November 20, 2011

The Fierce Lyricism of Joan Mitchell

Beauvais 1986; oil on canvas diptych, 110 1/4 x 157 1/2 inches.

I have loved Joan Mitchell's paintings for many years; twenty years ago when I tried my hand at a series of painterly abstractions, mainly based on landscape, Mitchell was a main influence, along with de Kooning and a soupçon of Howard Hodgkin. So I was very happy to be able to see the exhibition now at Cheim & Read in Chelsea of her late paintings; although these were difficult years for her, the paintings are full of extraordinary energy.

Beauvais 1986 (detail)

Her marks – vigorously moving, paint dripping, thickly layered in places, open to the white of canvas in others – show the natural world in a splendor of color but with a fierce tenacity of purpose; yes it is beautiful, but it is not simple or easy.

Untitled, 1992; oil on canvas diptych, 102 3/8 x 157 1/2 inches.

The diptych format, originally adopted to allow for large paintings in a small studio, allows for a conversation between the two parts of the painting, the same yet different; the hard line of separation makes us leap from one to the other of the two canvases, noticing more, repeating the quickness of the brushstroke with our eye.

Untitled 1992 (detail)

Seeing this detail, this seemingly casual welter of fast lines, makes me realize yet again that what seems easy is not. Like Japanese calligraphy with its free and fluid letters, what looks like innocently fresh painting comes from years of study. We have to know something deeply in order to have freedom.

Tondo 1991; oil on canvas, 59 x 59 inches.

Tondo, 59 x 59 inches.

The tondo form compresses the gesture, pushing it inward, making a more self contained world.

Then, Last Time IV 1985; oil on canvas 102 x 78 3/4 inches.

A dense mass of churning blue strokes rises up to meet a watery green, like the reflection of trees in a turbulent pond.

Trees 1990-91; oil on canvas diptych; 86 3/4 x 157 1/2 inches.

In Trees the brush moves vertically, a forest of marks creating the physical sensation of wandering between trunks, space fluid and uncertain, density giving way to openness.

Sunflowers 1990-91; oil on canvas diptych, 110 1/4 x 157 1/2 inches.

Sunflowers, symbols of light and life, explode with exuberance, not with the usual yellows but with red and green and brown, all caught together in a last exhalation of breath. In the gallery press release Mitchell is quoted as saying that she wanted to “convey the feeling of a dying sunflower.” In this ode to life's transience resides a continuing belief in its beauty and strength.


  1. we both really really like her -- thanks for the lovely slides and commentary -- she has a distinctive width brush, cool proportions of width and length, kind of the way an ellsworth kelly line is cool....


  2. Great post. Just saw the show a couple days ago, but enjoyed seeing it again through your eyes very much! I had the good fortune of meeting her a couple of times briefly while working for D.A.D. art movers back in the the day...NYC circa 1980. She was cantankerous, and didn't suffer fools gladly. But also engaging, curious and open. Its funny how inspiration, in the form of other artists, finds you sometimes in cycles... I always liked and respected her work, but hadn't thought much about it in a long time. Had occasion last year to visit the Musee Des Beaux-Arts Du Quebec and saw the work of Jean-Paul Riopelle, with whom Joan Mitchell had a long lasting artistic and personal relationship...and started thinking about her again. Then here comes a deKooning retrospective and the Cheim and Reid show... suddenly the whole period, including the work of important figures like Joan Mitchell, seems alive and present once more in the most delicious way!

  3. thanks, stuart, I agree that Mitchell's proportions are wonderful; that diptych format especially.
    and thanks, Walt, for your memory of Mitchell. It's true that with the de Kooning show along with this Mitchell, we are thinking of *Painting* in all its glory.

  4. Your selections here are wonderful. I love Mitchell's work. There is a film of her, late in life, and it's definitely worth seeing: "Joan Mitchell:Portrait of an Abstract Painter," by Marion Cajori. I have also just discovered your website, and I like your work very much.

  5. Ann, thanks so much for your nice comment, and the suggestion of the film on Mitchell. It's not yet available as a dvd, but I've put it in my queue.

  6. Every one more gorgeous than the last. I had not realized the diptychs were the result of space constraints; makes the strength of them even more impressive.

  7. Your focus on some of the details makes me experience some of JM's work from another perspective due to zooming down the scale. A new way into her space. And I love how you send us in & out of those trees. That movement is what I most remember about Mitchell in those vague childhood memories. My mother tells me she would sometimes stay with us In Chicago. during Xmas visits to see her family. I recall hand gestures in continual motion, the contrast between light skin and dark hair and a voice that was atypical for most women of that generation. But one never knows about memory and where the lore affects the recall.

  8. Ms. Wis., I agree on how impressive the diptychs are, since she did not see them together, at least in earlier years.
    Julie, it's so interesting how close-up views can change one's idea of a painting. There's nothing like standing in front of a painting and moving close and far to experience all of its qualities. And thanks for the memory of Mitchell from all those years ago.