Women of Abstraction (P.3): Joan Mitchell
“ Just while I stand there putting paint on, life is maybe wonderful and beautiful after all.”
Joan Mitchell was a second generation Abstract Expressionist painter and printmaker. Through her sweeping, gestural work, she sought to express emotions inspired by nature and landscapes - to express, as she put it, feelings about “love and death and all that crap.” She found recognition early in her career, and worked steadily throughout her life, dividing her time between New York and France. Among other awards and honours, she was appointed Commandeur des Arts et Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture (1989), and was given both the Grand Prix National de Peinture in France (1989) and the Grand Prix des Arts de la Ville de Paris (1991). Her work is included in many important public collections, including that of the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Whitney Museum of American Art (New York), Art Institute of Chicago, Tate Gallery (London), and Fondation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain (Paris). An influential part of the Abstract Expressionist movement for five decades, Joan was a mentor to many young artists who she invited to spend time in her studio in Vétheuil, France. Joan was born in 1925 in Chicago, Illinois- the second of two daughters. Her mother, Marion Strobel, was a published poet and co-editor of Poetry magazine, and her father, James Herbert Mitchell, a doctor and President of the American Dermatological Association. James was an amateur artist and often took his daughters to paint in the countryside, and by the second grade Joan began attending weekend classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. She attended the Francis W. Parker School- a progressive, private grammar and high school in Chicago. After graduating at age seventeen, she wanted to attend art school, but her father was determined that she get a more conventional education. She attended Smith College (Northampton, Massuchusetts) for two years, majoring in English, but spent her summer breaks at Ox-Bow, an art colony operated by the Art Institute in Saugatuck, Michigan. After being awarded a scholarship in 1944, she got her wish and studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving her BFA in 1947 and MFA in 1950. During these years she also spent time travelling extensively, and spent a year painting in France. Soon after graduating, she moved to Ninth Street in New York City and became actively involved in the downtown avant-garde art scene.
In New York, she became friends with a group of artists who congregated at the Cedar Tavern on University Place, and attended evenings at the Artist’s Club (aka The Eight Street Club), becoming one of its few female members in 1951. She was part of many important NYC group shows at the time, which helped make her mark - including The Ninth Street Show (1951), Artists of the New York School: Second Generation at the Jewish Museum (1957) and American Abstract Expressionists and Imagists at the Guggenheim (1961). Although she continued to visit and show in New York City often, in 1958 she moved to Paris, eventually buying a two-acre estate in Vétheuil, a small village overlooking the Seine, northwest of Paris. She lived in France for the rest of her life, and continued making and showing her groundbreaking work right up until her death in 1992.
Joan’s work can be characterized by:
- sweeping gestural brushstrokes
- almost calligraphic lines
- paint applied in a variety of manners- splattered, dripped, slathered, swiped, dry-brushed, wiped with rags, smeared on with fingers, slapped from a brush
- bold, rich color
- large scale, often multi-paneled
- a balance of structured composition and a mood of improvisation
- a subversion of the traditional relationship between the figure and the ground
Piano Mécanique (1958)
Although her work has an improvisational appearance, in reality it was carefully constructed. “I paint from a distance,” she explained, “I decide what I am going to do from a distance. The freedom in my work is quite controlled. I don’t close my eyes and hope for the best.” She spent a great deal of time just looking at her work, doing four or five brushstrokes before retreating to the other side of the studio to consider what would come next. She said “I don’t go off and slop and drip. I ‘stop, look, and listen!’ at railroad tracks. I really want to be accurate.” She worked additively, never scraping or redo-ing, and worked with both brushes and rags. In the 1950’s, she started diluting her pigments with turpentine, which expanded her artistic vocabulary, and changed the way she handled paint. She switched brushes often, storing them in cans of turpentine - some not washed in a decade, leaving them charged with colour.
1) Landscape, Memory & Emotion
Through her work, Joan sought to convey the remembered emotional aspects of an environment - she wanted to express how a place felt rather than how it looked. When asked how she began a painting, Joan said “Well, I would go back to my word ‘feeling. I want to paint the feeling of a space…” It helped that she had an eidetic memory, which she described as being like mentally carrying around a suitcase filled with pictures - she was easily able to conjure up the rich, sensory details of a space. “I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me, and remembered feelings of them ” she explained, “which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with.”
