Joan Mitchell’s vocation as a painter always intertwined with poetry. In 1935, “Autumn,” a poem she wrote at age 10, published in Poetry magazine, distills melancholia from a landscape of  “rusty leaves,” “blue haze,” “sun-tanned stalks,” and “red berries” on a “thorn-tree.” Speaking in Marion Cajori’s documentary film Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter (1992) the artist says her painting is “more like a poem,” echoing the young Mitchell’s assertion to Art News in 1957 that her art embodies “the qualities that differentiate a line of poetry from a line of prose.” In 1992, the year she died, her swan songs were lithographs with poetry incorporated into the art.  

Curators and scholars have increasingly highlighted the importance of poetry to Mitchell’s art, though usually with so much circumspection that the link still remains obscure. This critical uncertainty on how poetry informed her art crops up in the career-spanning, multifaceted catalogue Joan Mitchell (Yale University Press/SFMOMA, 2021) that accompanies the eponymous retrospective, recently postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, now slated to open in September at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art before landing at the Baltimore Museum of Art and then the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris.  

Joan Mitchell catalogue, Yale/SFMOMA, 2021 (image courtesy Yale University Press)

Mitchell was raised in an affluent Chicago family. Her mother was a published poet and novelist, and an editor at Poetry, and her father was a nationally renowned doctor and an amateur artist who accompanied his young daughter to the Art Institute of Chicago. Mitchell was a high achiever. She majored in English at Smith College before transferring to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, painting en plein air at SAIC’s affiliate, Ox-Bow School of Art & Artists’ Residency, in the coastal town of Saugatuck, Michigan. In 1947, she moved to New York City with a fellow Chicagoan, Barney Rosset. The pair briefly married, sharing an apartment on the Brooklyn waterfront, with stints in sun-shot Mexico and war-ravaged Paris. 

As seen in Joan Mitchell the young artist starts out with semiabstract landscapes and hard-edged post-Cubist figuration. In New York, she’s enthralled by Arshile Gorky’s sinuous abstractions and Franz Kline’s wall-sized, calligraphic black and white paintings. Soon Mitchell, a virtuosic colorist, is reengineering Abstract Expressionism on her own terms. Concentrating abstract imagery in the center of the canvas, the work methodically extends outward through fierce gestural lines and mark-making that scissor upward and downward, amid thinned washes and drips that evoke nature — wind, clouds, mist, rain. Her oblique arches and angular thrusts resemble handwritten cursive that harmonizes into a dense, overlapping visual syntax that can be viewed, or “read,” vertically and horizontally, from right to left, and back again, as whites and grays, like changing sunlight,  punctuate the bold abstract masses and forms, creating patterns comparable to internal rhyme and recurring motifs in poetry. 

And Mitchell drew upon the work of literary peers, from her New York poet friends John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara to European writers like Samuel Beckett and Pierre Schneider. Novelist Paul Auster describes meeting the painter through poet Jacques Dupin, a mutual friend whose “La Ligne de la rupture” inspired her painting of the same name; writing in Joan Mitchell, Auster sees poet and painter creating a common art “about the interaction in space of the different elements and how they change in relation to one another.” 

Joan Mitchell, “La ligne de la rupture” (1970), oil on canvas, 112 x 79 inches, Private Collection (© Estate of Joan Mitchell)

The catalogue examines these collaborations with poets and revisits the artist’s undergraduate literature paper, in which she defines Romantic poetry as aimed toward the infinite and actualized through love, an aspiration contributor Jenni Quilter sees as possibly related to Mitchell’s aesthetic interest in memories that “appear to stand outside time,” and abstract landscapes “invested in revelation rather than just realization.” 

The artist’s poem-pastel hybrids of the mid-1970s integrate extracts from a range of poets, including James Schuyler, whose concise style matches Mitchell’s straightforward brushwork. As Erin Kimmel notes, both shun symbolism and metaphor and instead express subtle but immediate correspondences between emotional states and concrete facts in nature “dissolving thought into atmosphere and becoming feeling.” 

Joan Mitchell surveys numerous influences on the artist beyond poetry — including classical music, the countryside around her home studio near Vétheuil, France, her relation to postwar European abstraction, and her late work’s formal and thematic allusions to Post-Impressionists like Van Gogh and Cézanne. 

