Joan Mitchell, “Minnesota” (1980), oil on canvas in four parts
102 1/2 x 244 1/4 inches, © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York (all images courtesy David Zwirner)

The career of Joan Mitchell, who once likened Clement Greenberg to a “toilet seat,” ought to remind us of how tribal the art world continues to be. There are those who want to belong to clubs and acquire the proper affiliations, and there are others who don’t or can’t belong to anything of the sort, even the cliques that would gladly welcome them. Academics are fond of repeating that Mitchell was “a second generation” Abstract Expressionist, as if that were the clubhouse she wanted to enter, and got stuck in. No matter what else they might say about her work, that label is slapped across their assessment.

Is this a way of placing Mitchell in history, or is it — as I have come to think — a way of putting her in her place? This is crucial to what I am getting at — did Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline influence Mitchell, or did they inspire her? This, I believe, is a crucial distinction. Perhaps she should have tried to erase de Kooning, as Robert Rauschenberg did.

Joan Mitchell, “Sunflowers” (1990-1991), oil on canvas in two parts, 110 1/4 x 157 1/2 inches, © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York

The probing, shifting, subtle, and brilliant internal conversations that Mitchell carried on with various artists while working in her studio — whether it was in New York, Paris, or the French countryside — ultimately ended with them exiting, leaving her on her own, charging ahead. More importantly, when she began drawing loosely and impulsively with a brush, which happened around 1951-52, she was defining her own territory as well as accumulating her own arsenal of painterly possibilities. Mitchell was never a follower. Her gestural paintings are not like de Kooning’s or Kline’s. She was inspired by the things that they and others, like Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, did in their work, but by the time brushstrokes and forms appeared on her canvases, they were all her own.

Looking at paintings by an artist whose work you know well is like trying to find your way through a forest to a clearing that you are sure is there, even if you have never set foot in it before. You must work your way through your own history with the art if you are going to try and see it fresh. Sometimes scrutinizing it in a new circumstance helps.

Joan Mitchell, “Untitled” (1972), oil on canvas in two parts, 76 3/4 x 89 7/8 inches © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York

This is one of many reasons why you should go to the magisterial exhibition, Joan Mitchell: I carry my landscape around with me, at David Zwirner (May 3 – July 12, 2019), which now represents her estate. In addition to being her first show with this blue chip gallery, it is also, as the press release states, “the first exhibition to focus on the artist’s multipaneled paintings.” This gives you a chance to experience a concentration of Mitchell’s work that you would otherwise never have seen, which is hard to believe but true. The added bonus is that paintings are exhibited in spacious digs with lots of breathing room between them. None of the galleries she showed with previously could have accommodated these paintings.

The exhibition consists of nine multi-panel paintings – a panoramic format that de Kooning and Kline never explored. They were made between 1967 and 1992, the year she died, at the age of 67. It includes “La Seine” (1967), which was one of the first quadriptychs Mitchell made, on loan from the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Collection, Albany, New York, and culminates with a late diptych, “Untitled (1992).

Joan Mitchell, “Untitled” (1992), oil on canvas in two parts, 102 3/8 x 157 3/4 inches, © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York

In 1967, Mitchell, who had moved from New York to Paris in 1959, settled in Vétheuil, about 35 miles northwest of the city. Her property overlooked the Seine.

If we take our cue from the title of the earliest painting in the show, “La Seine,” done the year she moved there, Mitchell made all the work in this exhibition in the French countryside, far New York and Paris, in the years after the art world shifted its attention to Pop Art and Minimalism and soon thereafter announced the “death of painting.” As her friend Frank O’Hara declared in his mock manifesto, “Personism”: “You just go on your nerve.”

Three points need to be made here, before discussing individual works. At no time does she accommodate herself to the dominant critical discourses circulating throughout the New York art world. To point out, for example, that these works reify a painting’s essential flatness ignores the obvious: Mitchell knew a stretched canvas was flat long before it became a thing that critics harped on. Second, it is more important to note the differences between what she did and what had been done by artists of an older generation. If you focus on the similarities between her work and theirs, you fail to see the specificity of what she attained. Third, as I have previously suggested, with the multi-panel paintings she defined a territory all her own.

