The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

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JUNE 2019 Issue

Joan Mitchell: All by Herself

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1974-1975. © Estate of Joan Mitchell. Private Collection, Minneapolis. Courtesy David Zwirner.
New York
David Zwirner
May 3 – July 12

The art world seems to be waking up to the idea that the greatest Abstract Expressionist of both generations may not have been a man, let alone “one of the boys,” but was Joan Mitchell. 

Abstract Expressionism.

I feel like everything I know, I overheard while sitting alone up at the smoky clattering Cedar Tavern, listening to a drunken debate between ghosts. I hadn’t even been born, and yet somehow their muffled voices are lodged in my memory. I can make out words like “gesture,” “action,” and “arena.” And while fishing out a Camel, statements about the “painting having a life of its own” (Pollock); this or that technique requiring “push and pull”(Hofmann); and something about someone called “Big Joan teaching another person called “Little Joan” how to “ride with no hands” (Mitchell herself). It’s all well beyond myth. It’s even beyond biopic.

What if we “bring it all back home” for just a second. What if we consult the basic dictionary? 


1) The process of making known one’s thoughts or feelings. 
2) A look on someone’s face that conveys a particular emotion. 


1) Existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence.

Maybe the Expressionism was not so much about abstraction but more, like minerals, a process of extraction. An attempt, at least, to paint the honest face of emotion, to let one’s abstract mind fly (and then dry). To use the body as an athletic brush to medium-ize one’s mood. A means to vent onto canvas a condensation of, well, everything. 

It’s still surprisingly useful to place Mitchell in the familiar scenes, and sets, with the same art historical script (like a Chekhov play; what people say really is compelling), and to imagine Mitchell holding her own with the boys, or the "boids" (a funny term the painter once used in a letter to a boyfriend, meaning birds, or pretty girls, but in a Brooklyn accent).

Barbara Rose recalls Mitchell’s appearance in Life in 1957 in the article, "Women Artists in Ascendence" (with Grace Hartigan, Nell Blaine, Jane Wilson and Helen Frankenthaler). The “boids” each strike a pose, in front of "their huge paintings" in their "paint-spattered jeans." But despite such press, which certainly helped make Mitchell famous, by the early ’70s she considered herself obsolete and referred to herself as Ab-Ex Old Hat (or AEOH). I guess she felt Ab-ex-cluded. 

But if anything, Mitchell was Ab-Ex-clusive! 

And she knew it. In 1972, when Marcia Tucker invited her to exhibit on her own floor at the Whitney, she nearly declined, for Tucker had made a similar offer to another AEOH, Lee Krasner, to have a show on the next floor. Mitchell sensed she and Lee were both being used as poster girls for a feminist revisionist rescue mission. According to Patricia Alber’s (in her ironic-sounding biography Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter [2011]), by the 70s, Mitchell was not a fan of the card-carrying feminists. She found them not only "inferior" as artists, but also disingenuous careerists using gender as a kind of lever.

Mitchell flatly believed in merit. In doing it all by herself. In edging out the competition. And in coming out on top. Indeed, she has. And from an art dealer’s point of view, there’s no telling how much higher that top will continue to rise.

Joan Mitchell, Minnesota, 1980. © Estate of Joan Mitchell. Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York. Courtesy David Zwirner.

Mitchell also believed in the merit of others. Not only did she leave money in her will to start a foundation after her death, which continues to offer substantial support to painters, but in her day, she was known to be very generous to the youngsters. She’d swoop in to buy their paintings, flip the bill for their art supplies, bring them along to expensive dinners with curators and dealers, or just buy the booze, asking only in return for the opportunity to help drink it. 

Macho as she often was, I’d argue that “one of the boys” she was not. This sexist term of endearment offered by men to women who party hard and hold their liquor, would have certainly come off as a backhanded compliment to Mitchell, who was never not offended by the words and actions of men. 

Mitchell often spoke about having been traumatized by the mixed messages she received growing up in Chicago from her dermatologist dad, who is said to have undermined her from an early age, despite being her main source of encouragement. He’d push her to get straight A’s in school and to always return from figure skating and diving meets carrying gold medals, all the while reminding her that she was not the boy he’d hoped for. He penciled the name “John” on her hospital birth form, and then, after she was born, altered it to “Joan.”

Mitchell, who was endowed with great looks, loads of talent, financial privilege, and a family of do-ers (her maternal grandfather contributed to the making of the Statue of Liberty), seems to have acquired an inferiority complex. But thanks to her "Bullethead" (her father’s nickname for her) she used hard-nosed velocity to persevere and overcompensate.

