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The Poet’s Painter

Intimately connected to the literary world, Joan Mitchell devised an abstract language of her own to make feelings visible.

Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and their fellow Abstract Expressionists were in their 40s when they hit their stride, breaking free of the European avant-garde and inventing the first authentically original style of American painting. The century, too, was in its 40s. Early in the next decade, the 1950s, this heroic first generation engendered another—the so-called “second generation.” The label has always brought with it at least a hint of deprecation. Members of the first generation were veterans, not only of modernism’s style wars but of the Depression’s hard knocks. Michael Goldberg, Alfred Leslie, and other second-generation Abstract Expressionists were in their 20s—youngsters flourishing in a milieu created by their predecessors. There was a suspicion that the newcomers had things too easy.

In 1952 Joan Mitchell— Goldberg’s contemporary and occasional lover— was given her first solo exhibition, at the New Gallery on West 44th Street in New York. Her canvases were highly accomplished. Thomas B. Hess, one of the first critics to write cogently about postwar American abstraction, recalled much later that a first-generation war horse (never identified) “proclaimed that it had taken him eighteen years to get to where . . . Mitchell had arrived in as many months. He didn’t intend it as a compliment.” The second generation hadn’t paid its dues.

The older artist’s resentment is understandable, and yet it has to be said that the value of art has no firm link to the dues that an artist has or hasn’t paid. And no artist should be blamed for being as precocious as Mitchell so clearly was. Twenty-seven years old at the time of her New Gallery show, she had mastered the technique that defines space, establishes scale, and generates a quality of light with a sustained flurry of painterly gestures. She was enough of an Abstract Expressionist to have earned a place alongside Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and 59 other painters in the landmark Ninth Street exhibition of 1951. There is, nonetheless, something generic about her early work.

Mitchell, who attended Smith College and graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago, in her home town, never studied with Hans Hofmann, guru to so many of her second-generation colleagues. Yet she seemed to be haunted by Hofmann’s “push-pull” theory of pictorial space, along with the Cubist faceting at the root of that theory. Quickly exorcising those precedents, she arrived, by the mid-1950s, at a startlingly distinctive style. Flickering now with rapier-like speed, her taut, wiry brushstrokes display a refined muscularity. As these marks jostle one another from one side of the canvas to the other, color shifts through a palette reminiscent of a sunny wooded landscape with hot floral accents. These allusions are subtle and often give way to a sense of the artist’s presence in her work, at once impatient and imperiously in control. The overall effect is jittery but elegant—and so original that Mitchell suddenly found herself ensconced in the forefront of her generation. Witty, hard-drinking, and uninhibited by the proprieties of her well-to-do background, she was thoroughly qualified for the prominent place she had won for herself in downtown Manhattan’s free-wheeling art scene.

Mitchell’s father, James, was a doctor whose success brought him to the presidency of the American Dermatological Association. An amateur painter, he took Joan and her older sister Sally on sketching trips to the country. At the Art Institute of Chicago, he introduced his daughters to the luminaries of the School of Paris, and Joan decided, when she was still very young, that Vincent van Gogh was her favorite painter. Her mother, Marion Strobel, was a poet and co-editor, with Harriet Monroe, of Poetry magazine, the remarkably adventurous journal that introduced American readers to T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and other modernists. During her teens, Mitchell met Dylan Thomas, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Thornton Wilder, who was teaching then at the University of Chicago. In a 1986 interview with the art historian Linda Nochlin, Mitchell summed up the literary flavor of her childhood in a single sentence: “There were books in the house.” And there were poets in Mitchell’s art world.

In 1959, James Schuyler wrote that he and other New York poets “are affected most by the floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble.” This is a nicely poetic way of making two points. First, Schuyler and his poet-friends took encouragement—even inspiration—from the energy and formal freedom of Abstract Expressionist painting. Second, many of them wrote gallery reviews for ArtNews. These tended to be favorable. The poets and painters were, after all, good friends. Mitchell was particularly close to Frank O’Hara, borrowing one of his titles—To the Harbormaster—for a 1957 canvas. In 1960 she supplied silkscreen prints for a portfolio of poems by John Ashbery, one of a series of poet-painter collaborations published by the Tiber Press. Yet Mitchell’s closest literary affiliation was not with a poet but a publisher—Barney Rosset, who founded Grove Press. Married in 1949, they were divorced three years later, though they remained friends until her death in 1992.

As the ’50s ended, the Whitney Museum of American Art bought Mitchell’s Hemlock. Her work appeared in out-of-town museum shows devoted to the burgeoning New York scene, and at home she was included in exhibitions organized by leading institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Jewish Museum. From 1952 to 1961, the Stable Gallery on 58th Street gave her solo shows almost yearly. Working in a studio on St. Mark’s Place, Mitchell became one of the painters most closely identified with New York during those heady years when the city was contesting Paris’s claim to be the capital of modern art. Yet she settled in Paris more or less full time in 1959 and in 1968 moved permanently to Vétheuil, a village on the Seine about 30 miles northwest of the city. By then, she had worked her way to a style that belonged not to the New York School, not to the European avant-garde, but to her own, grandly idiosyncratic idea of painting’s vocation in the 20th century.

