In the 1980s, when I visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art at its original location in the old Beaux-Arts War Memorial Building, Joan Mitchell’s painting, Untitled, 1956, didn’t hang in the main gallery with those of the male Abstract Expressionists: Clifford Still, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline. It hung down a hallway, right before the exit to the staircase. It was a small painting full of razor-thin blue and brown squiggly lines that the artist arrested in the center with a thick red streak that looked to have been smashed down with a palette knife. With that one red mark, Mitchell seemed to harness an immense visual vocabulary. The painting caught me off guard, and not just because of its subpar placement, standard practice in an era in which women were dismissed. It was the rush of movement coming at me as I was about to descend the stairs. Then, that sudden punch of luscious red made contact like a stop sign. Not so fast, the painting declared. There’s more to come.
The days of placing Mitchell, a second-generation abstract expressionist, off to the side are long gone. Her retrospective, Joan Mitchell, now on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, resoundingly confirms her as one of the most important painters of her time. The exhibition of some 80 works, co-curated by Sarah Roberts and Katy Siegel, includes small drawings, suites of paintings, and multi-panels. It solidifies Mitchell’s reputation as an innovator with a sweeping repertoire who reached beyond the boundaries of Abstract Expressionism and embraced both the New York School and 19th-century European landscape painting. During the 40 plus years Mitchell painted, she enticed, yanked, and flexed the muscle of postwar abstraction until it became, in her hands, elastic.
Mitchell was a powerhouse of contrasts, her brushstrokes alternately delicate, gritty, or muscular. She combined joy and rage, tenderness and ferocity on canvas, using an astonishing variety of vivid colors, sometimes harmonic, often clashing. “Painting is a means of feeling ‘living.’” Mitchell told the French philosopher Yves Michaud in 1986, placing the shifting energy of conscious emotion at the center of her practice. Her approach, encompassing memory, with landscape and “feeling,” allowed her to frame the fluctuating weather of her senses in all their overlapping complexity. “Painting never ends,” she went on to explain to Michaud. “It’s the only thing that is both continuous and still.”
Roberts and Siegel acknowledge that Mitchell had a complex and often contradictory personality. “She was an alcoholic and not a nice one,” Roberts said in her talk at the press preview. To avoid sensationalizing her life, the curators decided only to bring in biographical information that impacted the work. “Putting the work first, we wanted to convey a complex portrait of her as an artist and as a person.” To the extent the exhibition suffers, it is from this dearth of biographical context.
Importantly, Mitchell’s synesthesia is never addressed in the exhibition. Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense leads to involuntary stimulation of another sense. Some synesthetes see sounds, hear flavors, taste shapes. In Mitchell’s lifetime, synesthesia was not a commonly used term, and scientific research into the field was only beginning. However, in her biography, Lady Painter, Patricia Albers writes that Mitchell described her mode of perception as “a secret magic that other people don’t understand.” The artist created a color chart, and said letters, words, sounds, even emotions had chromatic equivalences. Instead of incorporating this scholarship, Roberts and Siegel suggest that Mitchell “opened up the idea of feeling to the full-spectrum, even the spectrum of color” and leave it at that. Perhaps the curators feared that a discussion of Mitchell’s neuro-divergency might reduce her to her quirks and peculiarities. Nevertheless, the exhibition aims to give a full account of Mitchell’s oeuvre. However, probing her perceptual uniqueness and its role in her art and her sense of isolation would have enriched our understanding and appreciation of her artwork.
Born in Chicago in 1925, Mitchell grew up wealthy in what she described as “a cultivated house.” She attended concerts, theater, poetry readings (her mother was an editor of Poetry magazine), and museums from an early age. By age 11, Mitchell, already a competitive ice skater, swimmer, and tennis player, was asked by her father to choose between poetry and art. She chose painting. The exhibition deftly links these early passions to Mitchell’s later artistic exploration. She never relinquished either her athleticism or her love of poetry. Instead, she incorporated her physical training and her penchant for lyricism (as well as irony) into her artwork.
After sojourns to paint in Mexico and Paris, Mitchell moved to New York in 1949. Quickly, she plunged into the downtown scene of artists and poets. The first gallery captures her rapid immersion with a series of early canvases (including Untitled, the painting I initially saw in the stairwell) and a display case of photographs and sketchbooks. Only two years later, in 1951, one of her canvases appeared in the landmark 9th Street Show, organized by Leo Castelli and featuring Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hoffman and Helen Frankenthaler, among others. She was only 26. When asked
how she arrived at her amalgamation of abstraction and recollected nature, she said, “I went gradually into abstraction through cubism.” As her developing style attests, her historical repertoire was vast. She loved the harsh black strokes of Franz Kline; she studied the way Cézanne built landscape through structured marks, the way Kandinsky encapsulated scenes in bright arrays of color, and how the Cubists showed simultaneous views of objects in space. But Mitchell didn’t develop in only one direction. She zigzagged across the terrain of art history from the 19thcentury to the 20th. Then, pirouetted backward.
