New York

Joan Mitchell

Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.

Three decades back Jill Weinberg Adams worked closely with Xavier Fourcade—Joan Mitchell’s dealer at the time—and came to know the painter well. Now, as co-proprietor of her own gallery, she has called upon her long-time associations to assemble an absorbing exhibition that addresses the work Mitchell made between 1973 and 1983. The exhibition, in addition to its sheer aesthetics, opens a Pandora’s box regarding the painter’s interface with the French art scene during that decade.

In 1955 Mitchell, at the very height of her powers, began to divide her time between New York and Paris, decamping four years later for the latter city and nearby Vétheuil, locales indelibly associated with Monet and now with Mitchell too. Many factors, both artistic and personal, contributed to this relocation—among them her attachment to the Canadian-born painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, who lived in France. But behind this decision was also the belief that Paris was not really played out as the center of the art world, despite contrary assertions made by Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Mitchell seems to have been free of the defensiveness that characterized the broad front of American painters who were proprietary about the range of Abstract Expressionist styles they had cobbled together from homegrown models provided by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

Mitchell was hardly the only American in the 1950s to feel that New York City had not as yet gained ascendancy over Paris—such disparate figures as Al Held, Ellsworth Kelly, Leon Golub, and Sam Francis are but a few of the boldfaced names to be found amid many lesser-known but wonderful American painters who opted for extensive, often lifetime, Paris sojourns at that time: James Bishop, Shirley Jaffe, Nicholas Krushenick, and Beauford Delaney among them.

Paris back then still had something real to offer—titans such as Picasso remained in part-time residence; Matisse was alive; Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti in ascendance; and, though we may have smugly condescended, Jean Fautrier, Riopelle, Paul-Émile Borduas, Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, Alfred Manessier, Georges Mathieu, Jean Degottex (names leap to memory) were painting extraordinarily well. Vieira da Silva, too, with whose work Mitchell’s cries out for comparison. Both were women working in sexist bastions, of course, and both were drawn to intricate, meandering compositional armatures interrupted by blasts of color—though Mitchell’s chromatic detonations were always the more explosive.

In addition to the parallels already noted, Mitchell’s margin-to-margin pastel scrawls on paper may, in their violence, be likened to the long, looping strokes of Hartung’s work. Yet, despite this similarity, Mitchell’s impulsive motions are also at odds with Hartung’s unwillingness to risk le bon ton. Mitchell’s harsh attacks in both painting and pastel recall, too, certain tantrumlike whorls to be found in Cy Twombly’s graffiti-related work.

To be sure, certain of Mitchell’s paintings float free of this enveloping Europeanism. Pour Patou, 1976, for example, and Buckwheat, 1982, are utterly hers. Yet, despite the high pitch of these works, they nevertheless continue to signal attachments to van Gogh and Monet. Such intensely chromatic works are countered by murky sequencings of fogbound abstract rectangles—an echo of Rothko—as seen, for example, in the quadriptych Returned, Canada Series, 1975. The latter type of soft rectangular lateral displacements, when ultimately combined with the painter’s van Gogh/Monet propensities, would lead to the large abstract landscapes of Mitchell’s last phase—passionate expanses that mark the second apogee of her late career.

Robert Pincus-Witten