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On Her Own Grounds: Joan Mitchell

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In the United States, Joan Mitchell is recognized as a major figure of Abstract Expressionism. Emphatically branded as American during its postwar heyday, AbEx remains emblematic of the values this country claims to represent: freedom, individualism, innovation. These were the cowboys of painting. Mitchell, born in Chicago in 1925, not only produced the large, gestural abstractions to fit the bill (her gender notwithstanding); she had a brazen character with heavy drinking habits and coarse language to round out the all-American image.

But on the other side of the Atlantic, Mitchell is recognized less for her paintings’ affinities with the work of Willem de Kooning and more for the influence of Monet and Van Gogh. As much as those of us stateside like to associate Mitchell with the New York School, the reality is that she spent more than half of her life and much of her career in France. She even owned the estate home to Claude Monet’s cottage in the French village of Vétheuil and was included in the Biennale de Paris in 1959, a seal of her qualification as a “French” artist if there ever was one. She died in Paris in 1992.

So, appropriately, the three-stop touring retrospective, titled Joan Mitchell and currently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, began in the United States (at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and will end in France (at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris). But the lack of consensus surrounding her legacy makes for shaky ground for a curatorial team to cross. It’s also an opportunity to denationalize art history—a massive project that the retrospective’s curators (the BMA’s Katy Siegel and SFMOMA’s Sarah Roberts with the help of a team of researchers) by no means started or fully achieved.

Joan Mitchell at the Baltimore Museum of Art. South, 1989, Oil on canvas
Mitchell did not paint sunflowers or impressions of sunflowers; she painted her response to sunflowers—feelings or memories which could be far removed from the actual objects that provoked them.
Maura Callahan

But they have, at least, helped to realize that goal in the way audiences understand one particular artist whose work cannot be reduced to her influences, affiliations, or the time and places in which she painted. The exhibition suggests that Mitchell, despite her ties to both AbEx and French painting, should not be pinned down politically or stylistically.

Despite Mitchell’s own geographic unrootedness—for years she bounced between the US and Europe—her paintings come from a strong sense of place. In City Landscape (1955), short, horizontal strokes knit together a variegated skyline that evokes Chicago’s foggy reflection in Lake Michigan. The vivid dashes sprinting across Evening on 73rd Street (1957) are charged with the inexhaustible energy of New York City nightlife. Multiple canvases painted in the spirit of Van Gogh were prompted by the intoxicating view of sunflowers looming ten-plus feet over Mitchell’s Vétheuil property: Sunflower VI (1969) calls up the plant’s vitality in a monumental tower of sunbaked yellows and violets, while in Sunflowers (1990-91), painted toward the end of Mitchell’s life, dripping balls of blue, green, and red sparsely punctuated with meager yellows suggest a dwindling resilience against time.

Joan Mitchell, My Landscape II, 1967. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David K. Anderson, Martha Jackson Memorial Collection © Estate of Joan Mitchell

But these are not simply impressions of the places where Mitchell visited or lived that viewers can “enter” through the paintings. “I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me—and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed,” Mitchell said. “I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with.” Here she’s not just talking about the difference between representational and abstract art, or between a painting that is of something and a painting that is about something. This has more to do with the responses sensory experience itself produces. Mitchell did not paint sunflowers or impressions of sunflowers; she painted her response to sunflowers—feelings or memories which could be far removed from the actual objects that provoked them.

Anyone who stands in front of a Mitchell painting expecting to be transported to Manhattan or a French garden is missing what is actually right there. Her paintings are not portals through which to escape. (And here I am really imploring the world not to create a Joan Mitchell Immersive Experience.) As I pause in front of each painting in the BMA galleries, I actually encounter the opposite. Her knots, clusters, slashes, drips, and blocks of color insert themselves into my own territory. The kinetic energy in her paintings from the early sixties, such as Water Gate and Mud Time (both 1960), springs forward from the canvas. Splatters of paint flung across the canvas seem to ricochet within webs of smeared paint literally protruding from the surface. 