Now, about 30 years after the artist’s death, Zwirner Gallery has announced that it is the "exclusive" dealer of this prolific and, dare I say, undervalued artist. The current show in Chelsea, offers a decade-by-decade teaser for what is soon to come—a complete museum retrospective, scheduled to open at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2020, which will circle back to the Guggenheim by 2021. I’d say we have already risen to our feet. I can hear the roar of applause. In truth, the Mitchell moment has barely begun. 

One of Mitchell’s early admirers was the poet and critic John Ashbery, who certainly saw her for who she was. In 1965, he wrote a review of her show at the Stable Gallery in ARTnews, applying much of what he’d come to know about being a runaway ex-pat in France. He saw Mitchell as maturing at her own pace, and wrote about her continued "unhurried meditation on bits of landscape and air.” (Bits of air? That would be vintage Ashbery). 

He spoke of her "almost unscathed planes of chalky color" with "borders meandering but determined, like the lines of a watershed." Here Ashbery is referring to the multi-panel painting from ’64, Girolata (which is not in the current show at Zwirner, however not too dissimilar from the 4-part La Seine from ’67 which is prominently featured). In this “watershed” moment we see the payoff of Mitchell’s private time in her Paris studio. 

When Ashbery wrote on Mitchell in ’65, he delved into the subject of her South of France palette, as if she were old-hat Corot (OHC). He was perplexed by her claiming and rejecting of the visual impact of the French countryside. But was also delighted by her balls in challenging the absolutist dogma of pure abstraction. “What then is the difference between, say, Joan Mitchell’s kind of painting and a very loose kind of landscape painting?" He asks, as he describes a triptych as a:

Fairly literal impression of the face of a cliff pocked with crevices and littered here and there with vines and messy vegetation. Even the colors—greyish mauve, light green, black—are not too far from what they would be in an explicit representation of such a scene.

Ashbery gathered it was Mitchell’s Proust-like ability to “reflect”that gave her work its "dominating force" and poetic vision, taking her beyond the scope of literal perception and even beyond memory. 

After all these years, these paintings from the ’60s retain their musicality—perhaps it is bebop. Improvisational Jazz was the rage, and the paintings do take off into extended solos like, say, Thelonious Monk on piano. But Mitchell also has a well-tempered classical counterpoint (or periodicity) at the foundational level, beneath the appearance of a kindergartener’s tantrum. There is an interplay between the nuanced wandering of scribbly forms and the repeating vaguely rectilinear shapes and repeating divisions of each panel. Also, it goes without saying that she exhibits a far more relaxed idea of the "field" than so many of the de Kooning copycats of the day, who were intent on muscling their way through, framing and reframing positive and negative space, building up a surface, and exploding the mark past the edge (often onto the studio wall) in order to expand the force of the image. On the contrary, Mitchell’s canvases are often bare and vulnerable. They breathe.

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1972. © Estate of Joan Mitchell. Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York. Courtesy David Zwirner

Knowing something about Mitchell’s childhood upbringing, it is easy to associate her accumulated brush marks and whip of a line with the dynamics of figure skating or competitive diving. The work has a balance of centrifugal and centripetal force, lent by her athleticism. Many clusters of marks seem to vault through the air, or cantilever into space. I’m reminded of the way a figure skater carves an elegant turn, digs in to the ice with the sharp edge of a skate, accelerates and leaps, while rotating, and becoming essentially an airborne twirling axis. 

Also her paintings express that abstract moment in an aerial maneuver of concentration, when everything becomes perfectly tranquil. It is this isometric (in the body) and geometric (outside the body) suspended animation, just before the plunge, that causes the paintings to hover and buzz, peripherally and acoustically. As the Zwirner press release points out, it is Mitchell’s ability to paint "between continuity and rupture both within and across panels" that takes her work to this exquisite sensory dimension. 

And the literal dimensions are in fact not always so big. One of the show’s smaller works, Untitled (1974-1975)—a three-part piece measuring 8.7 by 8.6 inches—shows off Mitchell’s ability to create even the most petite rupture. This painting is the smallest in the show, but perhaps the biggest in spirit. 

But Mitchell’s measured scale (her use of combined multi-panels to achieve her desired scale, as opposed to single extra-large rolls of cotton duck) may have been a pragmatic choice. She couldn’t get anything bigger through the door to her studio, nor did she have the floor or wall space to back very far away. 

This limitation of a smallish studio was the mother of invention. It forced Mitchell to paint two of the three (or four) panels at a time, saving the third (or forth), which she would store in her imagination as she went along. In La Seine, it looks like the two outer panels were literally pushed apart to make way for the inner two, the newcomers. The legible left-to-right sequence (or progression) is thrown out the window, and we are left to contemplate her intentionally asymmetrical symmetry.  

