There was no going back when, in 1950, Joan Mitchell completed Figure and city, a painting in which an abstract figure emerges from the canvas in the midst of a crushing of cubic forms. Prior to this breakthrough, Mitchell worked in a semi-figurative fashion, producing still lifes and cityscapes in which anything and everything could be reduced to geometric shapes. Then after Figure and city, she jumped into the void and began to work in abstraction. “I knew this was the last figure I would paint,” Mitchell said of the woman shown in Figure and city. “I just knew. And it was.”
Over the next decade, Mitchell would refine the style for which she is now known. Most of the canvases she produced in the 1950s feature dazzling paintings of brushstrokes assembled against pristine white backgrounds. Mitchell always made sure to leave his thick paintwork and pure, bright colors. The hues she used would become warmer as her career progressed, and her gestural features sometimes merged to form masses that seem to cluster in the center of her canvases. Impressionism and poetry, along with the nature and star cast of the art world surrounding him, haunt his works, though their subject matter is often only revealed through their titles.
Mitchell was considered one of the most important members of the post-war abstract expressionism movement. This was the case even in her day, when female artists rarely achieved widespread fame. In 1972, critic Peter Schjeldahl, for example, called Mitchell “a master of many oil painting techniques who always seems to push his mastery to the limit, willingly throwing it against ‘impossible’ problems.”
Mitchell’s ability to solve the insoluble with his innovative pictorial techniques will be on display in a long-awaited retrospective this week at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (Curated by Sarah Roberts and Katy Siegel, the exhibition will also travel to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which co-curated it, and the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris.) Below is a look at why the Mitchell’s piquant abstractions continue to intrigue.
Paint ‘the moment’
The greatest proponents of abstract expressionism preferred a style that has been termed total abstraction – think of the expansive drip paintings of Jackson Pollock or the epic and elegiac black-and-white canvases of Franz Kline. However, a number of Mitchell’s canvases stand out from this style, featuring swirling masses that seem to vibrate with life. “Clement Greenberg said there should never be a central image, so I decided to make one,” Mitchell once said, referring to the art critic who was the most vocal representative. of abstract expressionism.
The basis of Mitchell’s “central images” changed depending on her region, mood, and company she kept. But trees were one of the constants of his work. In Great careers (1961-1962), for example, a swirling mixture of burnt umber, mint green and deep blue looms in front of the viewer, appearing to float above or stand in front of a messy white background dripping and splashed with yellow . It is only by deepening the study of Mitchell’s work that we will be able to discover his referent: the cypresses of the Grandes Carrières district in Paris, which the artist frequented.
For Mitchell, the trees acted as symbols of mortality and substitutes for those close to him. But viewers wouldn’t necessarily know just by watching. In the days of Abstract Expressionism, the content was considered anathema. Form – the way materials were handled and came to blend – was seen as the most important way to make an artistic statement. Mitchell seems to have endorsed this idea in her work, but unlike some of her colleagues, she has also favored visual enjoyment. In 1957, for a famous ARTnews profile titled “Mitchell Paints a Picture,” she told critic Irving Sandler, “I’m not a member of the makeup school.”
A force of nature
Mitchell revisited two major topics often throughout his career: poetry and nature, both of which could be considered to be related in his work. The first was with Mitchell from a young age. His mother, Marion Strobel, was herself a poet and editor of Poetry magazine. When Mitchell was 10, one of his poems was printed in this journal, with lines like “Rusty leaves crackle and crackle, / A blue haze hangs over the darkened sky, / The fields are matted with tan stems – / The wind is rushing.
Nature also featured in his work, whether in the form of still lifes or abstract landscapes. “Man made a city; nature grows, ”she once wrote in a letter to Sandler. “I see it all like nature. I look at everything like what I see. Whether she was painting bridges spotted from her New York apartment window or the vibrant landscapes she saw in northern France, Mitchell has always cast an admiring eye on her surroundings.
Many have compared Mitchell’s work to Impressionism – a fitting comparison given that she spent a lot of time on the historical grounds of the biggest names in this earlier movement. In 1959, Mitchell moved to the French commune of Vétheuil, where Claude Monet had previously worked. Mitchell’s paintings on several large-scale canvases often communicated the impact of time on nature, as did Monet’s cathedrals and gardens.
Vincent van Gogh’s work also dominated his work. Particularly in the later stages of her career, Mitchell used striking shades of yellow and blue that she foamed in thick, allowing her paint to stay thick. Then there are the sunflowers that recur throughout Mitchell’s work, albeit in an abstract fashion. In the three-part painting Untitled (1969), for example, a giant yellow flower grows from an off-white mass in the center, its petals rendered as balls of yellow, purple and blue. (Mitchell, who was far-sighted, often had to step back to see his paintings in great detail, and seeing them from a distance can often bring out unheard-of flourishes.)
Much like her fellow Abstract Expressionists Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Elaine de Kooning and Lee Krasner, Mitchell was forced to confront her status as a woman among a group of men who have often been more acclaimed, though she has certainly been recognized from while alive. Before turning 40, she participated in the Venice Biennale in Italy and Documenta in Kassel, Germany, as well as in several solo exhibitions at the Stable Gallery in New York which received positive reviews. During her stay in France in the 1950s and 1960s, she rubbed shoulders with personalities such as Shirley Jaffe, Simon Hantaï, Alberto Giacometti and others. Alongside the artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, with whom she had a long and torrid romantic relationship, Mitchell even hosted some of them for dinner.
But during all this time, Mitchell was often forced to struggle with being called a “woman artist.” “Women couldn’t paint and women couldn’t paint and all that stuff,” Mitchell told art historian Linda Nochlin of the postwar art world. When a man at a party once called Mitchell and Kooning “female artists,” Mitchell said, “Elaine, let’s get out of here.
Although 1970s feminists sought to reinvent the way Mitchell’s art had been discussed, the artist herself initially bristled at the idea that she should be considered apart from her male colleagues. When curator Marcia Tucker organized an exhibition of Mitchell’s art at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1972, Mitchell wrote: referring to itself, “Joan feels like Miss Whitney is using it for women’s liberation.” A few years later, she had taken the tour and made it a point to support aspiring women artists. In 1976, she began to subscribe to the Newsletter of women artists.
These days, Mitchell’s reputation has continued to change as critical attention and market interest in his work continues to grow. There have been books about her, including a 2011 biography of Patricia Albers (Joan Mitchell, lady painter: a life). Mary Gabriel’s recent Women of Ninth Street, which chronicles Mitchell’s rise alongside other women in his cohort, is currently in development into a television series. And earlier this year, Galerie Lévy Gorvy sold a painting by Mitchell to Art Basel Hong Kong for $ 20 million, a price that would have seemed unthinkable for an abstract expressionist woman even a decade before.
Mitchell’s sudden resurgence has been seen as an example of the evolution of art history. “There is a re-exploration of the historical narratives that are important to our history and our culture happening right now,” Christina Blatchford, CEO of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Recount Artnet news in 2018, “and this comes with recognition of the quality of Mitchell’s work.”