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Left: Jean-Paul Riopelle, “Untitled” (1964), oil on canvas, 130 × 160 cm, and right, a work by Joan Mitchell, Installation view, Mitchell Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation (photo by N. Savale © Succession Jean-Paul Riopelle © Adagp, Paris 2018 © Estate of Joan Mitchell © FHEL 2018)

LANDERNEAU, France — When read against the grain of traditional modernist art history, Nothing in Moderation offers a sprawling horizon for contemplation in which we may anchor or lose ourselves. This two-person exhibition of American painter Joan Mitchell and Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle retraces their cross-pollinated careers in light of their roughly 25 year-long, France-based amorous and artistic relationship.

Nothing in Moderation, at the Fonds Hélène & Édouard Leclerc pour la Culture in Landerneau, Brittany, is full of rarely seen paintings from Parisian private collections, augmenting what was first shown at the Musée national des beaux-arts in Québec and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Generally impressive, the show includes large-scale canvases that are monumental in conception, as well as a few smaller works on paper, and prodigious photos of the artists provided by the Joan Mitchell Foundation and Yseult Riopelle and Sylvie Riopelle.

Installation view of works by Joan Mitchell (photo by N. Savale © Succession Jean-Paul Riopelle © Adagp, Paris 2018 © Estate of Joan Mitchell © FHEL 2018).

Besides being a richly rewarding visual feast, the show fosters a dialectic between pure gestural abstraction (these paintings are usually labeled “Untitled”) and lyrical suggestions of the grandeur of nature. This dynamic undermines some crusty old humanist distinctions between human history and natural history and is broadly posthuman in its attendance to different perspectives (rather than a privileged individual perspective) and environmentally germane.

Before they got to know each other, Mitchell and Riopelle were developing distinctive bodies of “pure” abstract work that shared common stylistic elements typical of the era. At first their paintings portended a refusal of both metaphor and natural resemblance in the interests of the abstract paint-is-paint-is-paint literalness. As such, both of their artistic practices are perverse in their simultaneous insistence on the utter ideals of abstraction and an absolute congruence between ideas and representations. In line with much abstract painting of the 1950s, their work was premised on the idea that objectivity and visual reality in painting must be replaced by emotionally charged acts of painting. But after relaxing into Nothing in Moderation, this modus operandi strikes me as a rather too-easy evasion of messy entanglements that does not stand up to scrutiny.

Joan Mitchell and Jean-Paul Riopelle on rue Fremicourt, Paris, 1963 (photo © Heidi Meister)

Installation view, Mitchell Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation (photo by N. Savale © Succession Jean-Paul Riopelle © Adagp, Paris 2018 © Estate of Joan Mitchell © FHEL 2018)

Mitchell met the 31-year-old Riopelle, who was the better known artist at the time, in 1955 at a bubbly escapade thrown by Hedda and Saul Steinberg during her summer trip to Paris. According to Patricia Albers’s 2011 biography, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, A Life, Riopelle, who was married with two children, said to her, “Tonight I will teach you how to fuck. Tomorrow I will teach you how to paint.” Apparently Riopelle’s wildly sexist pickup line worked because they quickly entered into a hot, if tumultuous, relationship that more or less endured until their definitive separation in 1979. Besides their tumultuous romantic relationship, their mutual heavy drinking provides a point of factual interest that pulls down our illusions of their art as pure painterly beauty into more sozzled suggestions of their messy habits.

Coming from an upper-middle-class upbringing and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to New York in 1947 via Smith College in Massachusetts, Mitchell became active in the Abstract Expressionism movement, then traveled to France, where she married her childhood sweetheart Barney Rosset in Le Lavandou, Provence, in 1949. (At Mitchell’s urging, Rosset bought the great avant-garde Grove Press in 1951, publishing such writers as Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg.) She exhibited regularly at the Stable Gallery in New York and in 1951 she was included in the Ninth Street Show that was instigated by Conrad Marca-Relli and Franz Kline and curated by Leo Castelli. Proving again that sex and love are slippery slopes, Mitchell became involved in a torrid affair with painter Michael Goldberg and divorced Rosset in 1952, well before she met Riopelle.