Joan Mitchell catalogue, Yale/SFMOMA, 2021 (image courtesy Joan Mitchell Foundation)

But the critical jury that examines the relationship between poetry and her art in Joan Mitchell arrives at no clear-cut verdict. Occasionally contributors’ comments run aground on generalizations, conflating lyric poetry, which Mitchell read voraciously, with love poetry, which only occasionally mattered to her. Mitchell herself wore self-protective armor around her literary erudition — in the bad old days, critics deployed literary terms like “lyrical” and “poetic” to, as Mitchell put it to an interviewer “damn [women artists] with faint praise.” Contemporary critics discussing her engagement with poetry put too much stock in her often repeated, reductive term “feelings,” a word that artist Joyce Pensato recalls, in the catalogue, Mitchell even wielded as a kind of cudgel. Mentored in the late 1970s by the older painter, Pensato remembers being commanded to, “Put your feelings in there. Don’t just paint some shit, like you don’t care.” 

But Mitchell found in poetry more than a quasi-Romantic affirmation of feelings as a legitimate subject for abstract art. Coinciding with her meteoric ascent as a painter in New York, she also studied language and literature. In 1951, as she worked out avant-garde painterly idioms in a downtown studio, she formally studied advanced French at New York University, read and reread French poets like Paul Verlaine and Charles Baudelaire, and, at the New School, audited Wallace Fowlie’s course on Marcel Proust, the French novelist who predicated an intimate-epic novel on disconcerting privileged moments that both upend chronological time and clear ground for a new art that accords with the unruly psychic source he famously called “involuntary memory.” 

Biographers report that Mitchell read poetry before painting, including American Modernists like T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, and Wallace Stevens. Like Proust, these poets focus on disorienting encounters with their environment. Theirs is a poetry of highly charged perceptions that destabilize the boundary between the perceiving self and the seen object. Poet Frank O’Hara names it “the ecstasy of always bursting forth.” Mitchell commemorated her like-mindedness with O’Hara in a painting named after his poem “To the Harbormaster” (1957). 

Joan Mitchell, “To the Harbormaster” (1957), oil on canvas, 76 x 118 inches, Private Collection (© Estate of Joan Mitchell)

And language had a chromatic value for Mitchell, who tells Marion Cajori that alphabetic letters corresponded to an individual color, tone, and hue, an idiolect the painter enumerated in handwritten studio charts. By logical extension, poetic language would hold double sway for her, producing visual and semantic meanings simultaneously. 

So Mitchell likely found in poetry affirmation of a way of being in — and seeing and articulating — the immersive world, a world rendered through verse. One of her beloved poets, William Wordsworth, draws on “spots of time” that disrupt reason and chronological sequence to re-present the sublime forces from past experience — for instance, the poet’s famous incipient vision from a rowboat in the first book of The Prelude (1850), a vertiginous landscape that virtually prefigures Mitchell’s precipitous art:

as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing

Similarly, Rainer Maria Rilke, another poet Mitchell read and reread, makes use of nature’s transformations to distill parallel embryonic psychic and spiritual inner states; the poet’s Duino Elegies (1923) reflect the abstract physicality of Mitchell’s landscapes: 

O trees of life, when will your winter come? 
We’re never single-minded, unperplexed, 
like migratory birds. Outstript and late, 
we suddenly thrust into the wind and fall
into unfeeling ponds. We comprehend
flowering and feeling simultaneously.

Mitchell mined such moments even from more traditional poets. A handwritten list of poems on the back of a 1961 Stable Gallery invitation found among the artist’s papers, begins with Robert Frost’s “The Most of It” (1942). Set in a nameless woodland haunted by a “mocking echo,” a “tree-hidden cliff,” and a “boulder-broken-beach,” Frost’s highly visual poem evokes the immersive, unpredictable landscape as the desolate, solitary speaker intuits oblique, emergent, living presences, embodied by a buck deer half-surfacing almost unrecognizably in a recessed lake, “pushing the crumpled water” as it “landed pouring like a waterfall” and “stumbled through rocks with horny tread,/And forced the underbrush — and that was all.”  

Joan Mitchell, “The Bridge” (1956), oil on canvas, 45 3/4 x 70 3/8 inches, Private Collection (© Estate of Joan Mitchell)

Like the poets Mitchell brought into her studio as instruments of her art, she mastered a Modernist high-wire act, somehow perfectly poised between a commitment to pure abstraction and a passion for expressing things in the sensory world: rain-soaked shorelines that meet cloud-covered horizons, fields with flowering trees that torque their forms as they ascend; zigzag skylines that are fog-draped and gaudily illuminated by invisible electric networks, or urban bridgework straddling a river’s eddying riptides, the last a subject of her breakthrough multi-panel work, “The Bridge” (1956). 

In reassessing Mitchell’s output, poetry remains a bridge of knowledge itself, a lookout from which to see, with fresh eyes, the depths in the painter’s inimitable vision.

Joan Mitchell (2021) is published by Yale University Press in association with SFMOMA and is available online and in bookstores.

Tim Keane's writing on poetry and visual art has appeared in Modern Painters, The London Magazine, Utne Reader, The Brooklyn Rail, Vision China, and in Joe...