New York

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1964, oil on canvas, 108 × 79 5/8".

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1964, oil on canvas, 108 × 79 5/8".

Joan Mitchell

Cheim & Read

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1964, oil on canvas, 108 × 79 5/8".

It’s difficult to ever view a Joan Mitchell painting as pure abstraction. Her famously synesthetic approach to landscape and figure gives her works—whether a small drawing or a diptych that fills a wall—a gravity. They are environments.

This compact show touched on the long arc of Mitchell’s career, from her early, calligraphic slashes in the 1950s, when she was painting in a studio off St. Marks Place in New York and drinking with the AbEx boys, through her time in Paris in the ’60s, and, until her death in 1992, in the French countryside at an estate with an overgrown garden and a cottage where Monet once lived.

For all her triumphant fireworks of blue and green, Mitchell was not afraid to make ugly works. One of the first paintings that greeted you in the main gallery was Untitled, 1960, which looks like someone’s palette after a rough night, with muddy mixtures of orange, brown, and sickly green. But on the adjacent wall, a palate cleanser: Untitled, 1964, a nine-foot-tall canvas of vined greens, teals, ochers, and cobalt blues interrupted by knots of purple and green—the effect is akin to walking through a wet garden. (The work’s unpredictable beauty is mirrored by John Ashbery’s comment that conversations with Mitchell were like “embracing a rose bush.”)

A stunning watercolor from 1967 allows larger shapes—bright squares and triangles—to form, but the majority of her oeuvre falls back on the scraggly energy of a line taken in various directions, stretched to various scales, executed in various hues, and doing various things: tangling, scraping, cutting, clumping, ramifying, dripping, dragging, exploding. The show’s highlight was one of its least assuming works, Untitled, 1978, a pastel drawing on eight pages of standard paper. A shocking graze of magenta and black or navy clusters at the bottom of each page; above these lines, a smudged wash of white and periwinkle and blue shifts across the panels. There are four wonderful moments when a green slash in the “sky” continues from one page to the next, suggesting that these sheets were made simultaneously. Each has its own centering presence and wholeness; together, the progression suggests some kind of changing weather system à la Constable’s nineteenth-century cloud studies.

The densest works in the show hail from the late ’70s and early ’80s. Barely any canvas is visible in the diptych Heel, Sit, Stay, 1977, whose wonderful title may allude to the artist’s beloved German shepherds but is an easy enough command for the viewer to obey: One is immobile before the work, sucked into Mitchell’s almost Fauvist placement of thick, vertically adjacent patches of color. La Grande Vallée XVI Pour Iva, 1983, dedicated to one of her dogs, fills an almost nine-foot-high canvas with fat crosshatches of purply blue and citrus yellow.

In the back gallery were works made in the artist’s final year. Drawing and painting came together as never before. These canvases and pages are lighter and looser, their strokes left open, their horizontal script interrupted by stems that just stretch—whether through drips or a steady pull of the oiled brush or swipe of pastel—to the bottom edge of the composition. Like a top, these vertical lines center the work’s spin; I was reminded of Mitchell’s comparison of painting to dance, and of the importance of the “plumb line” that allows for “frenetic” dynamism, an allusion mentioned by Mark Rosenthal in the exhibition’s catalogue. That control is always on the brink in Mitchell’s works, which is why they remain so exhilarating—the air moments before or after a sudden storm.

Prudence Peiffer