The Roots of Joan Mitchell’s Greatness


in 1948, Joan Mitchell He was a 23-year-old artist living in a drafty apartment in Paris. II. He had come to France after World War II, next to a nation still stunned by supplies and riots. Mitchell, a recent graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, had come to Paris to study the history of French painting and learn the techniques of the masters, but realized that his workaholism had frayed his nerves and made him too anxious to stand out in the crowd. social life of the city. Mitchell spent his nights awake, feverishly working on improving his craft, huddled around his stove for warmth.

“I’m where I’ve always wanted to be – the stove – the bread, the wine and the canvases – I’m not even depressed – I’ve come to a real knowledge of where I don’t belong which is everywhere” in a letter to Barney Rosset, girlfriend of that year. This early disappointment, in which Mitchell felt he was “painting horribly” in Paris, may have been due to his failure to keep up with the artistic giants he admired. As a teenager, Cézanne grew up with a stable regime of music, dance, sports, and the arts, making regular trips to the Art Institute to see 19th-century masterpieces by Monet and van Gogh.

also San Francisco Museum of Modern ArtA major retrospective opening on Saturday follows Mitchell’s determination to make history as one of the greatest painters, producing a signature style that expands the lines of Abstract Expressionism. Spanning 10 galleries with nearly 80 oil paintings and works on paper, the exhibition shows how the bold physicality of Mitchell’s brushstrokes allowed him to breathe new life into Abstract Expressionism, even though it was outdated by Pop Art and Conceptualism. .

Curated by Sarah Roberts, head of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA, and Katy Siegel, senior curator of programming and research at the Baltimore Museum of Art (the exhibition will be staged in March 2022 before heading to the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris). Next fall) deftly revisits Mitchell’s legacy, so that we see him develop a cosmopolitan, transatlantic sensibility rooted in the 19th-century French tradition of landscape and historical painting.

Mitchell’s sketches and a painting from his first stay in Paris in 1948 – a selection that includes a view of his tiny stove in the circular Cubist style popularized by Picasso – are among the works on display in the galleries. While they may seem derivative at first glance, these early works show how careful consideration of form, color, line and space, the building blocks of all painting, will define the artist’s studied, deliberate approach to painting for the rest of his life. .

Mitchell exhibited with peers in New York in the early 50s, and his work became increasingly diverse as he continued to work and develop his practice. Mitchell’s work was looser and tucked away from the edges, rather than the pervasive, canvas-filling brushstrokes favored by other abstract painters.

By the mid-1950s he had lost his sense of being anchored at an early age and had begun to travel frequently between New York and Paris, collecting his canvases and commuting between studios for short periods. He moved permanently to France in 1959, keeping a studio in Paris at 10, rue Frémicourt, and later buying a property in Vétheuil, where Monet once lived. A particularly insightful set of paintings clarifies how the psychic state of Mitchell’s journey unfolds on canvas. In pictures like “Port Dec” and “Hemlock,” both from 1956, Mitchell bends long, wide strokes of paint around a central core of densely layered, multicolored markings to evoke a sense of torsion—torsion, sweep, and rotation.

In the two cleverly placed pictures, viewers can understand his tendency to evoke controlled chaos. Named after the poem of his friend Frank O’Hara, 1957 painting “To the Harbor Master” (first lines: “I always tie/And then don’t decide to leave”), with clashing lines of red, blue, and orange spanning its separate sections in two directions – his own “The Mud Time” (1960), with its earth-toned impasto swirling around a central point, is surprising in its ability to capture a feeling of intense anger offset by pale gray and orange flecks in the corners of the canvas.

Over the last decade, monographs such as Patricia Albers’ “Lady Painter” (2011) and Mary Gabriel’s barn burner “Ninth Street Women” (2018) affirmed that Mitchell’s rebellious aesthetic is matched by a muffled, fragile personality; his drinking habits and numerous relationships have long been the subject of lore. Such disclosures complicate our understanding of an artist who refuses to fully fit into any predetermined category, at least by preserving the label of “female painter.”

The retrospective and accompanying catalog continue in this tradition, shadowing the outlines of Mitchell’s artistic journey by looking closely at Mitchell’s traveling relationship with French artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, who sailed the Mediterranean to Corsica, Italy in the late 1950s and 1960s. and Greece for months at a time. As Roberts points out in his catalog article, this itinerant lifestyle slowed Mitchell’s productivity, resulting in less opportunity to produce work in the stubborn style he was accustomed to.

His solution was to return to memories of the landscapes, sublimating emotions and feelings into waterfalls of color and washes. Much of the available research on Mitchell, including the catalog of this current show, considers how his brushstrokes are closely linked to poetry; it is a form that allows emotion to swell and rise to the surface. These interpretations are refreshing and thoughtful, and a selection of pastels on paper from 1975 between Mitchell and poet James Schuyler testifies to the poem’s profound influence on painting.

Yet language alone cannot measure the sheer pleasure of late painting. The change is dramatic: massive scales, clashing, vibrant tones and wild variations in texture. From the early 1970s it death in 1992Mitchell went through periods of ecstatic freedom, crippling melancholy, and reluctant acceptance of his own mortality. In this film, he culminates in a dense, 1990s diptych layered with clusters of thick, sinuous strokes covered with fine paint droplets, imitating the protagonist van Gogh, taking up the subject of his precious sunflowers with his own zeal.

“In multi-panel works like La Vie en Rose(1979), Mitchell juxtaposes energetic – almost violent – segments of black and blue brushstrokes with lavender and a pale pink haze, distorting the viewer’s perception of the painting’s scale and directing the eye to the four panels. Similarly, the yellow painting in “La Ligne de la Rupture” (1970-71) looks gilded against the frame of the dark water rectangle, positive proof that Mitchell enjoyed its ability to dazzle his audience with all his knowledge of what paint can do.

To the very end, Mitchell did not sacrifice his dedication to his distinctive artistic vision and did not compromise the rigor of his experiments in scale and color theory. He had found his place; was no longer a stray. He managed to endow his painting with the power of being truly transcendent, taking his viewers to the depths he had traversed alone.

Joan Mitchell

San Francisco Museum of Art until January 17, 2022. 151 Third Avenue, San Francisco, 415-357-4000,


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