In 1948, Joan Mitchell, the 23-year-old artist, lived in a draughty apartment in Paris. She had arrived in France after World War II, in a nation still reeling from rations and unrest. A recent graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, Mitchell had come to Paris to study the history of French painting and learn the masters’ techniques, but found that her workaholism had frayed her nerves and made her too anxious to be on hustle and bustle to take part in city social life. Mitchell spent her nights awake feverishly trying to improve her craft, and snuggled around her stove for warmth.
“I’m where I always wanted to be – stove – bread & wine & canvases – I’m not even depressed – just got a real knowledge of where I don’t belong, that is everywhere,” she wrote in October of this year a letter to her lover Barney Rosset. Mitchell’s frustration during this early period in Paris when she felt she had “painted terribly” could be due to her inability to do justice to the artistic giants she so admired. As a teenager, she grew up on a steady program of music, dance, sports, and the arts, and regularly attended the Art Institute to see 19th-century masterpieces by Cézanne, Monet, and van Gogh.
A major retrospective on Saturday at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art shows how Mitchell’s iron resolve to go down in history as one of the greatest painters produced a signature style that broadened the contours of Abstract Expressionism. Spread over 10 galleries, with around 80 oil paintings and works on paper, the exhibition shows how the bold physicality of Mitchell’s brushstrokes enabled her to breathe new life into Abstract Expressionism, even if it was overtaken by Pop Art and Conceptualism in the USA.
The exhibition, curated by Sarah Roberts, Head of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA, and Katy Siegel, Senior Programming and Research Curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art (where the exhibition will be shown in March 2022, before traveling to the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris fall) ingeniously reconsidering Mitchell’s legacy, we see her develop a cosmopolitan, transatlantic sensibility rooted in the tradition of 19th century French landscape and history painting.
Mitchell’s sketches and a painting from her first stay in Paris in 1948 – a selection that includes a glimpse of her tiny stove rendered in the looping Cubism style popular by Picasso – are among the works in the galleries too are seen. Although at first glance they appear derived, these early works show how the careful consideration of form, color, line and space – the building blocks of all painting – should determine the artist’s studied, conscious approach to painting for the rest of her life.
Mitchell exhibited with her colleagues in New York in the early 1950s, and as she continued to study and develop her practice, her work gradually became distinctive. Instead of the all-over, canvas-filling brushstrokes preferred by other abstract painters, Mitchell’s works were looser, ruffled away from the edges.
In the mid-1950s, she cast off the early feeling of not being moored and traveled frequently between New York and Paris, rolling up her canvases and commuting between short-term studios. In 1959 she finally moved to France, took a studio at 10 rue Frémicourt in Paris and later bought a property in Vétheuil, where Monet once lived. A particularly revealing grouping of paintings illustrates how the psychological state of Mitchell’s journey manifests itself on canvas. In paintings like “Harbor December” and “Hemlock,” both from 1956, Mitchell twists long, broad strokes of paint around a central core of densely layered, multi-colored markings to suggest a sense of torsion – from ripped, swept, and whirled to will.
In two cleverly positioned paintings, the viewer can guess her preference for controlled chaos. With its clashing stripes of red, blue and orange that shine in two directions over the individual sections, the painting “To the Harbor Master” from 1957, which is titled after the poem of her friend Frank O’Hara (His first lines: ” I am always tying up / And then the decision to go “) – speaks for how parts of oneself can feel constantly at odds with one another.” Mud Time “(1960) with its earth-colored impastos that swirl around a central point, surprised by its ability to capture a sense of concentrated anger, which is offset by pale grays and oranges at the corners of the canvas.
Monographs such as “Lady Painter” (2011) by Patricia Albers and “Ninth Street Women” (2018) by Mary Gabriel have shown that Mitchell’s unruly aesthetic goes hand in hand with a rough, brittle personality; their drinking habits and numerous affairs have long been passed down. Such revelations make it difficult for us to understand an artist who refuses to fit into a prescribed category, least of all the condescending label “painter”.
The retrospective and accompanying catalog continue that tradition by shading the contours of Mitchell’s artistic journey with a close look at her peripatetic affair with French-Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle across the Mediterranean to Corsica in the late 1950s and 1960s , Italy and Greece for months. As Roberts notes in her catalog article, this roving lifestyle slowed Mitchell’s productivity, resulting in fewer opportunities to produce work in the persistent manner she was used to.
Their solution was to return to memories of landscapes and sublimate emotions and sensations in cascades of color and washing. Many of the existing Mitchell grants, including those in the catalog for this current exhibition, address how her brushstrokes are closely related to poetry, a form that allowed feelings to swell and emerge. These interpretations are invigorating and reflective, and a selection of pastels on paper from 1975, collaborations between Mitchell and the poet James Schuyler, bear witness to the profound influence poetry had on their painting.
But language alone cannot measure the joy in her late paintings. The shift is dramatic: enormous scales, colliding vivid hues, and wild variations in texture. From the early 1970s until her death in 1992, Mitchell experienced periods of rapt freedom, crippling melancholy, and reluctant acceptance of her own mortality. In it, she emulated her hero van Gogh and took up his cherished subject of sunflowers, albeit with a swing of her own, and culminated in a dense diptych from 1990 overlaid with groups of thick, curved lines overlaid with thin drops of color.
In multi-part works such as “La Vie en Rose” (1979), Mitchell juxtaposes energetic – almost violent – sections of black and blue brushstrokes with a haze of lavender and pale pink, which distorts and directs the viewer’s gaze for the size of the painting four panels. Similarly, the yellow overpainting in “La Ligne de la rupture” (1970-71) appears gilded when viewed against the frame of her dark aqua rectangle, evidence that Mitchell, with all her knowledge of what Color can do, indulging in its ability to enchant its audience.
To the end, Mitchell has neither sacrificed her dedication to her own artistic vision nor compromised the rigor of her experiments in scale and color theory. She had found her place; it was no longer driving. She had managed to give her painting the power, to truly transport it and to lead her audience into depths that she had traversed alone.
Until January 17, 2022 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 151 Third Street, San Francisco, 415-357-4000, sfmoma.org.