Joan Mitchell, Sans Pierre, 1969. Collection of The Long View Legacy LLC. © Estate of Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Pictured: Salut Tom, 1979, Oil on canvas
Joan Mitchell at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Pictured: La Vie en Rose, 1979, Oil on canvas
Joan Mitchell, City Landscape, 1955. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Society for Contemporary American Art, 1958.193 © Estate of Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell. Untitled. 1992. Komal Shah and Gaurav Garg Collection. © Estate of Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell, No Rain, 1976. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of The Estate of Joan Mitchell, 1994 © Estate of Joan Mitchell
I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with.
Joan Mitchell

Even the several multi-panel paintings, though expansive enough to envelop the close viewer, insist on their own physical presence rather than open to a world beyond the frame. In South (1989), as with many of these paintings, Mitchell toggles between respecting the boundary of each panel, brushing paint up just against the edges, and ignoring that separation by allowing one or two almost missable marks (red, in this case) to sweep over the dividing lines. We’re reminded of the painting’s presence as an object with two distinct parts, but still those few emboldened brushstrokes penetrate the enclosure of each frame, like they exist independently of the canvas just as we do.

In Sans neige (1969), a three-paneled painting located in the heart of the galleries, Mitchell disturbs the stability of the painting’s landscape orientation. Leaving the lower half sparsely painted, Mitchell concentrates thickly applied reds, greens, and yellows along the top—as opposed to the bottom, which might establish a sense of atmospheric depth—and then again at the core of the center panel. Color emerges, even reaches out from the surface, with a life of its own.

Linking these paintings is a white ground that is never completely masked, even beneath the most generous application of paint. That white or off-white peeks through the crevices between brushstrokes as a reminder of the blank field Mitchell had to contend with before loading on color. Often, as in Bonjour Julie (1971), she would brush white on top of areas that were already heavily saturated, as if she wanted to return to that primordial state. There’s no way to resurrect the blank slate, though; this new white conspicuously vibrates in tension with the exposed ground and the color it delineates. But that agitation galvanizes conversations between colors and marks, to the point that the painting appears filled with chatter, at times nervous and at others exuberant. 

Joan Mitchell at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Background: Weeds, 1976, Oil on canvas. Foreground left and right: Belle Bête, 1973, Oil on canvas; La Ligne de la Rupture, 1970-1971, Oil on canvas
Joan Mitchell at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Pictured left to right: Untitled, c. 1961, Oil on canvas; Water Gate, 1960, Oil on canvas

Along with 70 paintings and drawings, the show includes photographs and videos of Mitchell and her surroundings throughout her life, as well as sketchbooks, letters, books, and poems. Poetry played no small part in Mitchell’s life and in her work; her mother was an editor of Poetry magazine, and she frequently associated and even collaborated with poets in France and New York. Multiple paintings are named for poems, including Ode to Joy (A Poem by Frank O’Hara) (1970-71) and Hemlock (1956, named for a word repeated in Wallace Stevens’ “Domination of Black”). 

The affinity between Mitchell and poetry seems to have inspired the “soundscape” created for the exhibition. Dispensing with the standard narration of the artist’s life and career highlights, the audio guide collages together snippets of music, readings from Mitchell’s letters, and poetry recited by author, poet, and Mitchell enthusiast Eileen Myles (who also wrote material for the generous exhibition catalogue). It does not offer a comprehensive chronology of her life—good, because women artists like Mitchell are too frequently defined by their biographies—but gestures toward the fragmentary experience of a transatlantic life, of reveling in nature, of feeling love for people and objects and places, of being Joan Mitchell.

As enriching as these supplements to the work can be, none is absolutely essential to the exhibition. Mitchell’s paintings hold their own, especially when experienced in such a large group, tracing her growth as a painter from beginning to end. Maybe part of the solution to dismantling art history’s tendencies toward chauvinism is to consider not where paintings might take us, but what they offer on their own grounds. 

Joan Mitchell at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Pictured left to right: Untitled, 1992, Oil on canvas; Sunflowers, 1990-1991, Oil on canvas; No Birds, 1987-1988, Oil on canvas

 

Joan Mitchell, Daylight, c. 1975. Collection of Nathan Kernan. © Estate of Joan Mitchell

 

 

 

*****

Joan Mitchell is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art through August 14, 2022.

Header image: Joan Mitchell in her Vétheuil studio, 1983. Photograph by Robert Freson, Joan Mitchell Foundation

 

Joan Mitchell at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Foreground: Sans Neige, 1969, Oil on canvas. Background left to right: Aires Pour Marion, 1975-1976, Oil on canvas; No Rain, 1976, Oil on canvas

Images courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art

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