Mitchell’s extrication from her aesthetic origins begins in the Frémicourt paintings, named after the Parisian street where she set up a studio in 1959. The New York paintings of the ’50s give us a clear sense of an individual—always insistent, sometimes agitated—directing discrete, if intricately entangled, gestures at the canvas. In Untitled, 1960, we recognize that person in the traces of Mitchell’s brush, yet her presence is not so clearly focused. Her own energy is overwhelming her—or that is one way to understand her new willingness to blur the evidence of her intention. Working not only with brushes but also with rags and fingers, she often smears her colors. She even permits muddiness in passages that could be seen as signs that she has lost control, and yet this reading gives way to an irresistible sense that Mitchell intended everything that we see in her art. If she did it, she meant it—unreservedly. That seems clear, as difficult as it may be to say exactly what any particular burst of virtuosity means.

In her interview with Nochlin, Mitchell talks about getting ideas, often from looking at a landscape or invoking its memory. By idea she does not mean concept. She means a pictorial possibility alive for her because of the feeling that pervades it—or possibly generated it. To paint is to be driven by that feeling, to struggle to make it visible. In Untitled, 1962, one of those that Mitchell referred to as “black paintings,” the tarry darkness at the heart of the image must surely signify dark emotions, a variegated gloominess intensified, with bitter irony, by the high-keyed slashes of the color the artist has placed at crucial points on the surface—or so it seems reasonable to argue. But what if, against all reason, Mitchell’s gloom is a kind of exaltation? What if this “black painting” is a desperate Ode to Joy?

As the 1960s ended, the artist launched a series of Sunflower paintings. At first glance these seem unabashedly happy—big, luscious canvases keyed to bursts of sunflower yellow. In an untitled painting from 1969, patches of glowing pigment—which could signify the sun as well as the flower—share the surface with an airy configuration of sky-blue brushstrokes. These may be the contours of a distant landscape. They may chart the flow of some intimate, interior feeling. We can’t know, nor does Mitchell want us to know. She wants us to consider all the possibilities, not only in their richness but also in their fraught irreconcilability. Holding a mirror up to the charged complexity of every viewer’s emotional life, the interplay of these mixed messages insinuates a kind of representation into her abstract art.

In 1955 Mitchell’s psychoanalyst, Erdita Fried, advised her not to spend another summer in the socio-sexual maelstrom of Southampton’s art scene. Opting for Paris, she renewed her acquaintance with Sam Francis, Norman Bluhm, and other American expat painters, including Shirley Jaffe, who introduced Mitchell to Jean-Paul Riopelle. A native of Montreal, Riopelle was becoming something of a star among Parisian abstractionists determined not to be intimidated by New York’s growing ascendency. That summer, he and Mitchell launched an affair that continued for nearly a quarter of a century. Rivalry tinged their mutual respect for one another’s work, and their love was regularly wracked by jealousy and recrimination. Neither had the knack of fidelity, yet their ultimate breakup left no bitterness. Looking back on her involvement with Riopelle, Mitchell sometimes called him, with rueful affection, “The Twenty-Four Year Live-In.”

Riopelle’s paintings are dense with pigment. Mitchell alternates denseness with an airiness that sometimes leaves patches of the canvas bare. Never, it seems, was either of them influenced by the other. Heavily layering his brushstrokes, Riopelle insists that paint is palpable. Mitchell uses paint to generate light, to give her colors the atmosphere of a place—or a mood of remembrance. In Green Tree, 1976, she lays on mostly vertical streaks of color in a pattern more even than usual. Here, if anywhere, is an image comparable to Riopelle’s slabs of interwoven color. And here, as throughout in her oeuvre, we see through the tangibility of her paint to a place shaped by a weather condition indistinguishable from a state of feeling—rather chilly, in this instance, though the chill is mitigated by the green and persistent life of the tree.

In the late 1970s, Mitchell’s imagery expanded from one canvas to several. Feelings, after all, know no boundaries, and perhaps a muralist’s ambition was always implicit in the artist’s sweeping gestures. When Erdita Friedman died, in 1981, Mitchell gave her name to an immense, four-paneled painting. Here gesture at the scale of architecture begins on the left with varieties of blue, only some of them mournful, and ends on the right with a monumentally cheerful burst of sunflower yellow. There is a more melancholy cast to A Few Days II (After James Schuyler), painted in 1985. Though Joan’s friend Jimmy would live for six more years, the artist was acutely aware that the poet’s spirit was being occluded by severe mental illness.

Sunflowers, 1990–91, completed a year before Mitchell’s death, is a big, two-paneled extravaganza. With its wide-ranging palette and bursts of painterly energy, it could serve as an exemplary instance of this painter’s style. Yet it resists any generalizations we might want to make about it. Like all her paintings, this one marks an occasion, an extended moment when a certain, very particular feeling made itself visible. This Sunflower painting is exuberant but also defiant. It dares us to try to make glib sense of it.

Midway through her interview with Mitchell, Nochlin raises a touchy topic: the tenacious “second-generation” label. Artist and historian agree that it is not a very useful phrase. In fact, it’s “boring.” Disinclined to be bored, Mitchell dismisses the subject. She doesn’t care how critics categorize her, she declares, going on to say, “I call myself a ‘lady painter’ and AEOH—Abstract Expressionist Old Hat.” But this is Mitchell-esque irony. Deeply familiar with doubt, even despair, she nonetheless knew—on her good days—that in her time she had helped to keep her medium present and accounted for. She must have known, as well, that after her death her oeuvre would do its relentlessly brilliant part to ensure the up-to-the-moment vitality of painting.

By Carter Ratcliff

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: March 2014

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