New York

Joan Mitchell, Clearing, 1973, oil on canvas, triptych, 9' 2 1/4“ x 19' 8”.

Joan Mitchell, Clearing, 1973, oil on canvas, triptych, 9' 2 1/4“ x 19' 8”.

Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell dismissed her works on paper—even painting-scale pastels of four-foot dimensions—as “lady paintings.” Keeping faith with her subject, Jane Livingston, the guest curator of the Whitney’s Mitchell exhibition, created a retrospective exclusively composed of works in oil on canvas. The survey features fifty-nine paintings, of which thirty-eight are big and another fifteen are very big. There are only six small, easel-scale works, which is too bad because at least two or three of these are as good as anything else in the show.

Casual visitors to the Mitchell exhibition were overheard admiring the color and energy they saw in the work. More seasoned viewers may be challenged to find Mitchell in the paintings, where she can be camouflaged in the distinctive stylistic imprints of her Abstract Expressionist predecessors and “second generation” contemporaries. Everywhere you look you see the ghosts of ’40s Baziotes, de Kooning, Gorky, Gottlieb, Hofmann, Pollock, Tomlin. The spirit of Kandinsky and the Surrealists, especially Masson and Matta, is there, too. Indeed, the larger importance of modern European painting to Mitchell’s art cannot be overlooked. She first visited Paris in 1948 and from 1955 stayed there. That was when she met the Canadian-born French artist Jean-Paul Riopelle; they remained close for a quarter century, living together from at least 1960 to 1979. There is understandably a dialogue between his Surrealist-influenced “action” painting and her own. But one sees equally in Mitchell’s art the impact of contemporaries like the German E.W. Nay, who promulgated the theory that “to paint is to form the picture from color.” From Vétheuil, on the banks of the Seine, where Mitchell lived and worked from 1967 until her death in 1992, the museums and galleries of Paris were only about thirty-five miles away. She presumably had the opportunity to consider the work of Europeans of shared sensibility, artists like Mathieu, Soutine, Soulages, de Staël, Vedova, and even Alechinsky and Jorn of the CoBrA group. The latter believed in spontaneous painting, what one writer described as “pure psychic improvisation,” a view shared by Mitchell, who said she never planned her paintings, never thought about them, never did preliminary sketches or laid down any “starter” outlines on the canvas. She insisted she just painted what she felt.

In terms of peer influences, though, one figure stands out. Over and over passages in Mitchell recall, occasionally with disconcerting likeness, the work of Philip Guston from 1949 to the early ’60s. Indeed, Guston was unusually present in Mitchell’s life; they were good friends from the time they met in 1948 until his death (they even lived in the same building in the early ’50s). The work of other contemporaries flickers suggestively through Mitchell’s art, too. Sam Francis was a major and lifelong influence; variants of what could be his shimmering tesserae show up in Mitchell’s paintings. Francis and Mitchell also shared a love for a certain intense cobalt blue that is nearly autographic to both. Still, despite the temptation to tally sources, there’s never any mistaking a Mitchell for anybody else’s work. While every artist’s work is indebted, Mitchell’s indebtedness is discretely identifiable on the canvas in a way that can sometimes be downright distracting. Her marks are less invented than patchworked.

And Mitchell was a frenzied mark-maker. The physicality of the work is striking—it’s not surprising to learn that in her youth she was a competitive athlete. She worked in small studios in which no more than two panels of stretched canvas could fit side by side. Since many of her later paintings were composed of two, three, or even four panels, she was constantly moving tall stretched canvases around the studio. Mitchell painted her triptychs and quadriptychs in successive segments. She worked on one or at most two panels at a time, then switched and worked on others. In short, she created her three- or four-panel compositions in part from memory—a bit like a one-woman game of exquisite corpse. She never saw all the panels of the finished painting together until it went out for exhibition in more spacious rooms. Evidently this never stopped her.

Mitchell aspired to the dimensions, and then some, of the classic Abstract Expressionists, painters whom Linda Nochlin in her splendid essay in the Whitney catalogue refers to, tongue in cheek, as the big boys. If size matters, Mitchell won. Pollock’s biggest painting is just under twenty feet long, as is Newman’s. Mitchell’s operatic La Vie en Rose, 1979, is over twenty-two feet, and Salut Tom, also 1979, trumps even that, at more than twenty-six feet. Livingston makes an eloquent case in her informative catalogue essay for these giant multipanel paintings, writing that Mitchell was “forging narratives across an extended, metaphorically time-oriented, pictorial plane.” Livingston sees in this work “implications of a journey, or of contrasting states of an emotional trajectory that might have arisen from a crisis.”

Yes, but Mitchell was also ferociously ambitious. She went after big for big’s sake. Perhaps it’s precisely because she couldn’t see all four panels at the same time (though she has been quoted as saying “I can’t paint with everything showing”) that there is no imperative relationship between the vocabulary of their marks and the dimensions of her biggest paintings. Too often these three- and four-panel paintings show an artist scrambling frantically—using long-handled brushes to extend beyond the reach of her arm—to fill the void. It may be why the bottoms and centers of Mitchell’s big paintings look full and worked and the tops sometimes drop off, as if abandoned.