Installation view, Mitchell Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation (photo by N. Savale © Estate of Joan Mitchell © FHEL 2018)

In the early years of her relationship with Riopelle — who had moved from Montreal to Paris from in 1947 — Mitchell divided her time between her St. Mark’s Place studio in New York and several workshops in Paris that she rented during the summers she spent with Riopelle. In 1959, Mitchell permanently moved to Paris and lived with Riopelle in a studio apartment on rue Frémicourt on the Left Bank while Riopelle kept working in a studio in Vanves, in the Paris suburbs. Despite ups and downs in their personal relationship, during the late-1950s their artistic approaches seem to converged the most.

Based on his gestural spontaneous application of thick impasto paint, Riopelle was establishing himself, along with Jean Fautrier, as one of the main figures of Art Informel, the pictorial movement in France (and much of Europe) that paralleled American Abstract Expressionism and included the gestural tendencies of AbEx.

Jean-Paul Riopelle, “15 Horsepower Citroen” (1952), Collection Pierre Lassonde (© Succession JP Riopelle © Adagp, Paris 2018)

Nothing in Moderation begins with an optical bang, starring Riopelle’s vivacious “Tribute to Robert the Demon” (1953) and one of his most dazzling “mosaic” paintings, “15 Horsepower Citroën” (1952). Right away you get the idea that Riopelle paints the way spiders secrete their webs. Both of these heavily encrusted — but light-feeling — paintings are high-points in his long celebrated career. Particularly with “15 Horsepower Citroën,” Riopelle conveys a dazzling, stuttering, speckled visual complexity that is never far, in my mind, from the sputtering of machines.

He seem to have been tempted to push this “machine” motif further than necessary a few years later with his oily, muddy, and overworked “Untitled” (1958), perhaps expressing his conceptual reaction to machinery in terms of creative destructiveness. Not half as impressive as “15 Horsepower Citroën,” indeed, it feels rather turgid by comparison.

As with “15 Horsepower Citroën,” Mitchell’s early work suggests the artist thrived on the lightness of poetic machine music. That’s how I read her “Untitled” (1952-1953), with its feathery, whiplash sense of light-heartedness, recalling Joan Miro by way of Arshile Gorky. At this point Mitchell and Riopelle share a form of aesthetic-libidinal rage (perhaps aimed against the machinery of conformity?) typical of what Herbert Marcuse would later call repressive desublimation, in which the release of libidinal energies creates the cultural framework for a second repression. Around two years later, in full release mode, Mitchell created one of the greatest paintings I have ever seen by her: the dancing blue “Untitled” (circa 1955). The composition is organized around the fluttering movement of a central mutable form oscillating between human and wild nature.

Jean-Paul Riopelle, “Meeting Point” (1963) (FNAC 90069, Centre national des arts plastiques © Succession JP Riopelle © Adagp, Paris 2018 Cnap)

Most of the paintings in Nothing in Moderation, by both artists, are big: we slip and slide inside of them, like Jonah in the whale. In addition, they are viscous — they seem to stick to our eyes like oil on a turtle after an oil spill. Yet it is interesting that some of Mitchell’s most majestic paintings, like “Fields” (circa 1972), while signaling wide natural vistas in the title, superficially resemble a painter’s petite palette. This scale shift renders the painting’s productive ambivalence, as it plays between the human and the “natural” world. It is as if she is using painterly outputs as inputs in an ongoing, solipsistic process of (re)producing her Art-as-Art, in the vein of Ad Reinhardt, rather than reflecting the physical space of natural fields. The painting seems to wish to resist the literalism of representational art by become ever-more literal paint-as-paint, while conceptually gesturing towards the natural landscape. Likewise, Mitchell’s “Returned, Canada Series” (1975) recalls an increasingly passé, reductive position in which it seemed possible to describe the entirety of a vast country’s snowy expanses and snowdrifts in terms of squares and rectangles of smeared paint.