Joan Mitchell, “Untitled” (1974-1975), oil on canvas in three parts,
8 5/8 x 19 1/8 inches; framed: 17 3/4 x 29 3/4 inches, © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Private Collection, Minneapolis

Mitchell’s approach is straightforward and direct: she uses a specific brush to apply a particular color. As she moves across the canvas, she changes the brush, color, and viscosity of the paint. At no point does she scrape down or rub out what she has done. She goes forward without circling back.

She breaks her strokes and colors into zones. Each zone, whose height and width vary, is dominated by a cluster of vigorous brushstrokes that can be vertical, diagonal, horizontal, calligraphic, wispy, or wide). There is an underlying structure to the compositions, a shifting from one kind of painterly activity to another.

The quadriptych “La Seine” is a damp, wintry painting. The two interior panels mirror each other, as do the two outer, flanking ones. As with all of the paintings in this exhibition, there are areas that she leaves unpainted, creating the impression that the colors and forms are emerging from the ground.

Joan Mitchell, “La Seine” (1967), oil on canvas in four parts, 76 7/8 x 165 7/8 inches; framed: 78 1/2 x 167 1/2 inches, © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection, New York State, Office of General Services

Along the bottom of each of the four panels, she paints a blotchy, black, horizontal form. Over this she lays down another series of brushstrokes in bright colors – blue, green, red, orange. Adjacent to this form is a series of wispy strokes, or a calligraphic bundle that reminded me of a knot. Here, Mitchell juxtaposes mass and line. Their proximity suggests change and instability.

In the outer, flanking panels, Mitchell largely fills the rest of the canvas with rounded and squashed blue, green, and dark, brownish-red forms, over which she paints a tangle of lines. This layering creates an enmeshed space, evoking foliage and underbrush. Mitchell was a master of setting off one form or color against another. Highly analytical, she was able to advance that a painting was made of separate but layered and entangled parts. With the white ground dirty in places, the damp dreariness of winter is hinted at but never becomes the sole focus of the painting. With the roiling forms and tangled lines placed above the white unpainted spaces below, we are reminded of shrubs, trees, and vegetation growing up to the river’s edge.

Joan Mitchell, “Edrita Fried” (1981), oil on canvas in four parts,
116 1/4 x 299 5/8 inches, © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York

The quadriptych, “Edrita Fried’ (1981) is titled after Dr. Edrita Fried, a well-known New York psychoanalyst and author who died in 1981, at the age of 70. Mitchell both remembers and memorializes her friend with a large field of cerulean blue brushstrokes across four panels, which is invaded by bright orange clusters that first appear along the bottom of the second panel from the left. In the next panel on the left, they push against the resistance of the blue strokes, which partially cover them. In the fourth and last panel, an orange torrent bursts forth from the panel’s left edge, heavily engaging the dominance of the blue field. It is as if Mitchell were feeling her way across the painting, moving from left to right. Where another artist might conclude with the orange taking over the last panel, Mitchell doesn’t. Triumph is a masculine illusion.

The landscapes she carried inside her were made of visual incidents, feelings, memories, and associations. It was a powerful brew, and Mitchell drew sustenance from it again and again. She was attuned to trees, flowers, fields, and the rock faces that can be seen while sailing around the Mediterranean island of Corsica, which is something she did. But it was not just the forms of nature that inspired her; it was also the light and air, the wind rustling the leaves, or the heat of a sultry windless day.

What makes Mitchell great is her ability to infuse paint with an endless range of feelings. That is what gives her paintings their staying power, why they are one of the towering achievements of the postwar period. Her art could be simultaneously raw, tough, evanescent, and vulnerable. At a time when painting had died once again, and the smart money was on Conceptual Art, Mitchell showed that paint had not lost its power to communicate contradictory and elusive feelings, wisps of thought and slippery memories, tumult and calm, the tragic and joyous, often in the same work.

Joan Mitchell: I carry my landscape around with me continues at David Zwirner Gallery (537 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 12.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

One reply on “The Joan Mitchell You’ve Never Seen”

  1. Thanks for this insightful article. I am wondering if the author sees any relationship between her work and that of Sam Francis. Some of these made me think of his work in way they invoke landscape and way the forms interact with the shape of the canvas, even if their color choices and style of brushwork is not the same.

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