The multi-panel approach, forced Mitchell to push past perception and to use intuition; she usually wouldn’t even get to see her entire painting hung as a polyptych until it was properly installed in the gallery.

One prominent 4-part painting on view at Zwirner is Edrita Fried, from 1981 (it was titled in dedication to Mitchell’s psychoanalyst and friend who died that same year). Its brushy forms bare down and then disperse the way a storm front moves through the climate. A patchy collection of cobalt (or ultramarine) blue laced with violet form a cocktail shaken up into a storm of yellow and orange jabs, which emerge onto the fourth panel. The painting indeed reads like a sequential storyboard in a very ethereal sort of comic book. However, as Mitchell cautions, the optimal "read" is not from left to right but from as far back as you can get. "I paint them to be seen at a distance... to be seen in one piece." 

Like the best Pollack’s, the painting is an all-over, overwhelming, and simultaneous experience. Mitchell’s panoramic format often reminds people of Monet’s late waterlilies, especially with their deep scabby blues and greens. But Mitchell rejects this analogy, seeing her scapes rather as visionary interior glimpses of stored sensation. They manifest her unconscious as she locates with an internal compass a density of buried emotive force. 

Indeed, Mitchell owes a great deal to having had synesthesia. According to Patricia Albers, it was her "unusual way of sensing the world" that led her to think she was going crazy. She once told a friend "it’s not much fun being nuts,” and she even made one attempt at suicide, apparently due to the emotional chaos she was experiencing of seeing sounds, hearing flavors, and tasting shapes. 

But Mitchell learned to put her gift to good use, after she understood that she visualized sounds as colors moving on a screen in her mind, and that these colored lights varied in density and brightness the same way sound varies in pitch, timber and volume. She even did her best to deconstruct the phenomena. The letter "A," for example, would always produce a fern green. Not a tactile pigment, but a pure luminescence in the brain. Loneliness was a "clingy" dark green. Depression was a silvery white. Hope consistently produced yellow.

When Mitchell died at only 66, in 1992, the international art world had a chance to assess her paintings, but also her challenging persona. In a review of the documentary film Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter (1993) by Marion Cajoli which showed in New York around six months after her death, the film critic Stephen Holden, notes her "acerbic" personality, and “demeanor of a formidable grande dame, 1950’s bohemian-style.”

One example of her “imperious baritone," and sentences "clipped but loaded with emotional baggage" can be seen in one riveting scene where the camera zooms in on her heavily wrinkled face and lively eyes behind tinted large glasses, as she describes, with a bit of a slur (she was a heavy afternoon drinker) being out in front of her studio with her German Shepherd one day when:

The birds were there... and they were having a lovely time... and everybody... And the dogs were too old to attack... I suppose. And the weeds were beautiful. And It was all this moment... You know? We exist! (she smiles).... And then my foot felt a little heavy. And there was a viper on it. Sound asleep. Perfectly happy. You see?... I was part of nature. That’s what I’m talking about... But then I thought, I better do something about the viper. And the viper looked at Mario and out came the thing, and I thought I had to kill it!.... And I did...(she pauses) Don’t know what that has to do with painting. But it has something to do.... YOU FIGURE IT OUT.
Joan Mitchell, Edrita Fried, 1981. © Estate of Joan Mitchell. Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York. Courtesy David Zwirner

Okay, I will. The viper certainly does seem to have something to do with painting. A painting that begins as a lazy pastoral but then grows into conflict and urgency, as the painter realizes that the clock is ticking and that she must kill something before she can rest. She advances but is at risk of killing the painting itself. Thus, killing the viper is analogous to painting till the impulse can no longer slither through the nervous system, haunt and inspire and fuel desire and further creativity.

Mitchell’s friend Yves Michaud, once asked, "When is a painting finished?" And Mitchell replied,

When it stops questioning me. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with it (...) I check it out, recheck it for days or weeks. Sometimes there is more to do on it. Sometimes I am afraid of ruining what I have. Sometimes I am lazy, I don’t finish it or I don’t push it far enough. Sometimes I think it’s a painting.

But Mitchell may herself be the viper. Snakes attack in self-defense; it’s nothing personal. Peter Schjeldahl once termed this Mitchell’s "sacred monster trading cards." I assume he meant that people liked to trade stories of getting bitten. In a recent panel discussion, at Mitchell’s previous gallery Cheim & Read in Chelsea, the painter Louise Fishman told the large audience about one of these moments. "I unfortunately witnessed two times, um at dinners, and parties, where she reduced grown men to tears. And in some way I enjoyed it! (The audience laughs) Tough and cruel," she then added, and with personal sympathy: "What I understand about Joan is that she was an alcoholic. And she was in a lot of pain."