Even at the start, in the ’50s, Mitchell painted large canvases. She was never about drawing; she was always about paint. Slashing strokes, color over color, and scratchy, tangled lines characterize these early works. Hemlock, 1956, stands as an exception and is not only a completely formed Mitchell but one of the best paintings in the show. Its dynamic interlocking forms in green, black, and white are in mortal combat for control of the picture plane. Hemlock’s pigment appears to be in motion before our eyes and, at the same time, its energized surface is entirely serene. It’s a beautiful, stately painting.

Mitchell hits another high point in 1964 with Calvi and a small group of related works. This is as close as Mitchell ever gets to a concrete image. The paintings’ central form is a “ball” of indeterminate weight—it could be a dust ball, it could be a meteor. We somehow know it’s floating and casting off particles. The strength of the Calvi group is derived from plotted composition that is unusual in Mitchell’s work.

The exhibition gives a high profile to the suite of twenty-one paintings of 1983–84 called La Grande Vallée. A separate room is dedicated to the subject, and there is a catalogue essay by Whitney curator Yvette Y. Lee devoted to the group. Unfortunately, only three of the paintings are in the show, which makes it impossible to assess the impact of a body of work ideally seen as an environment. These lush, abundant paintings are landscape impressions, predominantly floral in feeling. They clearly echo Monet’s Water Lilies and other garden subjects like The Japanese Footbridge, and the Grande Vallée cycle is deeply indebted to the Impressionist master, never mind the repeated demurrals by the catalogue authors. The best part of the paintings, however, is the tragic real-life fairy tale that inspired Mitchell to make them (the story is recounted in detail in Lee’s essay). Mitchell’s response to the dreamlike story and its fantasy landscape paints a more nuanced image of her personality than anything we’ve known before.

In the late works from 1985 through 1991 there are essentially two kinds of paintings. Sometimes Mitchell opens up the space of her composition and moves ribbons of paint fluidly around the canvas to seductive effect (Bracket, 1989). Or she constructs nearly architectural forms in which lively daubs of scuffed impasto energize and compel the painting’s imagery (L’Arbre de Phyllis, 1991). Other times there is a kind of madness in the pigment. She seems to have hurled paint at the canvas, pigment over pigment, until the color is muddied and the imagery clotted (Sunflowers, 1990–91). Or she scratches and scrawls and drips paint wildly over the surface until even a field of sunny colors lapses incoherently, like an explosion in a crayon factory (South, 1989).

Mitchell hews to a distinctive palette and personal vocabulary of marks from beginning to end. Green, blue, orange, black, and white are favored colors. Her marks include (1) choppy vertical smears, rather like a color test, usually in pairs, (2) thin “washes” of pastel hues (lime, flesh, rose, slate blue), (3) daubs of impasto, almost always on top of other paint, (4) slashing strokes, long and stiff, vaguely scimitar-like, (5) eroding or “melting” once-geometric rectangles, mounds, or blobs, and (6) drips. Nearly all her paintings use nearly all her colors and all her marks in some combination; the paintings are almost always allover matte in finish (glazed bits appear only occasionally). A painting like Low Water, 1969, is absolutely classic Mitchell, combining all of the above in hieratic descent.

By the end of the Whitney exhibition you know you’ve spent time with an artist who showed virtually no restraint. Mitchell threw herself into her painting, using body and emotion rather than mind. These paintings are raw, unmediated by the brain. Said to be an intelligent, even brilliant woman, Mitchell did not make intelligent paintings. They are tangibly felt paintings, and they are fierce. But they are very often incoherent and not always pretty. Nochlin in her essay writes of Mitchell’s “battle [in paint] between containment and chaos” and of her “brazen refusal of harmonious resolution.” Such, Nochlin suggests, can be the empowering edge of women’s rage.

Mitchell’s “lady paintings,” on the other hand, could be seen concurrently with the Whitney show at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in the exhibition “Joan Mitchell: Working with Poets.” On view were seventeen of Mitchell’s petite and lovely sheets on which she combined her own pastel drawings with concrete poems by poet friends. The exhibition also included artists’ books for which Mitchell created prints and a handful of related works. The poem-drawings and books belong together; Mitchell shows an unusually advanced sensitivity to balancing image and text on a page and making art of their interwoven imagery. The drawings are rather Zen-like, with floats and falls of icy or smoky color and hints of emerging form. They are subtle and delicate and at the same time frank and tough and sometimes angry. (Not one bit ladylike!) It’s a shame this second Mitchell show wasn’t installed in the Whitney’s lobby gallery to complement the fourth-floor retrospective. Mitchell may have dismissed her small-scale works on paper, but no one else should. A sheet from 1975 with a poem by her friend (coincidentally named) J.J. Mitchell reads: “Hey J J / Somepoem / Hey Joan / Blow a pic / Sure / Wanna bet / Yeah / No hands / Tears / Cocksure / Piece by piece.” Who could ever doubt it? That’s Joan Mitchell. No hands. Tears. Cocksure. Piece by piece.

“The Paintings of Joan Mitchell” travels to Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL, June 27, 2003–Aug. 31, 2003; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, TX, Sept. 21, 2003–Jan. 7, 2004; Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Feb. 14, 2004–May 16, 2004.

Brenda Richardson is an independent curator and arts writer based in Baltimore.