New York

Joan Mitchell

Robert Miller Gallery

Gesture’s painterly dynamic may seamlessly fuse raw strength and refinement, as in Joan Mitchell’s work, but the true test of its power is whether it brings to miraculous life what looks like dead space. Matisse was a master of this, and so is Mitchell. Her gestures, an uncanny mix of willful energy and the involuntary “overflow” that is its residue (the drip as sign of excess) make the canvas space seem mysteriously infinite. That is, where the gestures are manifest energy, the canvas space becomes latent energy—the zone of repression and potentiality rather than actualized expression. Gesture and canvas space are thus intimately connected: one and the same energy informs both, albeit in different “states.”

In her graphic work—the retrospective at Susan Sheehan included works from 1959–92—Mitchell tended to suffuse the whole canvas with gestural energy, sometimes as a kind of atmosphere (thick or thin), at other times as a kind of transient flicker or darting movement. Modeled on a certain idea of the sensation nature affords, her gesturalism is part of that pursuit of its idealized form that has been the implicit goal of abstract landscape painting since Monet and Cézanne. Mitchell in fact lived and worked in France, not far from where Monet once did.

But in her paintings, she completely transcends the sometimes facile quasi-calligraphic, officially poetic nature-sensation of her graphics. (She was part of the cult of painting-as-poem—“illustrating” poems by James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, and Nathan Kernan, among others.) In the untitled paintings she is no longer an accompanist to the poet, no longer trying to make gestures that can be translated into or are in some way the equivalent of words, no longer bound to the supposed poetry of nature, but, rather, responding to the medium and act of painting. Her gestures are self-reflexive, and above all, declare and vitalize the canvas space on which they exist, and into which they sometimes seem to melt.

But they never fuse with the canvas, as those of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland did; rather, they range across it restlessly, in alternately vertical and horizontal movement, suggestive of a kind of integration, and the scattershot, highly agitated animation of disintegration (as is evident in the diptych Tilleul, 1992). This same split “consciousness” exists, highly condensed, almost schematically so, in the left panel of Merci, 1992, and in the internal light/dark contrasts of her gestural complexes.

This split, simultaneously structural and sensory-affective, can be understood psychoanalytically as a primitive defense against self-destructive rage—rage at her illness and impending death, at the narcissistic injury the very idea of death inflicts. Indeed, these are among her very last paintings. The way we deal with the inevitability of suffering and death says a good deal about our respect for life and will to live, and Mitchell’s ability to make something esthetically happy and strong out of them showed that her will to live and respect for life never diminished. Her gestures never became entropic, but remained intense with the energy of organic life, as her colors indicate—even when they are autumnal.

Donald Kuspit