Joan Mitchell, “Returned, Canada Series” (1975) Paris (© Photo Alberto Ricci, © Estate of Joan Mitchell)

The vague landscape shapes in paintings like “Fields” and “Returned, Canada Series” and the clumpy “Untitled” (circa 1964) phase in and out of my perceptual field and I can never quite grasp figure/ground land relationships. The serpentine land withdraws from me like the cloud of ink emitted by an octopus as it flashes to the deep. Such paintings as her “Untitled” (circa 1964) and Riopelle’s “Untitled” (1964) demonstrate that the two artists are not interchangeable with each other (as, for example, Picasso and Braque were during their analytical Cubist days) and there is no easy way of making them mentally switch places as you try to pull one toward the other. Riopelle’s work is materially heavy and muscular, with surfaces of oozing paint conducting optic battles. Just look at the detail of his enormous painting “Meeting Point” (1963), a thickly painted canvas commissioned by the Toronto airport, where it was shown before being gifted to France by the Canadian government on the bicentenary of the French Revolution and hung in the Opéra Bastille.

Installation view, Mitchell Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation (photo by N. Savale © Succession Jean-Paul Riopelle © Adagp, Paris 2018 © Estate of Joan Mitchell © FHEL 2018). Far right: Joan Mitchell, “Fields” (circa 1972).

Mitchell’s paintings are usually feathery and fluid, and flow around and down the surface of the canvas with juicy facility. This fluidity is sometimes attributed to her upbringing in Chicago where her bedroom window overlooked Lake Michigan. Her “Untitled” (circa 1964) is awkward but disciplined, projecting delicacy and grace, whereas Riopelle’s “Untitled” (1964) asserts to me the primacy of suffering, invoking the Buddhist charnel-ground; its black blob is an uncanny and ominous symbol of our vulnerability: the free-floating place of death in life and life in death. Such a visceral grip on the nonhuman animates this painting with a dark, lyrical intensity that speaks to me of climate upheaval.

In 1967, following her parents’ deaths, Mitchell purchased a huge estate with a garden in Vétheuil called La Tour about 60 kilometers northwest of Paris. This space signaled a new start for the rocky couple. Mitchell had just gone through a harrowing period, emotionally, after the death of her friend, the poet, Frank O’Hara. Shortly thereafter, Riopelle set up a new studio in an airplane hangar near Vétheuil in Saint-Cyr-en-Arthies. So, despite a mutual desire for greater intimacy, distancing between them increased, as each partner sought sanctuary in a new space.

Jean-Paul Riopelle, “Iceberg number 5” (1977) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

During Riopelle’s long periods of absence, Mitchell lived alone in Vétheuil, where she found consolation in renewed observation of the surrounding nature. One of her favorite subjects was a great Linden tree that dominated the property and inspired a body of work of magnitude and power that has been compared to Riopelle’s evocative Icebergs series. Following a trip to the Arctic, in 1977, Riopelle painted this large series of which “Iceberg #5” (1977) is a beautiful, if problematic, example, as Romantic notions of nature surpass the now-abandoned literalism of AbEx, keeping the nonhuman realm at bay. Such affective distance is the exact cause and effect that closes off this work to current realizations of icebergs as visual indicators of global warming.

