricate faceting of Duchamp’s Nude and of the flurry of motion lines along the work’s recto-descendant (i.e., rightward descending) axis. Indeed, in Cross Section of a Bridge, the relationship is even closer than either Brach or Munro allows. If we look again at that composition, Brach’s reference to a “wide arc-shaped chain reaction of spasmodic energies”—presumably he is referring to the tight structure of planes that descends from the upper left-hand corner and then, in notably attenuated fashion, rises upward again toward the right—misses just how powerfully a similar sense of left-to-right descent dominates the composition. That sense of directed acceleration is underscored by the large, arrow-like, blue-gray triangle in the lower right, effectively pointing the way “out” of the picture. These features are not adequately accounted for by the more canonical references to Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Wassily Kandinsky, or Piet Mondrian.9

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1953, oil on canvas, 76 5⁄8 × 51". © Estate of Joan Mitchell.

It might therefore appear that Cross Section of a Bridge simply remakes Duchamp’s Nude in a landscape mode, applying his pictorial syntax to a literally static yet notionally dynamic motif—or perhaps, to follow Mitchell’s later formulation, to the memory of that motif. There are good reasons for thinking this. Bridges figure centrally both in Mitchell’s family history (her maternal grandfather designed them) and in her personal recollections of key periods of her life, from her childhood in Chicago to her early days in New York and, soon after, Paris.10 Further, as David Anfam has noted, the bridge is also a storied trope in American literature and poetry, a tradition with which Mitchell was intimately familiar.11 And yet, considered at somewhat greater length, such a suggestion—that by expanding Nude laterally, Mitchell evoked the image of a bridge—raises more questions than it answers. Some emerge directly from the subject matter: Why should Mitchell’s bridge, even if only a cross section of one, have a strong recto-descendant axis? (It is in fact striking that Brach seems not to see this, perhaps because he takes Mitchell’s title at its word.) Others are formal in nature: Why risk translating Duchamp’s accordion-like planar structure, developed in view of an emphatically vertical format, to a colossal lateral expanse? Can the turbulent energy implied by Cross Section’s interior be at once sustained and contained at these dimensions—and beyond the bounds of figuration? 

Joan Mitchell, King of Spades, 1956, oil on canvas, 91 1⁄8 × 78 3⁄8". © Estate of Joan Mitchell.

Mitchell herself appears to have had her doubts. In the years following Cross Section, painting after painting evinces a version of the recto-descendant structure put in play by that crucial work, translating it into a tipped-over, at times precipitously tumbling mass of gestural marks. Further accentuated by the artist’s tendency to sign her pictures in the lower right, that overall weighting of the composition hangs on long after the period highlighted by Mitchell’s early critics, proving remarkably durable even as her painting undergoes otherwise substantive changes in both palette and paint application. Yet all throughout this period, Mitchell worked almost without exception in markedly less horizontal, if not always outright vertical, formats. This held true as she transitioned first to the wispier, more linear constellations and Mondrian-in-the-early-1910s palette (silvery taupes, pale blues, and buttery yellows) of circa 1953–54; through the larger zones of watery color in the azure-blue-and-golden-yellow Hudson River Day Line, 1955; and then to the more horizontal brushwork and muddied off-primaries of King of Spades and Harbor, December, both 1956. Most telling, perhaps, are those documented occasions on which she returned explicitly to the theme of the bridge. The earliest, simply titled The Bridge and completed in 1956, is her first known diptych, a work considerably smaller than Cross Section and composed of vertical panels; the second—also on an upright support—is the 1957 Bridge begun and abandoned in the course of the Artnews feature. 

Joan Mitchell, Hudson River Day Line, 1955, oil on canvas, 79 × 83". © Estate of Joan Mitchell.

WHICH BRINGS US BACK to George Went Swimming. When set beside Cross Section—slid, as it were, into the place thus far occupied by Duchamp’s NudeGeorge suddenly registers as a “verticalizing” of the 1951 composition, a translation of that earlier canvas’s arcing-and-descending structure into an implicitly anthropomorphic mode. (Note, in particular, the ways in which the dark, multilayered, near-vertical line segment in Cross Section’s upper central region appears to anticipate the similarly colored but now neck- or even headlike column in George Went Swimming.) Precisely in so doing, however, George Went Swimming eschews all pretension to bilateral symmetry, resulting in a picture that is even more powerfully weighted to the right. The more nearly horizontal but, again, predominantly recto-descendant marking adds to the sense of lateral rush, even as the lightly sketched frame within the frame—the curving blue, blue-green, and black lines limning the painting’s bounds from the lower left through the upper right corner—serves to “still” that motion, to reassert the painting’s own frontality and wholeness. (Following Mitchell’s terms, we might equally say that it asserts this motif as a thing fixed in memory, as opposed to a scene immediately transcribed.)

