View of “Joan Mitchell Retrospective: Her Life and Paintings,” 2015. From left: Bonhomme de Bois, 1961–62; Untitled, 1964; Untitled (Cheim Some Bells), 1964; The sky is blue, the grass is green, 1972 (panels reversed in installation); Closed Territory, 1973. Photo: Markus Tretter. © Joan Mitchell Foundation.

View of “Joan Mitchell Retrospective: Her Life and Paintings,” 2015. From left: Bonhomme de Bois, 1961–62; Untitled, 1964; Untitled (Cheim Some Bells), 1964; The sky is blue, the grass is green, 1972 (panels reversed in installation); Closed Territory, 1973. Photo: Markus Tretter. © Joan Mitchell Foundation.

Joan Mitchell

View of “Joan Mitchell Retrospective: Her Life and Paintings,” 2015. From left: Bonhomme de Bois, 1961–62; Untitled, 1964; Untitled (Cheim Some Bells), 1964; The sky is blue, the grass is green, 1972 (panels reversed in installation); Closed Territory, 1973. Photo: Markus Tretter. © Joan Mitchell Foundation.

GESTURE, LIKE EMOTION (or affect, easier to swallow for some reason), is back, but we’re not much better at talking about it than we were in previous go-rounds with AbEx, Informel, etc. We still discriminate too strongly between broad categories such as abstraction and figuration, male and female, first and second generation, but fail to distinguish finely the touch and speed and scale of gestures: licks, drags, pats and pokes, strokes, skitters, pushes, sharp right turns. These marks correspond to, or rather just are, feeling: feeling not as emotion alone, transcribed on canvas, but as a state of being alive, as Joan Mitchell told Yves Michaudin a 1986 interview reproduced in the catalogue for this traveling retrospective curated by Yilmaz Dziewior and Rudolf Sagmeister. Feeling that embraces image (yellow curtains, blue sky over Lake Michigan, a tree in the countryside), physical experience (a dance, a dive, a punch, a kiss, a melody), and emotion (anger, fear, love, sadness). Feeling can embrace a painting too, of course—Does it work?, as Mitchell often asked.

The ground floor of the Kunsthaus Bregenz is dark, even spectral, but that wasn’t necessarily a problem when viewing Mitchell’s work made in 1950s New York. These early years are not her strongest—most of the few paintings included here feel as if she’s groping, although, to use the language of the time, they ain’t bad. The mystery of the ’50s is how hers became a major voice, and this exhibition didn’t try to solve it. But if we didn’t get a feeling for who she was starting out, and how she became even more so, the succeeding floors wiped out the usual stories—first or second generation—of what happened next. For Mitchell: no gratuitous break with past art, no self-cannibalization through repetition, and, above all, no falling off.

As we came into the light on the first floor, we saw Mitchell come into full bloom as a colorist and also as a composer (characteristically, the painter both thought about and disregarded the gendered opposition of these labels). In these paintings from 1958 through the early ’60s, the gestures in Ladybug, 1957, begin to condense into forms, mass and image coalescing in the tangle of index. The flurries and frustrations of declaration become decisive, and the paintings free themselves even as they take shape. These works were made during Mitchell’s early years in Paris, and it’s tempting to see in them her autonomy from New York and new avenues of ambition other than originality. From 1961 came the first truly great painting, Untitled, in the exhibition: Doing away with the crutch of scaffolding, purple and green and orange marks push outward without the need to fill or cover the canvas. Expanding on this triumph was the spectacular horizontal Grandes Carrières, 1961–62: hard/sweet color polluting even the white ground, rendering it pastel, embodied in every possible kind of touch (a litany of marks Joan Snyder would exploit more deliberately). The enormous painting rushes headlong, trailing ghostly drips. Then came a minor hiatus until 1964. Did the missing time mark her father’s death? (The details of Mitchell’s life were celebrated in ephemera presented as specimens within majestic vitrines on the ground floor, quarantined from the paintings.) This small gap was followed by another much larger one, between 1964 and 1972, which might have left even a casual visitor to wonder about the time between the two blue works of 1964 and what came “next” in 1972. That year and the following brought two strange canvases, the first multipaneled works in the show: a diptych, The sky is blue, the grass is green, and a triptych, Closed Territory, with roughish rectangles bumping into one another, squeezing interstices of scribbled ground. The triptych’s title resonated: How did we get from the blue blobs to these push-and-pull fields?