In the next gallery, we see Mitchell finding her unique, assertive, itchy-twitchy voice in a work called To the Harbormaster (1957), pictured above. The title is an homage to a poem by her friend Frank O’Hara about his messy entanglement with the painter Larry Rivers. When she created it, Mitchell was involved in her own tumultuous relationship with the Canadian painter, Jean Paul Riopelle, dividing her time between New York and Paris. According to Albers, Mitchell “considered her nomadic life a metaphor for unbelonging.” Harbormaster reflects both her sense of dislocation and her desire to address it in her art.
Integrating lessons absorbed from both continents, Mitchell incorporated the cross-hatching marks of Cézanne, the near abstraction of late Monet, with the loose, energized strokes and all-over format favored by the New York School painters. With the application of scratchy red, blue, and green slices, orange flecks, and, finally, dabs and splotches of white paint, she was able to bend and contort movement. The resulting painting captures the agitation of wind in tangled reeds, churning swirls of water, and the unsettled tenor of journeying both toward and away from people and places.
From the summer of 1955 until she died in 1992, Mitchell spent more and more time in France. In a grouping of paintings created soon after she settled into her studio on rue Frémicourt in Paris, Mitchell masses buttery colors in the center of white canvases. In Rock Bottom (1960-61), she encircles blue, pink, olive and ruby red with white paint, referencing a dialogue with fellow American ex-pat painter Sam Francis. Both artists were light-struck, reaching towards luminous color and working in a style that expanded upon French Impressionism. But while Mitchell made no secret of her kinship with European painters—Cézanne and van Gough, in particular—she resisted being tied into any school or style.
One of the masterpieces of the exhibition is undoubtedly Sans Neige (1969), done a few years after she bought a country house in Vétheuil, outside of Paris. The property included the house Monet occupied before he moved to Giverny. In this monumental triptych, Mitchell openly proclaims nature and landscape as her subject. The title (No Snow) is an ironic nod to Monet, who depicted numerous winter views of Vétheuil covered in ice and snow. Mitchell’s version is a virtuosic display of mark-making, from drips and washes to built-up impasto. Its three panels are so suffused with white paint that the primary blues and yellows shimmer in a burst of sunlight against the creamy white backdrop.
With Sans Neige, and three years later, Bonjour Julie (1971), located in an adjoining gallery, Mitchell makes evident her kinship with the contrasting, complementary colors found in Vincent van Gogh (and later Hans Hofmann). In both these large, horizontal triptychs, she juxtaposes cool blue next to warm orange, an effect that causes the shapes to pop off the canvas. In the airy Sans Neige, the result is a painting crackling with light. However, in Bonjour Julie, the cubes pulsate heavily on bare canvas, making the painting feel crowded and weighty—the entire expanse brimming with intensity.
The reactive color abutments reflect Mitchell’s experience with synesthesia. Standing in front of both triptychs, viewers can almost experience what it must have been like to feel color and see sound as Mitchell did. The panels operate like musical variations, with thematic colors and shapes repeating and diverging in rhythmic sequence.
All of this brings me back to the curators’ decision to omit a discussion of this aspect of Mitchell’s life. Such a discussion would have explained the complex array of forces that propelled her. Michell did not differentiate between sight, touch, taste and hearing; instead, she integrated the overlapping sensory input with her passions and idiosyncrasies, creating paintings that overwhelm the senses – ours.
Salut Tom (1979) — a luminous rumination that pays tribute to the loss of her longtime friend, the art critic Tom Hess, who died the summer before — is a powerful example. (Her 1979 break-up with Riopelle probably also had a strong impact.) Here, Mitchell’s emotions, always a driving force, reach a full crescendo. Using a wide brush, she fills four vertical panels with soft, broad strokes, forming one magnificent horizontal sweep. Amid a shower of golden light, green and blue squares rise and fall like musical notes on a scale, alluding to the shifting passage of memory across time.
In the final gallery of the exhibition, the paintings are so grand, the brush strokes so large and loose, that they demand nothing less than bodily engagement. After being diagnosed with jaw cancer in 1984, Mitchell, in her final years, focused on mortality. She loved sunflowers and had been painting them since the mid-1960s. Years earlier, when she was still with Riopelle, he had sprinkled seeds haphazardly on the property, which sprouted randomly in odd places to Mitchell’s delight. “They look so wonderful when young, and they are so very moving when they are dying,” she said. Facing death, Mitchell returned to
the flower van Gogh once described as symbolizing gratitude. In Mitchell’s hands, the blossoms are giant spherical pods, concentrated masses of colors in the final cycle of life. She caught them just as they were about to explode, scattering matter, energy and life. It’s a magnificent painting, a feat that conjoins anguish with reconciliation as Mitchell mingles and resolves the extreme polarities of her existence.
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“Joan Mitchell” @ SFMOMA through January 17, 2022.
About the author:
Gabrielle Selz is an award-winning author. Her books include the first comprehensive biography of Sam Francis, Light on Fire, and Unstill Life: Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction. Her essays and art reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Hyperallergic, Art & Object, Art Papers, The Rumpus, and The Huffington Post, among others. She makes her home in Oakland, California.