In all of these ways, George Went Swimming can appear the more powerful remaking of Duchamp’s picture. Yet even as it recapitulates something of Nude’s overall structure, the 1957 abstraction also shows Mitchell turning that framework toward very different ends. She is not depicting the motion of an external subject; rather, by indexically inscribing her generative movements before the canvas, she seeks to encode something of the lived experience of motile embodiment as such. Read in this light, the recto-descendant structure registers, above all, as attuned to the painter’s own handedness, to the innate orientation and automatism of a recto-dominant subject. Grounding movement—and the mediation of memory—fully in the authorial body, Mitchell discovers her true subject. The bridge span has been her arm span all along.

Molly Warnock is the author of Simon Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting (Penn State University Press, 2020).

Joan Mitchell, The Bridge, 1956, diptych, oil on canvas, overall 45 3⁄4 × 70 3⁄8". © Estate of Joan Mitchell.


1. Such, at least, was the original “mnemonic catalyst” for the picture; in Sandler’s telling, the completed picture telescopes this memory with another, of a hurricane that struck East Hampton in the fall of 1954. See Irving Sandler, “Mitchell Paints a Picture,” Artnews, October 1957, 70.

2. Sandler, “Mitchell Paints a Picture,” 69.

3. Mitchell would famously develop the claim in a 1986 interview with the French philosopher-critic Yves Michaud, a close friend of many years. There, she describes painting as “the only art form except still photography which is without time. . . . Of course, there is movement, what people call movement, within the frame, but it is certainly caught and if the painting works, the motion is made still, like a fish trapped in ice. It is trapped in the painting” (quoted in Joan Mitchell, “Interview, 1986,” by Yves Michaud, in Joan Mitchell. Retrospective: Her Life and Paintings, exh. cat. [Cologne: Museum Ludwig, 2015], 55). For more on this quote as it relates to Mitchell’s final paintings of the 1990s, see my “Joan Mitchell: ‘Pour attraper le mouvement,’” trans. Christian Diebold, in Odile Burluraux et al., Deadline, exh. cat. (Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2009), 97–99.

4. Paul Brach, “Fifty-Seventh Street in Review: Joan Mitchell,” Art Digest, January 15, 1952, 17–18.

5. Eleanor C. Munro, “The Found Generation,” Artnews, November 1961, 38–39, 75–76; these quotes are from 76.

6. Frank O’Hara, “Memoir,” in Sam Hunter, Larry Rivers (New York: Brandeis University Press, 1965), 11.

7. Judith Bernstock, Joan Mitchell (Ithaca, NY: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, 1988), 22.

8. See, for example, Paul Schimmel, “The Lost Generation,” in Action, Precision: The New Direction in New York, 1955–60, exh. cat. (Newport Beach, CA: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1984), 38–39, and Sandro Parmiggiani, “In Search of a Lost Feeling,” in Joan Mitchell (Heidelberg, Germany: Kehrer, 2008), 52.

9. Most recently, Tracey Bashkoff has identified Kandinsky and Mondrian as the central references for an untitled picture combining more gestural marking with an overall recto-descendant structure that strongly anticipates that of Cross Section; see her “Untitled, ca. 1950,” in Sarah Roberts and Katy Siegel, eds., Joan Mitchell (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 38–39.

10. For two strong recent accounts that consider the significance of this motif from different angles, see Marin Sarvé-Tarr, “The Bridge, 1956,” in Roberts and Siegel, Joan Mitchell, 48–49, and Suzanne Hudson, “Getting from One Side to the Other,” in Joan Mitchell: I Carry My Landscapes Around with Me (New York: David Zwirner Books, 2019), 7–12.

11. David Anfam, “Outreach,” in Joan Mitchell: Paintings from the Middle of the Last Century, 1953–1962, exh. cat. (New York: Cheim and Read, 2018), unpaginated. Interestingly, Anfam draws his epigraph from Duchamp: “The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.” Mitchell’s relationship to Duchamp is not otherwise discussed within this essay.