New York

Joan Mitchell

Ruth S. Schaffner Gallery

When genuinely concerned people talk about painting being dead, they could very well have in mind Joan Mitchell’s recent work—not because it’s bad, but because it’s so good. Within the context of painting—yea, oil painting—Mitchell does everything right; she is as scruffily solid as Guston, at least mentionable in the same larger neighborhood as Rothko as a colorist, and as conscious of reciprocal space as any Hofmann disciple. She even has her own mark—less effete, spikey, and treelike than in the old days—which denotes making paintings out of passion for what they can say rather than from the sure, metronomic production of visual niceties which infects even newer Motherwells and Twomblys. Mitchell’s paintings come off the walls, which means they don’t just sit there and balance out a checklist of “right” color combinations (although she does use Prussian blue vs. ocher, or hot pink against orange) and compositional positions, but rather they—however incredible this seems to you—light themselves up with a content transcending the formal elements. Why them, do they eventually fall back to the taste of exercises, albeit of “heroic” scale? Perhaps it’s the clinging to too much studio stuff—oil paint, bristle brushes, the abstract triptych (they never work), drips, impastoes, and the kind of sour glow one can get with gesso and turpentine.

She is a better artistic temperament than Olitski (his retrospective is still on here), but she is less imaginative; her paintings are tougher than his, but less cognizant of the historical issue. Apparently (from seeing these good paintings from this good artist), something has to be done to abstract painting—sparkly pigments, squeegeeing, spray guns, soft supports, sewing, etc.—however repulsive and chancy, before it can function at all anymore.

Peter Plagens