Grandes Carrières, 1961–62
Joan often said she used painting as a way to forget herself, likening the process to riding a bike with no hands. She correlated her best work with the shedding of her ego. “When I am working, I am only aware of the canvas and what it tells me to do,” she said, “I am certainly not aware of myself. Painting is a way of forgetting oneself.”
Flying Dutchman (1961–62)
“Music, poems, landscape and dogs make me want to paint. And painting is what allows me to survive.”
Joan had three different kinds of synesthesia, an involuntary neurologoical condition where a stimulus to one of the senses triggers perceptions through another sense. These affected her in different ways. She perceived mental and emotional states as certain hues- to her, hope was “ sun-drenched,” ecstasy was blue, and despair a “silvery white.” Hearing musical sounds caused her to see multicolored, kaleidoscoping shapes, and she saw each letter of the alphabet as having a distinct colour - for example, she saw the letter “L” as black velvet and “Z” as the colour of a “grape juice stain.” Untitled, 1967–68
2) Landscape and nature
Landscapes and nature were some of Joan’s main inspirations, as she sought to paint the emotions these places made her feel. As critic Irving Sandler explained in a review in 1957, “a visual image such as a landscape, water or a bridge is utilized to kick off these works, the object disappears in the exaltation of the act of painting, and Miss Mitchell ends up with almost pure emotion …. A recollected landscape provided the initial impulse, but the representational image was transformed in the artist’s imagination by feelings inspired by bridge and beach …”
3) Poetry and Literature
Through her mother, Joan was introduced to poetry and literature in her early childhood, and met many famous writers such as Dylan Thomas. She had a special love for German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and was good friends with many poets throughout her life, including Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. She said that she wanted in her painting “the feeling in a line of poetry which makes it different from a line of prose.”
4) Her Education
Joan’s education was hugely important to her artistic development. She spent twelve years at a progressive school where she was encouraged to explore and think for herself. Malcolm Hacket, her painting teacher at Francis W. Parker high school, became an important figure to her - he taught her not only technique, but also about the life of an artist. She was also strongly influenced by her professors at the Art Institute, Robert von Neumann and Louis Ritman. Girolata (1964)
5) Other artists
Growing up, Joan spent days roaming galleries in Chicago - she called this the “real inspiration“ for her creative development. She found inspiration in many artists, including:
a) Vincent van Gogh. From the age of six, she loved Van Gogh - she resonated with his vibrant landscapes and intense colour, and treasured a volume of his complete letters. “Color sends me more than ever,” she said, “ and Van Gogh and his crows.”
b) Franz Kline. Joan thought some of his gouache and ink sketches were “the most beautiful things I’d ever seen in my life” - she was captivated by the “crudeness and accuracy of his work.”
Un jardin pour Audrey (1974)
c) Willem de Kooning. Joan saw his painting Attic at the Whitney in 1950, and soon after sought him out at his studio. She loved the raw, expressive quality of his painting, and he became a huge influence in her life and work.
d) Henri Matisse. Joan first saw Matisse’s work at his 1970 retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris - she left the show weeping from emotion. "If I could paint like Matisse” she said, “I'd be in heaven."
Joan loved music and often had classical music playing in her studio as she worked, favouring Mozart and Beethoven. She was also a fan of Italian opera (her favourite singers included Montserrat Caballé and Maria Callas), and found inspiration from jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday.
7) Her Grandfather
Joan’s maternal grandfather, Charles Louis Strobel, was a well-known steel engineer who designed structural elements for bridges over the Chicago River. From his years at school, he had notebooks full of drawings of the various aspects of bridges, and these “beautiful, fabulous” drawings later became influential in Joan’s work.
Joan Mitchell created some of the most moving and singular work of her generation, and continues to be remembered as an important part of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Her personality as big as her work, Joan used all the experiences of her life to create her art. As she wrote to a friend, “I use the past to make my pics and I want all of it and even you and me in candlelight on the train and every ‘lover’ I’ve ever had - every friend - nothing closed out - and dogs alive and dead and people and landscapes and feeling even if it’s desperate - anguished - tragic - it’s all part of me and I want to confront it and sleep with it - the dream - and paint it.”