But Fishman remained devoted to Mitchell’s defiance, which all the abusiveness in the world could not have eroded. "I went to art school in ’56. And in ’57 I saw 'Joan Mitchell Paints a Picture.' And I took one look at her (...) and I thought A WOMAN. I can do this.”

Indeed, this article which appeared in ARTnews in 1957, was a substantial moment in American Art, on par with Hans Namuth’s photo-session with Jackson Pollock published in Life and the team picture of "The Irascibles" (also in Life in 1950) with, pathetically, one token woman, Hedda Sterne, standing on a table in the way, way back.

There was a single picture in ARTnews of Mitchell alone in the studio shot from above. She stands before her wall-mounted canvas with her back to us. The canvas is her formidable opponent. It is an action shot, like the moment a tiger is about to pounce on an antelope. We don’t gaze at the artist as a sexy fashion icon. Instead we see a slender person in pants with her arm in full extension, and a loaded large brush, in the act of adding another arching mark, to an increasingly dense accumulation. The image is black and white, depriving readers of the juicy salad of colors on both Mitchell’s canvas and surging like a symphony of emotion in her mind.

Irving Sandler wrote in his short text "Joan Mitchell is a painter who hates esthetic labels" and "dislikes compulsive attitudes toward nature" tipping us off to this “tough broad” (my word not Sandler’s). In another line, however, she is shown to be soft as a newborn baby, the tabula rasa incarnate, the feral wild one, utterly enthralled by everything: “I feel like a little child coming up out of the basement and saying: who put the sidewalk there, who put the tree there?”

And with this towering but fragile picture, we are introduced to Mitchell the Poet. She received this "poetic" disposition, apparently through osmosis. Not from the grooming of her demanding father, but from her far more relaxed mother, who was the famous poet and editor, Marion Strobel. "Oh, my mother was nice to me... You know what I mean? ‘Why don’t you have a good time, Joanie? Why don’t you just skate and have a good time?’”

Strobel was a highly regarded associate editor at Poetry magazine from 1920 to 1925, and remained in close contact with the publisher for the next 45 years. She subsequently had a very large circle of poet colleagues and friends, which exposed Mitchell from a very early age to the constant flux of new books and the characters who wrote them, including many luminaries like T.S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, Dylan Thomas, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

At age 10, Mitchell was already good enough to be in print. This is when   “Autumn” (1935) came out in Poetry, providing evidence that Mitchell was a born poet with a genetically installed muse.

The rusty leaves crunch and crackle, 
Blue haze hangs from the dimmed sky, 
The fields are matted with sun-tanned stalks —
Wind rushes by.

The last red berries hang from the thorn-tree,
The last red leaves fall to the ground.
Bleakness, through the trees and bushes,
Comes without sound.

Mitchell once said, “My paintings repeat a feeling about Lake Michigan, or water, or fields ...   it’s more like a poem, and that’s what I want to paint.” 

But what it takes to paint a poem is a poet. And what made Mitchell a poet is complicated. Perhaps it is how she came to speak her mind, and wrestle with her need for autonomy. She often described herself with the French term, sauvage. "'I’m direct and I don’t speak... I say what I think... and you’re not suppose to... You’re supposed to be diplomatic, which I call... hypo...hypocrisy... lying really."

Perhaps it was Mitchell’s sauvage and ultra-competitive streak that quarantined her in France. She has stated that she lived in France from ’55 to ’79 because of the French-Canadian painter, Jean-Paul Riopelle, who brought her there and then kicked her to the curb. "I was his mistress," she has said, then adding with witty self-deprecation, "You do what the man wants." Mark Rosenthal postulates that she “rejected” New York the same way Twombly left for Italy. Ashbery understood that she “carried her landscapes" to France but that she could have popped up just about anywhere, like a poet with a typewriter (back then), and delved into her deeply introspective work. "It seems that such an artist has ripened more slowly and more naturally in the Parisian climate of indifference than she might have in the intensive-care wards of New York." 

My guess is that Mitchell chose to live in France as an adult because she preferred the anxiety of being all by herself so she could paint, to the call to get out on the ice and win the trophy. In an interview with Yves Michaud, from 1986, she says, "I suppose I must paint for me and my dogs. We are in the studio and they watch." As do we.


Jeremy Sigler

Jeremy Sigler is a poet, critic and teacher living in Brooklyn, New York. His long-awaited analysis of the poetry of Carl Andre is forthcoming from Sternberg Press.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

All Issues