There was another seven-year gap between these paintings and those that launched the following floor. The museum’s gracefully abrupt architecture helped to mask or even make sense of the exhibition’s gaps, as if traveling up the blank stairwell walls measured out that missing time. In any case, the lacunae sacrificed large pieces of Mitchell’s production and the chance to connect individual paintings. At points, the rewards of strong static images, of individual paintings or groupings, compensated for this loss of flow. It’s not clear whether the sacrifice was made for this aesthetic purpose or simply out of expedience—the loans that could be secured, the work that could fit—but we miss the sense of an artist’s life in process. The flaw of earlier monographic exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism was that gatherings of too much work inevitably list toward monotony, however diverse the effects from the artist’s point of view. But given too little work, we scratch our heads. This manageable, contemplative size would be perfect for an exhibition that looked closely at a moment of an artist’s production—a decade, a subject, an experiment—instead of attempting a retrospective scored with holes (the New Museum’s recent Albert Oehlen exhibition in New York is another example).

The intimation of expedience is raised as well by the catalogue, which lacks sorely needed new scholarship, excepting the material from the Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives and the essay by its archivist, Laura Morris. Rather than assess or incorporate the primary material of the images and letters it presents (Samuel Beckett was a neat guy, but what does his friendship with Mitchell tell us about her or his work?), the catalogue showcases artists’ thoughts on Mitchell. I like this tactic and what it can bring to history, and the contributors here—Ken Okiishi and Jutta Koether—project sympathy for Mitchell (even if they don’t offer great insight). But why not include the voices of artists who knew her—less fashionable figures such as Ed Clark and Joyce Pensato? The catalogue typifies the attempt to make painting cooler (for lack of a better term) by simply ignoring existing discourse in order to create an image that we might find attractive today: rage, cocktails, dogs, and women wronged. If, for the past ten or twenty years, many academic art historians have savaged contemporary art by historicizing it, forcing it into genealogies and well-appointed cubbyholes, curators now run the risk of entirely contemporizing the historical.

Never mind. The work triumphs, and the installation was, at times, flawless. The top and final floor of the exhibition yielded one of the most transcendent experiences I have ever had in a museum. Sitting on a broad stone bench, with natural light warming the concrete walls, looking at those monumental, intensely beautiful paintings, was like visiting some ideal world. Four polyptychs from 1980–81 could not have been better. The landscapes at once stretch before us, flat and panoramic, and fold around, enclosing us in central clearings or thickets, creating as much a kinesthetic physical experience as a visual one. It is as if the artist stood in the middle of a landscape, turning and looking. Equally incomparable is the way she acknowledges the concrete breaks of the support panels even amid the swell of the natural forms. Along with allover and gesture, figure and facture, Mitchell in these works joins together bodily and conceptual mark-making. As in a Jasper Johns flagstone painting, some of the marks obey descriptive logic, and others the divide between canvases. Two paintings—Wind and Sunflowers, both 1990–91—manage to revisit the allover and find something new there, somewhere between form and field, grid and organic scatter. Trees, 1992, is shockingly literal, finding late in the day a new solution to the old clash of depiction and facture. This diffusion and disparateness of late gambits belonged not to the exhibition but the artist, who embarked on brave ventures that pushed together gesture, description, and conceptual severity in works that, though uneven, fill one with admiration.

The different kinds of gestures in these pictures provide a lesson (or lexicon) in distance and mastery, as in the reach of a single person meeting the world and expanding into it. We see Mitchell’s effort to lose the line between herself and the world, the wood, the field, the paint, the turpentine. If the accepted story is that her anger—about her father’s demands, her mother’s absence, the sexism of the world—created a lack of boundaries and diminished self-worth, here that boundarylessness reads as expansion to the point of freedom from ego. The artist becomes not small and powerless in the face of the world, but open to and part of its oceanic expanse. Much is made of Mitchell’s synesthesia as well as her anger, and so it seems apt to invoke A. N. Whitehead’s insistence that the human sensation of green is no less real, no more subjective, than the atoms that make up a leaf. To think like this is not so much to lose as to locate oneself, in active, mutual relation to and experience of everything else.

“Joan Mitchell Retrospective: Her Life and Paintings” is on view at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, through Feb. 21.

A contributing editor of Artforum, Katy Siegel is the inaugural Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Endowed Chair in Modern American Art at Stony Brook University, the State University of New York, and the author, most recently, of “The Heroine Paint”: After Frankenthaler (Gagosian, 2015).