Joan Mitchell, “Untitled” (circa 1964), oil on canvas, 195 × 194,3 cm (diptych), private collection, Paris (© Estate of Joan Mitchell)

Indeed, the late paintings of Riopelle and Mitchell relinquish the literal, objectified now of Abstract Expressionism’s Art-as-Art and transform natural vistas into a retrograde romantic metaphor. As such, I could not but feel here a pervasive sense of loss (for the planet) as these works are haunted by the failure of utopian modernity. Yet Nothing in Moderation is a well-intended product of fragile human minds and actions that point us to what is perhaps the most fruitful conceptual nexus in this postmodern and posthumanist discourse: the effort to preserve the pole of sentient human subjectivity in equivalence to the nonsentience of the natural world.

Mitchell | Riopelle : Nothing in Moderation, curated by Michel Martin, continues at Fonds Hélène & Édouard Leclerc pour la Culture (Aux Capucins, Landerneau, France) through April 22, 2019.

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5 replies on “The Passions and Posthumanism of Two Abstract Expressionists”

  1. i just wish the guy who wrote this endless verbally self indulgent self posturing review had stopped looking in the mirror while creating it yes sir,you know all about art have a tight and fluid grip on language but—less is more and i began to feel suffocated by this piece the art speaks itself quite well, thank you and goodbye

  2. This review is about as muddy as Riopelle’s work has a tendency to be. Although it is unfair to judge an exhibition from afar, this review may also be a cautionary tale about the perils of two-person exhibitions–think, Sargent and Sorolla at the Thyssen Bornemisza from several years ago. In most cases, one artist blows the other off the walls (Sargent, in my opinion; Mitchell in this instance), while both, in fairness, should be viewed individually and in the context of their own independent intentions. Group exhibitions with a point of view are fine; two-person shows, whether intentionally or not, seem to invite invidious, wrong-headed comparisons, compounded by installations that literally pit one artist against another. It does appear from one of the installation views in the review that care was taken to install the exhibition so that each artist could be viewed in isolation.

    That said, the author–who makes many fair points and clearly lays out the historical and personal circumstances that connect Mitchell and Riopelle–fatally wanders off to includes sentences like this:
    “This dynamic undermines some crusty old humanist distinctions between human history and natural history and is broadly posthuman in its attendance to different perspectives (rather than a privileged individual perspective) and environmentally germane.” Such musings are more illuminating about the writer than the art it purports to interpret. Whatever is meant by “post-human, non-sentient” qualities (are we to assume AI-generated trees?) we sentient non-post-humans prefer thoughtful insights that actually inform or, at least, address what can be plainly seen.

    1. Thank you for your rather close reading Chris, but I had hoped that my link to the Rosi Braidotti explanation of posthumanism in my initial reference to the posthuman would have guided you past the typical complaint that you site again here. The important part is that posthumanism displaces the traditional humanistic unity of the subject. The days when humans address the raw unconscious natural environment from a distant superior position should be well behind us for the sake of our survival and that of the planet. Knee jerk reactions against the term posthumanism are hindering needed changes in our sentient perceptions of our perceived non-sentient natural environment. That is the point I make in relations to this exhibition. And rather than fatally wandering off (as you put it), it is the most pressing issue we have to deal with in art and life. Can you not plainly see the destruction of our planet has arrived through human-centric arrogance?

      1. I take your point about our collective suicidal behavior with regard to climate change and related environmental threats. The problem with terms like “posthuman” is that it kind of lets us humans off the hook. Humans, not plants, are going to have to solve these problems, though given our current political climate, I am rooting (pun intended) for the plants! In all seriousness, if we have to follow links to understand an author’s point of view, then valid substance becomes too obscure for most casual readers like myself to pick up on. I am glad you took time to review this show, however. My own real point is the fallacy of two-person shows that invite comparisons and mostly surface clear qualitative differences between two very different artists (consonance among love affairs, booze, and privilege notwithstanding). I guess I still believe humanism is needed to talk about all to human artists who have their singular, individual stories. Come to think of it, the Riopelle-Mitchell saga could make a good Netflicks series someday (John Malcovich and Kathy Bates?).

        Best wishes for the New Year and keep telling us about interesting stuff that you see in Europe.

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