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Mitchell, Joan

Mitchell, Joan

(b. 12 February 1926 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 30 October 1992 in Paris, France), artist who was a major nonobjective painter through the 1950s and in the years following the heyday of abstract expressionism.

Joan Mitchell’s father, James Herbert Mitchell, was a physician who became president of the American Dermatolog-ical Association and an amateur artist; her mother was a poet and coeditor of the journal Poetry. Her father took Joan and her sister (her only sibling) to outings in the country to make watercolor sketches, and he introduced Joan to the treasures of the Art Institute of Chicago. Joan lived in an apartment overlooking Lake Michigan and summered on the lake’s western shore; it has been suggested that her memory of the water’s flow influenced the rhythms of her paintings’ surfaces. She attended a progressive private grammar and high school in Chicago, the Francis W. Parker School. In 1941 she won a regional title in figure skating, and in 1942 she placed fourth in the Junior Division of the U.S. Figure Skating Competition. From 1942 to 1944 Mitchell attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, majoring in English; from 1944 to 1947 she studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She spent the summers of 1945 and 1946 painting in Guanajuato in Mexico and met the Mexican painters José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

In the winter of 1947, Mitchell moved to New York, settling in Brooklyn with her former high school classmate, the filmmaker Barney Rosset, Jr. There she came to know the work of the abstract expressionist painters Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky. In 1948 she traveled to Paris and studied Romanesque art before proceeding to Guernica in Spain and to Czechoslovakia. She married Rosset in late 1949 in France. Returning to New York, she settled on West Eleventh Street. In Greenwich Village, Mitchell mixed with artists who met at the Cedar Tavern, and she became a member of the Eighth Street Club, founded by the abstract expressionist painters Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and others. In 1952 she divorced Rosset, whom she continued to help when he became the publisher of the Grove Press. She became a friend of Kline and the poet Frank O’Hara, who dedicated poems to her. Mitchell’s first solo exhibition was held in New York’s Stable Gallery, where she continued to show through the 1950s. From 10 March to 28 April 1957 she was part of a group show at the Jewish Museum curated by the noted Columbia University art historian Meyer Schapiro. The show was entitled “Art of the New York School: Second Generation.”

In the summer of 1955 in Paris, moving in the Mont-parnasse art milieu, Mitchell met the Montreal-born artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, then prominent in European avant-garde painting, with whom she began a twenty-five-year relationship. In 1959 she lived with Riopelle in Paris, and thereafter, although showing in New York and visiting the United States, she painted only in France. She moved in the summer of 1961 to the Cap d’Antibes on the Mediterranean coast of France. In 1960 she contributed silk screens to a book of poems by John Ashbery. Through her stay in France untiLher death she showed at the Galerie Jean Fournier in Paris. In July 1967, using a trust fund that had been established by her maternal grandfather, the steel engineer Charles Louis Strobel, she bought an estate in Vetheuil, northeast of Paris. The cottage on the property had once been Monet’s house. (Mitchell insisted that she felt no special affinity to that artist.) Her reputation in the United States grew steadily: in February 1988 the College Art Association of America awarded her its newly established Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement.

In Mitchell’s paintings nothing is recognizable as an identifiable object. She worked on a very large scale, with heights of canvases sometimes exceeding seven feet, and sometimes she butted together up to four panels. Avoiding the acrylics favored by many nonobjective painters after 1960 (Helen Frankenthaler, for one), she worked steadily in oils, a medium that would reveal the actual working out of the image. Sometimes she presented a central massing of the paint, with a thinning out at the peripheries (Lucky Seven, 1962, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden). But more often the paint would be bunched up in pools and dribbles and strips, with these bunches separated by ample spaces and applied on a broad, light-colored field (Hemlock, 1956, Whitney Museum). Her paintings can bring to the mind of the aware observer rhythms of nature such as the growth of crops in fields, the scattering of leaves, and the growth of trees. In a general way, the paintings allude to landscapes and processes of nature rather than to machines and aspects of life in cities. Through her loose, improvisational handling of the paint, Mitchell is related to the gestural approaches of such abstract expressionists as Kline and de Kooning, but the tenor of her work is lighter and more lyrical, less forceful and violent. Some of her paintings became, for her, a reference to events experienced in the past (George Went Swimming at Barnes Hole, but It Got Too Cold, 1957, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo). These coded references do not negate the landscape aspect but become another of the multiple layers of the work. Some of the paintings, then, become a means of psychological recall, enabling the artist to recapture through colors and forms the sensations that had been produced in the past.

The art historian and critic Barbara Rose visited Mitchell in Vetheuil. She found that the artist spent several months on a single painting—very different from the rapid execution of Pollock, Kline, de Kooning, and Philip Guston. She had music playing while she painted, worked in a spartan environment (“the most memorable piece of furniture was a pool table”), and habitually dressed like “the last Beatnik.”

In 1984 Mitchell was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw. Her death in a Paris hospital eight years later was brought on by lung cancer.

Although she painted in France for most of her career, Mitchell is regarded as an American painter, one who, during the domination of such impersonal approaches as pop art, minimal art, post-painterly abstraction, and photorealism, produced a personal, more muted variation of gestural abstract expressionism in the tradition of Kline, Pollock, and de Kooning.

Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell (1997), has by far the most extensive information on the artist, with a long, informative essay, biographical chronology, exhibition history, and ample bibliography. See also Robert Miller Gallery, Joan Mitchell: Paintings, 1956 to 1958 (1996), and Musée d’Alt Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Joan Mitchell: Choix de peintures, 1970-1982 (1982), which contains several short essays in French and one in English by Barbara Rose reporting on a meeting with the artist; paintings are illustrated in both color and black-and-white. The artist’s work beyond her paintings is examined in Susan Sheehan Gallery, Joan Mitchell: Prints and Illustrated Booksa Retrospective (1993), with an essay by Susan Sheehan.

Abraham A. Davidson

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